Despite being vice-captain of her school and the first in her family to finish year 12, Michal Purcell didn’t leave school with many plans, other than to get married and raise a family of her own.
Growing up in Childers, QLD in a hard-working family, Michal remembers her childhood fondly. Her mother, a proud Aboriginal woman from the Butchulla people of Fraser Island and of Australian South Sea Islander heritage, was brought up by her mother, grandfather, aunties and uncles. "Mum’s culture was their way of living, it wasn’t spoken about much, like it is today” Michal says. But her mother lovingly instilled her culture in her children so they’d grow up knowing where they came from and being proud of their roots.
Michal’s first job as a teacher’s aide in Maryborough at Unndennoo Community Kindergarten unlocked a passion she didn’t know existed. She wanted to “support my mob, to help them go further” and realised that education could help her do just that.
Since then her career has gone from strength to strength. At just 20 years old she was the assistant director at Gundoo Day Care Centre, but when she missed out on the centre director’s role, she literally walked across the road and into a job at Cherbourg State School .
In 1998 Goreng Goreng man Chris Sarra, now a prominent Indigenous leader, became the school’s first Aboriginal principal and started to embed the ‘strong and smart’ philosophy, working and walking alongside the local aboriginal community to drive a culture of high expectations. With Michal’s involvement, it would evolve to become the Stronger Smarter Institute (SSI).
25 years later, SSI is stronger than ever: an independent not-for-profit, they deliver professional leadership programs for school principals and teachers to help them unblock the potential in all students. Through more than 3,100 educators they have reached around a quarter of Australia’s Indigenous students. They aim to double that in the next two years.
Our Foundation has been supporting the expansion of SSI’s work since 2011.
Michal did get married and with her husband of more than 30 years, has raised two children and has seven granddaughters. Her commitment to lifting aspirations for Indigenous communities through her work on the frontline in schools meant she spent her working weeks away from her own family – for six years.
NAIDOC Week 2018 celebrates the essential role that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have played – and continue to play – in our society. Michal says her mother, grandmother and aunties were important role models in her life, encouraging her to understand her heritage.
But Michal is also paving the way for others to achieve. Because of her and the team she now leads, more than 54,000 Indigenous children in Australia are developing high expectations of themselves and their communities.
Michal wants her granddaughters to know there’s more to education than getting a certificate. She wants them to know where they come from, and to see their history as a sign of knowledge and strength. “The difficulties of our ancestors have paved the way for our achievements” she says. “You can have your pride, your identity, and stand up there with the highest achievers.”
Because of Michal’s commitment, thousands of Indigenous children are doing just that.
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