May O’Brien was born near Laverton, Western Australia and at the age of seven was taken to Mt Margaret Mission to begin her education. At the United Aborigines Mission, religion played an important role in the education of students and for May it remained an important part of her life. In 1947, May became a monitor at the school, helping to teach younger children and strengthening her ambition to become a teacher.
Following a recommendation from the Inspector of Government Schools May was selected to undertake teacher training, and in 1951 left Mt Margaret to attend Perth Girls High School. After successfully completing her training, May was awarded a bursary to attend Claremont Teachers’ College and in 1954 became Western Australia’s first Aboriginal teacher, taking up a post at her former school at Mt Margaret Mission. May recalls the adjustments she made from student to teacher, the formality with which she was addressed by students and the large house in which she and the other teachers were accommodated.
After five years at Mt Margaret, May was transferred to Mogumba Methodist School where there was greater involvement from the Mission staff, making May’s job less strenuous. After her time as a student in Perth, May expressed a desire to work in the urban setting of Perth and in 1961 secured a teaching position at Mt Hawthorn. Of her experiences at Mt Hawthorn, May recalls the diversity of student nationalities and the opportunities for professional development provided to teachers.
During what would become her final teaching appointment at Nollamara Primary School from 1971, May observed the positive impact of education reforms developed by the Whitlam Government in the mid-1970s. These reforms included the formation of a Schools Commission to inquire into Aboriginal education and in 1978, May was appointed Community Liaison Officer for Aboriginal Education in Western Australia. May’s forthright approach to Indigenous education issues regarding student and parent involvement received some opposition from the establishment, however, May’s contribution was regarded as new and refreshing.
After becoming a Consultant for the Aboriginal Education Branch in 1980 and tasked with planning and implementing a course for teachers who were new to Aboriginal education, May looked for an international perspective on Indigenous education. In 1984 she was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to visit the United States, Canada and England to study how Indigenous people cope with education in Western societies. On her return, May was appointed Acting Superintendent of Aboriginal Education. Despite some opposition May received for being appointed to the position she believes that attitudes towards Aboriginal people in the sector and in wider society were changing. May credits this in particular to the establishment and influence of the National Aboriginal Education Committee.
During her time in the Western Australian public service, May oversaw a number of important advances in Aboriginal education. She believes one of the most important achievements has been the movement of Aboriginal people into senior positions, and the acknowledgement by white authorities of their potential to provide a valuable contribution to the education service. On reflection, she considers that equal opportunity legislation played a major part in producing a more tolerant attitude towards Aboriginal people, and contributed towards improving their self-esteem and making them proud to acknowledge their heritage.
May O’Brien at Mt Hawthorn Infants School where she taught from 1961-1971. It was her first appointment to a metropolitan school.
May with students lining up for their morning cup of milk at Mt. Margaret Mission as part of the ‘Free Milk Scheme’. 1954.
Page last updated 16 December 2013