Recognition for pathfinding Aboriginal educator
03 May 2022
Western Australia’s first qualified female Aboriginal teacher has been honoured at a Perth primary school to ensure her legacy lives on for decades to come.
Please note Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that the following article contains images and names of people who have died.
May O’Brien (née Miller) was a trailblazing Aboriginal educator who overcame significant barriers to gain her teaching qualification before starting her career at Mount Margaret Mission Government School.
In 1961, Mount Hawthorn Primary School employed Mrs O’Brien to teach all children no matter their colour, ethnic background or religion, a significant moment in the history of education in Western Australia.
To recognise Mrs O’Brien’s profound achievements, the junior block at Mount Hawthorn Primary School has been officially renamed the May O’Brien Building.
A stunning mural and portrait showcasing May O’Brien’s story and her impact as an educator and activist was also unveiled at the school.
The mural was designed by Aboriginal artist J.D. Penangke who has Whadjuk/Ballardong and Eastern Arrernte heritage and contemporary graffiti artist Brendan Lewis, also known as Hope Perth.
Mr Lewis, who is also a teacher at Gilmore College, said he was honoured to contribute to the mural.
“I felt very privileged to create work alongside Jade and help May's family celebrate her life and her contribution to education,” he said.
Mrs O’Brien taught at Mount Hawthorn Primary School for 10 years before becoming Superintendent of Aboriginal Education at the Department of Education. Her legacy continues to have a significant impact on education in Western Australia.
Throughout her career, Mrs O’Brien provided equal educational opportunities for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal children and inspired many Aboriginal teachers and school leaders to follow in her footsteps.
She held many other significant government and education positions and won several awards for her contributions, including the British Empire Medal, a Churchill Fellowship and the John Curtin Medal.
Mrs O’Brien was also well known for her advocacy work in education, justice, child protection and reconciliation, and was the author of children’s books which include anecdotes from her childhood and Wongutha culture.
Kevin O’Keefe, the Department’s Aboriginal Education Teaching and Learning Principal Advisor, said Mrs O’Brien was a pathfinding Aboriginal teacher.
“The first qualified female Aboriginal teacher, May O’Brien, revealed from the very earliest years her determination to become a teacher,” he said.
“She became the Department’s first Aboriginal Superintendent, inspiring and supporting many decades of Aboriginal teachers and school leaders.
“In her later years, May remained an activist, fighting for the right of Aboriginal students to have access to a quality education, and a respected author writing books for students in the early years of schooling.”
In a special recording to celebrate May O'Brien's achievements and legacy, Mr O'Keefe and The Honourable Kim Beazley AC, Governor of Western Australia, shared their memories of May O'Brien in the audio below.