Transcript of Episode 10

[upbeat music]

Julia Brennan:

I'm here today with Dr John Montgomery from NESA (NSW Education Standards Authority) and he is here to talk to us, not about so much his role at NESA, but just about his life and him and the universe and creative arts in general. So welcome, John, it's so exciting to have you here today,

John Montgomery:

Julia, thank you. I've been looking forward to this. It's great just in these covid days just to have a chance just to chat about stuff that really matters and stuff that is just not work. So, it's great.

Julia Brennan:

Fantastic. Thank you, John. And by the way, my name is Julia Brennan. I forgot to introduce myself and I am the K-6 creative arts advisor for our wonderful department. So, John before we go… a little bit of the stock standard stuff. Tell us all about yourself, your current role, the impact your role has on teachers and students across New South Wales.

John Montgomery:

Yeah. Currently I'm the inspector for creative arts at NESA. I’ve been in that role since the beginning of 2019 and actually have to say really thankful that I've had a year in the saddle before the 2020 horror year hit us and had to scramble really, really fast, particularly in the HSC space to try and make the HSC still operate and work in the performing arts space for everybody. But it's such a privilege to be in this particular role and particularly this particular time when we've got the curriculum reform now well and truly underway and to have that opportunity to support that process with the input of so many, including yourself, stakeholders into that space that I think will be really exciting to produce something that we can not only be proud of, that can really assist our kids to have a richer arts education in New South Wales for generations. So that's just pretty wonderful.

Julia Brennan:

Fantastic. And I love your ambition and I love the determination that I sense from you every time I talk to you to make this right. So that's fantastic. And I'm so glad you're at the helm. So, let's step back a little bit in your life journey. So, tell us a little bit about your arts education journey, where did it start? All those sort of things? Because I don't know this about you and I'm super excited to find out.

John Montgomery:

You know, I think family is always a big part of that. So, I guess I came from a fairly arts rich family, both my mom and dad sang, and my sisters are music teachers and my brother and I played in bands and so we kind of had that family context. But you know, I think it was the teachers in my life that really kind of sparked that passion and fire and opened up a whole world of artistic endeavour that I didn't know was there. And I think back to my kindergarten teacher, Mrs Crouch, who I think was my first crush. She just had this beautiful voice and she'd bring in a folk guitar and I can still see her in her, you know, her long hair and strumming away and sending us all to sleep at sleep time with her beautiful voice. And I think that sort of awakened in me a sense of the power of music and the wonder of the world of storytelling.

And then Mrs Cox, who was my second class teacher, who was happened to be a concert pianist and had a piano in the room and played Shostakovich to us and all sorts of other, incredible, wonderful things and introduced us to a whole world, again that was so rich and wonderful. And this is in a little public school in rural Cooma, in the Monaro. My mum and dad worked on the snowy scheme and so I grew up in cosmopolitan Cooma, which had a population of people from all over the world at that time, which was pretty wonderful. And I didn't realize how wonderful it was until I left Cooma.

And then I guess one of the most influential teachers was my third class teacher, Mr cox, who it was brilliant.

Julia Brennan:

Related to Mrs cox?

John Montgomery:

Yeah, they were, they were a dynamic duo those two. And uh, he was in all the amateur local theatre and was a great actor and he brought that into his teaching as well. But he was so ahead of his time. So, this is like, I dread to think how long ago it was in the early seventies [inaudible] and he was, he was teaching his multimedia like back then he was with, you know, super eight film and SLR cameras producing, uh, producing little short films and I guess the equivalent of power points, they call them slide shows back in those days. But you know, as kids we would collect images and put video and audio tape and music behind presentations as little 8, 9 10 year olds learning this incredible world of multimedia in the early seventies that just made schooling so rich and wonderful.

I guess high school years Brian Buggy was my music teacher. And far out, did he open a world for me! That was just incredible. I mean, we do musicals every year and I was, I just couldn't help myself, had to be first in the front of the line when the new musical auditions were going up and wanted to be involved in everything that was going on. And so, I think I always knew that my life would be richly involved in the arts and I did an audition for NIDA at one point. So, you know, if I could have done that as a profession and they took me, I probably would have headed down that path. But I think it was also the teachers in my life that inspired me to head in that direction and to do for others what had been done for me to open up a world of appreciation and of enrichment through, through a rich education.

