After four decades, Karen bids farewell

Karen Jones has spent more than 40 years in NSW public education. Ahead of her last day with the department today, Luke Horton spoke with her about her incredible career.

Karen Jones reflects on her career in public education, as well as the importance of culture and connection for Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander children.

When Karen Jones reflects on what it is she is most proud of after more than four decades in public education, the answer is somewhat unexpected.

Her list of achievements is many. A proud Anaiwan woman, she’s been a successful teacher, principal, leader of principals, and for the past four years, the Executive Director of the NSW Department of Education’s Aboriginal Outcomes and Partnerships team.

In 2003, she was named Principal of the Year by the NSW Parents and Citizens Association, and in 2021, she received the Public Service Medal during the Queen’s Birthday Honours.

But it’s the friendships formed that she recalls most fondly.

“Two of my best friends I met in Kindergarten at Rydalmere Public School,” she said.

“Through public education, I’ve made friendships that have lasted a lifetime and extend well beyond the school gate.”

And it’s those friendships and connections, along with her advocacy for equity in education, that have guided Ms Jones throughout her career.

Inspired to become an educator by her Year 4 teacher, Mr Matheson, young Karen saw an opportunity to help nurture and grow others.

“I can’t think of another profession that touches the future like teaching,” she said.

“As teachers, we shape individuals, families and communities.”

In 1982, fresh from completing her training, Ms Jones took a position as a special education teacher at Chester Hill Public School.

“I originally wanted to be a maths teacher. I was a good mathematician, but I wasn’t a good maths teacher. I couldn’t break it down well,” she said.

“While I was at college, I did a course in special education and it appealed to me, particularly on those issues of human rights and equity.”

Her first class was an integrated class of six students. She was up a flight of stairs with no toilets and no teacher’s aid, and absolutely loved it.

“It far exceeded everything I’d hoped teaching would be,” she said.

“It was harder than I thought it would possibly be, but for every tough day there were so many joyful moments, so many opportunities for the students and so many chances to celebrate their successes.”

And always, there was the support of her fellow teachers.

“The support I received from my teaching colleagues was extraordinary,” Ms Jones said.

She would continue to teach in special schools and support units for nearly two decades, before being convinced to apply for her first principalship at Wyoming Public School on the Central Coast.

“Being a teacher was such a profound privilege and a huge responsibility. It was more than enough for me. I’d never mapped a career and moving into leadership roles wasn’t planned but was down to the encouragement I received from others,” Ms Jones said.

As principal of Wyoming Public, she significantly transformed and unified the school, introducing teaching and learning initiatives to help students achieve literacy growth between years 3 and 5.

She moved from Wyoming in 2004 and went to Terrigal Public School for a short time, before being seconded into a non-school-based role within the Department.

Throughout her career, and as an Aboriginal teacher then principal, she had been a frequent contributor and collaborator on Aboriginal education issues in NSW public schools.

So, when she was asked to take on the challenge of becoming Executive Director of the Aboriginal Outcomes and Partnerships team, it was an opportunity too significant to pass up.

Since stepping into the role, Ms Jones has worked to deliver quality education experiences for the nearly 80,000 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander students in NSW public schools, while engaging positively and genuinely with communities.

“Our strong focus has been to help every one of our Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander students grow in their cultural pride and identity, to have confidence in who they are and what they are,” she said.

As Executive Director, Ms Jones was instrumental in developing a 10-year formal partnership agreement with the NSW Aboriginal Education Consultative Group (AECG), and said such partnerships were vital to ensure educational equity for Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander students across the state.

“We need to recognise we are working with diverse communities. There’s no one answer. Walgett is different to Wyoming,” she said.

“There are key elements that can deliver success, but they need to be measured, worked, and established in partnership with communities and the AECG.”

One of her proudest achievements was the Term 2 School Development Day, where all NSW public school teachers participated in professional learning aimed at ensuring Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander students have access to high-quality, culturally supportive learning environments.

“It was so successful, and I was so proud of my team. It wasn’t my achievement, it was their achievement and a system achievement,” Ms Jones said.

“Our support services working across directorates, schools and with their communities to deliver a program for more than 2000 schools with a single focus - improving educational outcomes for our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.”

She hopes it’s an indication of what can be accomplished when people come together with a common goal.

“Equity - that’s what separates public education from other networks and makes us so special,” she said.

“It’s about making tomorrow better than yesterday.”

Ms Jones’ final day with the Department is 2 January.

Three people on a stage. The woman in the centre is holding a bunch of flowers. Three people on a stage. The woman in the centre is holding a bunch of flowers.
Image: Karen Jones at the 2023 Nanga Mai Awards in Sydney with Minister for Education and Early Learning Prue Car and NSW Department of Education Secretary Murat Dizdar.
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