Telstra ARIA Music Teacher 2020 Winners And Nominees

Winner - Sarah Donnelley

Wilcannia Central School, Wilcannia, NSW

Sarah Donnelley works in the remote New South Wales community of Wilcannia, bringing her students and the community together through music and creative thinking. 

Sarah arrived at Wilcannia Central School in 2019 and established a music program designed to better engage her students in a learning environment. The program helped students to form a positive association between the school and their education. 

Importantly, Sarah also strives to create a space where her Indigenous students are able to embrace and explore culture and identity through performance opportunities, songwriting and poetry workshops, and a virtual concert during Reconciliation Week. 

Sarah believes that a shared love of music is a powerful way to bring the school, families and the broader community together, ensuring that the bonds between students, teachers and families are strengthened as a result of the program. 

After creating a reworked version of the song ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’ by Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly during the COVID 19 lockdown, Sarah organised for the radio station to broadcast the song at certain times of the day, so students could be filmed singing the song. This footage was used to create a video of the students singing together, creating a sense of community amid social isolation. 

For Sarah, one of the best things about being a teacher is the ability to practice and share her love of music with her students and the broader community. It is this passion for music that drives Sarah’s music program, and keeps students engaged in their education at Wilcannia Central School. 

Sarah considers her position teaching music at the school to be a privilege, one which she will continue to use to inspire her students and keep the Wilcannia community together.

Thomas Fienberg

Evans High School, Blacktown, NSW

Since Dr Thomas Fienberg’s appointment in 2017 as Head Teacher Creative and Performing Arts at Evans High School, in Sydney NSW, the school’s music program has become synonymous with staff and student excellence.  Through music and performance, Thomas also provides students with life-changing experiences that encourage a sense of identity and belonging. 

Thomas built up the Solid Ground program at Evans High School. The program focuses on supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, particularly students facing intercultural trauma caused by disconnect from their kinship and communities. The program creates opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to improve their learning outcomes through the use of Music and the VET Entertainment curricula. 

Thomas has built strong connections with local First Nations communities and musicians. Under Thomas’s leadership, the program has seen talented musicians Thelma Plum and Emma Donovan support and guide Evans High School students as they learn about the music-making process. 

He provides his students will insight and experience of the music-making process, from both personal production and professional music industry perspectives. These experiences have inspired students to seek tertiary studies and careers in the music industry, while boosting their confidence as future Indigenous leaders.

Thomas is always seeking new ways for students to showcase their talents, resulting in appearances at the Sydney Fringe Festival, the creation of the school’s very first musical production, Aladdin, and opportunities to develop their skills as dancers and stage hands for the Schools Spectacular under his guidance. 

Through Thomas’s incredible work ethic, his unique expertise and dedication to education, Thomas will continue to provide students with opportunities to explore their talents, their cultures and sense of self through the music education program at Evans High School.

Kathryn McLennan

Virginia State School, Virginia, QLD

Multi-instrumentalist Kathryn McLennan has taught music at Virginia State School in Brisbane, QLD, for nearly 30 years, growing the music program from a handful of students to being a government-recognised School of Excellence in Music. 

Under Kathryn’s tutelage, the school’s prestigious music program has not just grown, it has flourished, with Kathryn creating a 100-piece concert band, a 30-piece jazz band, a 150-person junior choir and a massive 200-person senior choir! This is no small feat for a primary school. The level that her students have achieved under her tutorage is exceptional, and is considered equal to or higher than many secondary school groups.

Now, every one of the 470 school students actively participate in music education, thanks to Kathryn’s commitment and love of music and teaching. Kathryn credits her music program with bringing the school community together.

Kathryn is an incredibly talented music teacher, with the ability to teach all woodwind, brass and percussion instruments, along with guitar and piano. It is this breadth and depth of knowledge that continues to inspire Kathryn’s students and their parents, many of whom now have their own music lessons with Kathryn. 

It is also important to Kathryn that graduate music teachers are supported, so Kathryn mentors local graduate teachers each week to ensure they have the skills and guidance needed to inspire their own music students. 

As well as nurturing young music teachers, Kathryn also brings Japanese and Auslan language skills into the music classroom, giving her young students the opportunity to connect with students from their Japanese sister school during international exchange programs and study tours. 

Thanks to Kathryn’s efforts and dedication to music education, students are now flocking to Virginia State School specifically to be a part of Kathryn’s music program, ensuring Kathryn’s efforts to give each student in her school access to music education will continue for years to come.

CJ Shaw

Palmerston District Primary School, ACT

Hailing from the Blue Mountains in Sydney’s far-west, CJ Shaw is an educator, wordsmith and musician, bringing his love for music and education together in his role as Head of Music at Palmerston District Primary School (PDPS) in Canberra, ACT. 

CJ writes original songs to inspire students and open up the world of music education to them while using music education as a tool to expand their understanding of maths, English, science, Australian society, culture and history. He has played a major role in incorporating music across a range of different subjects for students, extending the benefits of music education out to other areas of the school curriculum. 

Earlier this year CJ’s song ANZAC Biscuits was released, receiving support from the Australian War Memorial and resulting in over 23,000 online video views in its first week of release.

PDPS is a Defence school, with many students’ parents working in the Armed Forces. ANZAC Biscuits, a song about the sentiment of war, was created to help students understand what is a very complex topic for children. 

‘In This Together’, a song written by CJ for Reconciliation Week, acknowledges the school’s 62 student nationalities and incorporates the local Ngunnawal language into the lyrics, promoting a sense of unity and togetherness in the school community. 

CJ also strives to give his students the skills, knowledge and experience to write and create their own music, as CJ believes that songwriting sparks creativity, encourages self-expression and boosts confidence in students. 

It is CJ’s hope that through his music education classes, students will be inspired to forge their own creative paths in the future, kick-starting the music careers of the next generation.