Julia Brennan:

It is such a common story, isn’t it? Such a common story! [inaudible] That's the same with my journey. It was Miss Dodds for me in year four who sent me on this arts trajectory. So, it's just amazing. And you hear this story over and over again. No pressure teachers out there, listening.

John Montgomery:

That’s exactly right. Yeah, yeah. Indebted for life, they're just wonderful, wonderful human beings,

Julia Brennan:

Yeah, absolutely. You've just made me think of something. I was looking at the 1983, I think it is music syllabus the other day. And in there there's a comment about that, you'll love this, one of the things that teachers can do is tape It says a cassette recorder or open real tape recorder can be used to record creative efforts. Cassette players can be easily and effectively operated by quite young children.

John Montgomery:

And they're right. [both laugh] It was great to have the world of imagination and the power of image and sound provided for us with a little outback public school um so richly and wonderfully and you know, there's no, that still happens today. You know, teachers aren’t held back by access to things. They use creativity to provide their kids a world of imagination and wonder regardless of what's in the storeroom.

Julia Brennan:

So why do you think the arts means so much to you? Obviously, this person has changed your life for these people. These teachers have changed your life. Why does it now mean so much to you? Like how has it influenced your life professionally and personally?

John Montgomery:

Yeah, wow. That's a really hard question. I don't know the answer. I think maybe part of it, it's in your DNA and you just can't help yourself. Some of us are just deeply connected to the artistic expression of life and the richness that comes with that. And it just hits us powerfully and we just can't help ourselves. I remember when I was really little, I think I was in year four at school and my older brothers and sisters were at the high school and they did the school musical, it had just been on the West End the year before, Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. And I went along and saw it and it was the first time I'd seen like a musical and particularly kind of a rocky kind of a one. And the boy that was, he must have been, Jamie Mountain, he must have been, you know, I think they called it sixth form back then, year 12, and he did the Elvis pharaoh [inaudible] and I thought, I could do that. So, I made my own version of it just from seeing it once. And, you know, enlisted all my friends at school and went up to my teacher in year 4 and said could I put on the show for the kids after lunch and she said, yes, that's fine, which we did it and I thought it was so trippy. They sent us around to do it for all the classes.

Julia Brennan:

Isn’t that gorgeous!

John Montgomery:

So, I don't know, it's kind of in your DNA, you know, you can't help yourself. And I guess I'm, from a pretty early age, I realized I actually am Bottom from A Midsummer Night's Dream. [inaudible] you have to be in it. Yeah, so whether it's professional or personal, it's just part of me and it wouldn't matter what element of my life, you know, whether it's with my kids and my family, or friends or my professional, what I do professionally, it's just always embedded and soaked into part of my identity, I guess. It's too important not to be.

Julia Brennan:

So, can you share with us one of the golden moments of that little arts journey of yours?

John Montgomery:

Oh, gosh, actually, you know, I did spend some time as a principal of a little school out at Bourke, back in the late 90s, early noughties. And we had this idea of producing a play and putting on a play that captured some of the essence of what it was to be a, you know, a bushy shearer and set it in an Aussie pub and have a pub band. And anyway, there happened to be out at the time that I was out there, a locum doctor from Sydney. I don't know if you know Jeremy Cumpston, he was an Australian actor. He was, I've forgotten the name of the show now, but he played a nurse with Georgie Parker who played a doctor. And the irony was that Jeremy is actually a medical doctor and he was an actor playing a medical nurse. But anyway, he was very generous with his time with me and we sort of collaborated on creating this piece and we cast it with people from Bourke and toured it to regional New South Wales and Victoria and then to Sydney metropolitan. We did over 50 professional performances of this, this thing that we put together. And it was just from, you know, I guess what I'm saying before, I can't help myself, you know, wherever, whatever context you find yourself and you find those like-minded creative souls, you get together and you do something and but it just went off, I couldn't believe it was, went so well and that we were asked to come back. And that's the closest thing I guess to being a professional playwright and producer and director that I've had in my journey and being school principal, I could give my time off work to do that,

Julia Brennan:

That’s fabulous. Tell us about that. Your days out at Bourke. Tell us all about them.

John Montgomery:

So that was quite an experience so that there's about 60 kids at this school when I arrived. Um And uh the interesting thing was that um the school didn't actually have tenure on the land it was on, it turns out that the school was on land, that the agreement that it was on that land was a handshake agreement between the school council chair and the farmers who owned the land. And so, it was not actually fulfilling its legal obligations. So, I had a lot of work to get the school even, so we had to get some land that we had tenure on, move the buildings we could move, build a whole new campus. Um and we were just really, really fortunate. We had some incredible teachers during that time that school existed. I don't know if Colin Buchanan? So, Colin was a teacher out there at that time. And um we had some, you know, really, really adventurous people that were happy to come out far, far west. The school got up to over 100 kids within a couple of years and um had Professor Gordon Stanley, who was the new chair of the then Board of Studies, actually come out and visit our school.

And we, I don't know, I think both my wife and I just had this attitude of, “well, why not?” So we, you know, we took the kids and some of them who struggled terribly with literacy and said, let's do Shakespeare with them and enrol them in the Shakespeare festival. Our kids won the Shakespeare festival. We took them on an excursion to go to the grand final, which was in Sydney and most of them hadn't been beyond the levee bank. And then when the first time they saw the ocean, they got really scared because they’d never seen a lake so big and just blown away by the whole experience.

But it was such an experience for us, we learned so much from that context and our kids had such a rich experience of that kind of outback mud holidays and the simple things in life and, and you know, how do you cope with 50-degree heat and what happens when the lake dries up and all the carp end up on the bank? You know, just the richness of, of culture and history of that place leaves its print on you. Um, and the incredible spirit of the people out there in the hardship that they go through and the way that they overcome that, I have such respect for and for teachers and others who go out to those places to serve. More power to them. And we can do more to engage um support for them, particularly now that we have the power of the internet more accessible than ever before. And we can't forget about those people that are doing it really tough in those remote regional areas.

Julia Brennan:

Yep. So, you've told us a little bit about some of the amazing people that you've worked with and taught with, um have you got a sort of a, I guess your strength or your area of expertise, you've often said to me is drama. So, is there a favourite actor or a favourite person that you've worked with or something like that? That you could talk to us about?

John Montgomery:

Gosh, I could give you a Hugo Weaving story.

Julia Brennan:

Go for it! I love Hugo.

John Montgomery:

Hugo remembers this. Hugo actually did a movie, a feature film with my, my niece Emma Long who was in a movie called Peaches with Jackie Mackenzie and Hugo, um, and my niece said “oh you went to school with my dad, you, my uncle my uncle John, you know, you know John Montgomery who was in Man of La Mancha with you” and Hugo said “uh yeah, no I don't know John.” [both laugh]

Julia Brennan:

You are so famous!

John Montgomery:

I know. Gosh. I obviously left an impression on Hugo. Hugo actually was incredible. He, there is I think such a thing as star power. He was incredible the way that he captivated a moment so that at the end, I don't know if you know well the musical Man of La Mancha, but at the end there's this beautiful death scene where uh Don Quixote tries to revive himself and regain um his strength and re-join and redouble down on his mission and his quest and then collapses and dies in the arms of Dulcinea. Um, and when the first time the cast, you know, I did have one line in the play, but anyway. [both laugh] Just to put that in there. I was with Hugo at one moment. But anyway, but that that that magical moment the first time the cast saw them and so Hugo perform that, I can remember so vividly. We had to then do the reprise of to Dream the Impossible Dream and we were so choked up by the performance. None of us could get a could hardly sing. [pretend crying] [inaudible]

Julia Brennan:

That is a beautiful song.

John Montgomery:

It is. I remember Brian Buggy just being so cranky because “I taught you how to sing this song. What's wrong with you people?”

Julia Brennan:

I was just starstruck, I promise.

John Montgomery:

There’s a Hugh Jackman story I could tell you as well but maybe that's for another time.

Julia Brennan:

Definitely. We'll catch up on that one afterwards. So, what's the power of drama then? You've explained about an actor and the effect that that had on you? What's the power of drama?

John Montgomery:

Gosh, look, I think one of the things that is unique to the artform of drama is that it does create for people a safe space where they can explore um you know, both vicariously and experientially, um others shoes, others worlds, others viewpoints and lived experiences. And that really opens up the way to develop more of an empathic way of knowing. Um a way of seeing that many people’s view of the world can be quite myopic and we need to consider that the lived, our lived experience is not the same as everyone’s lived experience and that we need to be far more compassionate with understanding people who have different views and see the world differently, and want to, want to present their views as ones that we should consider and accept. And it helps us, I think, to come to that discourse and that conversation without a shotgun in our hand, wanting to defend our own particular world view or point of view, but come to it with more compassion, wanting to understand before being understood to feel things a little bit more intelligently as well as know a little bit more intelligently. And I think drama helps us enormously to be able to do that.

Julia Brennan:

Absolutely, couldn't agree more. Um, so I guess in that same vein, and why should teachers out there who are perhaps reluctant to engage in drama, why should they do it? I mean, not just drama, I guess, the arts in general.

John Montgomery:

Yeah, look, I think the arts enriches us, our whole being. It engages our mind and engages our body. It engages our soul, our spirit and gives us a way of discovering and developing wisdom in discourse and collaboration. We, we, as an artist, even if you're working on your work alone, you still have an audience that will engage with your work and critics who will, you know, dissect your work. Um you know, you you'll so we live in this world of influence where we continue to be thrust into this discourse of wisdom and we get to um stand on the giants of those that have come before us and learn from them. And I think this was what's so important. It provides our students a way of entering into that discourse themselves and develop and find their own voice and that's both metaphorical and literal I guess. But it's through that they develop confidence, they developed their identity, their connections their knowing. I'm not talking about the four C's here. Although we do the four C's better than any other KLA I think.

Julia Brennan:

You’re a little bit biased though.

John Montgomery:

I'd stand on that, but I think, I am probably guilty. But I think the arts is far more than a tool or a utility to be thrown at industrial problems because we're great creative thinkers and critical thinkers. Though it is bloody brilliant at doing that, that's a by-product. That's not the reason why we should enrich our kids through education in the arts. It's because of the things that I mentioned before, about entering into a rich discourse of life wisdom um and finding their voice and their place in that discourse and to build on the knowing of before and of others and to uh take, write the next chapter in the lived experience of the human condition.

Julia Brennan:

Fantastic. Thank you. So, what, what about that, say, a teacher out there who's listened to what you just said. Uh and they're thinking, well, there’s no way I can do that. I don't have any experience in any of this. And I've just heard this guy talking about, oh, he learned from Hugo Weaving or whatever. I don't know anything about this. How can I get started? Like what advice would you have to a teacher out there who might have limited experience?

John Montgomery:

You know, I think, I think at its core drama is play. And I think, you know, in Hamlet Shakespeare, says “the play is the thing.” I think, I think as teachers, we at our heart facilitate learning through play. Um and it's even better when we participate in that play with the kids as well. And I think that at its core, that's really what drama is. So, it's nothing to be frightened of. It's kind of like, waters that you might stand on the edge and think, gosh, might be cold when I jump in, but then when you jump in the water, you find out this is awesome, this is actually, and there's a whole ocean here, I can explore.

Julia Brennan:

That is beautiful, I love it. That’s a beautiful analogy.

John Montgomery:

I think don't be, don't be afraid to stand on the edge and miss out, jump in and you can't make any mistakes and if you enter with the spirit of play, you've already, you've already won, the kids will so appreciate that,

Julia Brennan:

Yep, the students will be 100 percent on board with that.

John Montgomery:

And if you need some resources, talk to Julia because she's got heaps on her website.

Julia Brennan:

Well, I do actually. Yes, that's a very good point. Thank you. That's a really nice promo. Well done, John. [both laugh] Tick, no. So, John, what pathways are open to students who have an interest or ability in the arts? So, you know, a lot of people, I think, um, will think, oh, there's, there's no future in doing the arts, there's no hope, you know what, there's no jobs, there's no money, blah, blah blah. You hear so many negative stories out there. Tell us all about what you know from your perspective, about what, what possibilities are out there for people in the arts.

