Doctor Pearl Duncan is a self-confessed “education crusader”.
As the first known tertiary-qualified Aboriginal school teacher in Australia, the PhD graduate has not only made history with her achievements, but she also helped create historic gains for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the field of education.
It’s fitting that more than six decades after she first entered a classroom in Yarrabah in Far North Queensland, there are Department of Education and Training teaching scholarships named after her for Indigenous students.
“To start off with, there was a culture of silence,” Pearl says of the way Indigenous Australians were treated.
“One or two people might have spoken out but overall, there was a culture of silence and when people are not educated they don’t speak out, they remain silent and when they have got an education they become articulate, they become empowered and this is what will happen with education; we get people empowered, and empowerment brings self-respect and self-confidence and empowered people become leaders.”
Pearl was identified as a leader by the Anglican Church, which gave her a Sydney Teachers College scholarship, in a documentary it made in the 1950s showcasing their mission work.
She says she first knew she wanted to be a teacher in high school and mentioned it once to her headmaster.
“The headmaster looked at me and said ‘Pearl, you would make a good teacher in Aboriginal schools’, and I was a little bit miffed about that because I didn’t think that I couldn’t teach anywhere, I wanted to teach in schools close to home,” Pearl says.
Yarrabah was her first school placement, followed by a stint in the Torres Strait before a colleague agreed with her that she should be able to teach anywhere and Pearl returned to Sydney.
“I had to do some examinations and things; they didn’t accept me at just my two years of training—and my five years of experience—so I had to do some examinations,” Pearl says.
I was the first Aboriginal teacher, as far as we know, teaching a white class and I was the first Aboriginal teacher in a white teacher staff room.
While she had an excellent experience in Sydney schools, it wasn’t the case elsewhere.
“I went to two country towns and it was abominable—it was dreadful. One town was Inverell in NSW and the kids used to call out and call me ‘Black Gin’ from the school bus. It was awful and the Headmaster mishandled it as well and he didn’t do what he should have done – mediate. He just saw me as a nuisance and I went back to Sydney.”
So when she saw a further chance to make a difference in education through a position on the new National Aboriginal Education Committee in the 1970s, she applied and was accepted. Forty years on, she links many of today’s professional achievements by Indigenous people back to the fight in the 1970s for better rights in education.
“Some were lucky to get a good education, but (overall) it was just deplorable. So we started off at a national level, the NAEC going down to state consultative groups, to the community education groups,” she says.
Together the groups fought for more Indigenous teacher aides in schools and a target was set, and reached, for 1000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teachers, with pre-tertiary training and support put in place to see the goal achieved.
“It didn’t take long, we were just full of fiery zeal,” Pearl says.
“We lobbied, we got on our high horses and we argued with parliamentarians and Directors-General and university professors and look today, it’s amazing—we have got teachers, doctors, dentists, solicitors—there were none of them in the early 1970s when we started, and we have got lecturers in universities, it all had its origins in the NAEC,” she says.
“We were like disciples I suppose, doing our best, and we met a lot of good people along the way; good non-Aboriginal and Islander people who saw what we were after and helped us, it was a great thing. I call myself an education crusader.”
At the Department of Education and Training Scholarships and Grants Award Ceremony last month Pearl reminded the audience of the famous quote: “All it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing”.
“I said to them so you are empowered, achieve your goals, be good people – do not remain silent,” Pearl says.
She praised the recipients of the scholarships, saying they were the crème de la crème and had worked hard for the opportunity.
In 2008 Pearl was named a Queensland Great and in 2014 she completed her PhD on Aboriginal humour in the face of oppression.
The Pearl Duncan Teaching Scholarships provide up to $20,000 over four years for preservice teachers and the opportunity of a permanent teaching position at a Queensland State School.
You can read more about them here: