Rock star teachers secure ARIA nominations

Two NSW public school teachers are among the four nominations in the 2020 ARIA Music Teacher Award.

30 September 2020
Sarah Donnelley
Image: Wilcannia Central School music teacher Sarah Donnelley is one of two NSW public school teachers nominated for the 2020 ARIA Music Teacher Award.

They might not be headline acts in the entertainment industry, but two NSW public school teachers have proven they are rock stars when it comes to music teaching.

Dr Thomas Fienberg, from Evans High School in Blacktown, and Sarah Donnelley, from Wilcannia Central School in north-western NSW, were today nominated for the 2020 ARIA Music Teacher Award.

Education Secretary Mark Scott congratulated Ms Donnelley and Dr Fienberg on their success and urged their school communities to support them by participating in the popular vote.

“Both teachers have shown a strong commitment in using music to connect our Aboriginal students to their culture and fostering a sense of identity and belonging,” Mr Scott said.

“The impact of that can be seen at both schools where the music programs play a key role in helping students form a positive connection with their schools and their education.”

Dr Fienberg oversees the Solid Ground program at Evans High School that encourages Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to explore their culture through music.

It also brings industry mentors such as singer Thelma Plum into the school through an artist-in-residence program.

“The Solid Ground program is also about making school a safe place not only for students, but for the wider Aboriginal community to come in and share their stories with students.

“It provides a great means to explore culture and, for our students who don’t always know that much about their culture, to access people who can help them navigate the complexities of being an Aboriginal person in western Sydney.”

Thomas Fienberg
Image: Thomas Fienberg teaches a music lesson to his students at Blacktown's Evans High School.

Dr Fienberg said he was thrilled with the recognition.

“You don’t get nominated for an ARIA very often as a teacher,” he said.

“It felt like a validation of the program I’ve been helping coordinate at my school and the broader work I’ve done in the field of music education, particularly through my research in promoting Aboriginal students’ connection to culture through music.”

Dr Fienberg, who was the only secondary teacher nominated, said the ARIA teacher award highlighted the value and importance of music education in schools.

“Music is an integral means of engaging students with school and giving them a reason to be at school and feel proud of achieving,” he said.

Ms Donnelley’s work came to prominence after a video Wilcannia Central School produced during COVID-19 showed her students singing along to Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody’s hit song, From Little Things, Big Things Grow.

Ms Donnelley, who is now acting deputy principal at Wilcannia Central, said the nomination was totally unexpected.

“But I have to say this award is not just for myself, it’s for my students, my schools and everyone in Wilcannia community,” she said.

Ms Donnelley said music played a key role in making school a positive experience for Wilcannia’s students.

“I use music in everything I do,” she said.

“If I need to get students from A to B I sing a song; if a child is struggling and needs emotional support I sing with them; it’s a powerful tool in terms of calming and getting a sense of order and also as a way to have fun.

“If we want school to be a positive experience music is a wonderful tool.”

During filming of her nomination video, Ms Donnelley was stunned to have singer-songwriters Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody – who co-wrote From Little Things – drop in on her virtually to congratulate her on how she used the song.

“We love what you’ve done with the song and getting the kids involved,” Kelly said, with Carmody adding, “that community involvement is the main thing. We’re so proud of them in Wilcannia and I am going to vote for you, my friend.”

The winners will be decided by a combined industry and popular vote. You can support the NSW teachers and vote in the poll at the ARIA website.

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