John Montgomery:

Look, I think this is where the curriculum reform is really our friend because one of the imperatives of the curriculum reform the seniors is to strengthen those pathways across the curriculum. And one of the things that is already a mechanism by which that operates in the New South Wales curriculum, are things called University Developed Board Endorsed courses. And they're basically university modules that are provided as part of the HSC curriculum that students can do. But not a lot of people know that they exist and they're not frequently done, but they can become mainstream through the reform. Where there's this opportunity for these university developed board endorsed course modules um, to be, and that they could form part of this untimed syllabus approach, possibly as well, where the universities who are becoming more and more adept and some of them are world leaders in online delivery, can provide this learning to students anywhere they are, whether it's in a remote area or a regional area, metropolitan, even internationally, students can have access to the expertise that comes from those tertiary providers. But even more excitingly with that can come micro credentialing that recognizes prior learning and gives them an experience of, and a direct pathway with a leg up into higher learning and into the industry. And as much as, you know, the, we don't teach the arts to be necessarily to make everyone, uh, the first violin in the Sydney SSO [Sydney Symphony Orchestra] or the, you know, um next Hugo Weaving. We, we do want to see that that industry opportunity is there for those who have a calling into that industry and want to pursue that.

And um, and in fact, in the area of media arts, in photography, digital media, um that field, film and television and that field is employs more people than all the other arts put together currently. And there's such a demand for people that have expertise in that space. So, I do see that there is a genuine vocational pathway here as well as to higher learning and, and experiences for those who are gifted and passionate and have that as their calling and like us can't help themselves.

Julia Brennan:

That's right, you're right. It's infectious. So, once you get in there. All right, you've talked about a whole lot of serious stuff and it's fantastic. And I always enjoy our conversations. We always manage to turn something highly intellectual into a bit of fun as well, which is fantastic and a real strength of yours. But, before we go.

John Montgomery:

Now I’m getting nervous

Julia Brennan:

Drumroll. Have you got any other sort of inspiring stories or experiences that you might like to share? I do happen to know that you're quite the guitarist slash songwriter as well, John. So, I don't know. You might want to indulge us with a song, or, I don’t know, you can waltz into some Shakespeare. I don't mind, but

John Montgomery:

I can’t say I'm bottom too and then not hop up and do something I guess, can I? I’ll just get my guitar.

Julia Brennan:

No pressure, John. But come on, make it quick. So, what, this is going to be an original composition, is it?

John Montgomery:

Yeah, this is something I've just written recently. This is a covid song. Yeah. It's a bit of a folksy little thing. Um, it's called Let Kindness Shine. So, it's kind of, you know, saying, you know, life can be tough, but let's keep being kind to one another. So, I'll play you out to that and hopefully I get the words right.

Julia Brennan:

We will come back in afterwards. Okay, off you go.

John Montgomery:

[guitar playing] How you traveling lately, little darling? through time shifting sands. Have you stopped to smell the roses lately? Still making other plans? Friends and family, such a joy and pleasure. But also, much pain. Paradoxical mystery darling. It's always been. Isn't it time to slow down. Just breathe in this moment in time. We'll pull the beauty, the treasure. So ain’t it time to let kindness shine, let kindness shine. How you traveling lately little darling, through time shifting sands? Have you stopped to smell the roses lately? Still making other plans. Friends and families, such a joy and pleasure, but also much pain. Paradoxical mystery darling, it's always been. Isn't it time to slow down, just breathe in this moment in time? A world full of beauty to treasure. So ain’t it time to let kindness shine? Let kindness shine. How you traveling lately, little darling?

Julia Brennan:

[clapping] The crowd's going wild. [inaudible] That was magnificent. Thank you. Who would’ve known? You present this nice, serious, very intellectual front and then you've got that in the background going on. That's magnificent. Well done. Alright, well look, John, that's um that's enough for today. Really loved having a great chat with you. It was absolutely fantastic. So, thank you, Dr John Montgomery, lovely to have you today. Um and ladies and gentlemen who’ve been listening to this podcast, if you've enjoyed today, make sure you hit subscribe and we've got many more coming and there's many others that you can listen to. So, look forward to chatting to you again next time. See ya.

[upbeat music]

[End of transcript]

Return to top of page Back to top