Saturday, February 24, 2024  
Barbara Stephen [1935-2021]
Gamarada Montessori Learning Centre & Playgroup

Barbara Stephen has lived in Redfern, mostly on The Block, since she retired from teaching in
the late '90s, dedicating her time to the playgroup which she established, and the families and
local community.

This is an excerpt   |   Download the full transcript  HERE

The Montessori philosophy of education and teaching practice suits Aboriginal children’s learning styles because it is cooperative learning. An Aboriginal educator called Charles Davidson said that.. he came and he simply surveyed the children in the classroom, and after he had finished the session which went for two hours, he said ‘This way of teaching suits Aboriginal children’s learning styles.’

Maria Montessori was an Italian doctor. The first woman to be a doctor in Italy. In 1890, and the other students of the time who were studying medicine objected to a woman being part of the activity. She had to demand that she be allowed to continue the course.

The playgroup began at a time where I had left teaching, and so I was able to have some free time and decided I’d help out where I could as a volunteer, assist children to have an early childhood training or education that would help them to love learning and to have a better start at schooling.

Have you been involved in any other community venture over your time?

I suppose the most important one was trying to save Redfern Public School from being closed down. It was quite political; it needed to be done with protest so some of us had banners with ‘Mr Carr, are you listening? Keep public lands in public hands’ and maintain a school at Redfern and that sort of thing. Myself and Jenny Munro were the two main organisers and there were other community groups like the P&C who were very much in favour of maintaining the presence of public schools. Jenny Munro she worked very hard. She should have got a Citizen of the Year as well now that I think about it.

What was the outcome of the protest? Did you manage to save the school? No

What does community mean to you?
I work in the community all day, every day. Whatever’s happening, going to meetings of different groups, being involved and making it a better place to live in for community.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about your involvement in the Redfern community?
I’ve been home visiting - the families, just maintaining friendships.

We focused on children’s education. As It started to become more, gentrified I suppose, the places around the area were hard to find to run the playgroup. We had to move so many times that it was disruptive to the students’ learning. I was at Murawina to begin with. I worked there as a volunteer and did a transition program from pre-school to primary when Redfern Public School was still in operation. Murawina closed down for various reasons ... they came to Redfern Public School for a while. The playgroup at the public school was in a separate building.

... 70% of the students were Aboriginal. It really shouldn’t have been closed down with that population of Aboriginal children.

We continued to find it very hard to find premises. We had use of PCYC for a few years. We had to move from there because the floor was sinking into the ground. It still is I think. I don’t think it’s been fixed. It’s quite dangerous. I think it was a swamp at one stage. The history behind some of these places. From there we went to Bourke Street Public School. That was quite successful, at the public school, because the families who took their older children to the primary school were able to then stay on for the playgroup with their younger ones. We had up to about 47 families registered there. and then the building education revolution and the school wanted to renovate so we had to move on from there as well. Maybe after that we came here [RCC] for a short time. It was quite successful downstairs where we kept having up to 12 families coming along to the playgroup. I think after that a few of the larger groups that were very well funded started to move into the area with their programs.

We just survived on the smell of an oily rag the whole time with some people contributing a few dollars for this or that so it was all done by volunteers. I was getting paid by the old age pension funding and that satisfied me. I was never in debt but I was never in advance either. It was an amazing time when we ended up back here. Being downstairs we were able to have about twelve families in the playgroup every week but many larger groups moved in with much more funding to pay for use of this building and so we moved to the meeting area downstairs and it wasn’t suitable; the children had no room to move around. We didn’t have room for all the equipment. We are at the Aboriginal Dance Theatre now. Because it’s used for dancing, it doesn’t have much storage so a lot of the equipment’s had to go into storage.

Do you think there will come a time when you step down from your involvement?

Certainly, yes as soon as it reaches where it needs to be which is a playgroup and an early childhood centre, within a public school. With the school being closed down we really need another public school here in Redfern.

Interviewer: Casey Palmer, ACU
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