November 11, 2019

One thing leads to another..

TAFE President Michelle Purdy sat down with the newly elected Federal TAFE Secretary Maxine Sharkey to find out her top agenda items and how she stays so motivated to Stop TAFE Cuts!

Michelle Purdy: How did you get your start in the TAFE sector?

Maxine Sharkey: I was working in child protection in the Riverina in NSW for the Department of Community Services when I saw an advert in the Sydney Morning Herald for a TAFE teacher. I had put in quite some time in child protection and was ready for a change. I was a single parent working with violent families in a small country town and my primary school aged daughter was starting to be affected by my job – I was on call 24hrs a day at times and was the subject of death threats on more than one occasion.

I applied for the job and promptly forgot about it as I took a well-earned holiday. Some months later I was contacted by TAFE and offered the job. I became the first Full Time Community Services teacher in the Riverina Institute of TAFE. I was lucky enough to be employed at a time that TAFE teaching was valued in NSW, TAFE paid for me to go to university and provided half release in my first year of teaching so I could complete a Bachelor of Adult Education.

Michelle: You’ve been in the union movement for 20 years – you’re currently serving as Deputy Secretary, Post Schools of the New South Wales Teachers Federation. What first inspired you to join and then work for the union?

Maxine: I come from a union Family. My father was a union organiser and then General Secretary of his union then National Secretary. Following amalgamations, he became the first National Secretary of the newly formed CFMEU. So, obviously, I’ve always been a union member.

In my first year as a TAFE teacher the Federation was taking stop work action in NSW. I couldn’t find anyone in my college who knew much at all about what that would mean for the tiny town of Cootamundra where I worked, so I rang the union directly. They took my name and told me where the stop work was being held. From that, I was soon contacted by the union TAFE organiser who then visited my campus, eventually convincing me to be the Federation Rep.

I went to lots of trade union training – which I highly recommend to anyone who wants to learn more about our profession and the role of our union. I met a lot of great people and had a LOT of fun. Every time I was asked to take that little step up, or take on a new role, it seemed like no big deal.

One thing led to another and here I am!

Michelle: We’re glad you’re here! How does that experience influence your work today?

Maxine: I’m a huge supporter of ongoing training – funny that! Every step along the way, I was encouraged to attend trade union training to learn about the new role I was taking on and now I try to encourage that in others. It’s so empowering to feel confident in a role. So many people have been willing to pass on their experience and to give me their time, so I feel obligated to give that back to others.

Michelle: You have been one of the fiercest campaigners with the Stop TAFE Cuts campaign that I know. We’re now facing three more years of Liberal cuts to funding, how do you find the strength to maintain your energy in the campaign?

Maxine: I believe in the importance of public provision of essential social services such as education, housing, and transport. I believe that education is an inherent social good and TAFE is a unique asset to our communities, therefore I have no option but to keep going in the fight for TAFE.

It’s a cliché, but if you don’t fight you lose, so again, we have no option but to keep going.

Of course, you can’t deny the setbacks, and neither should we. Just as we celebrate the wins, we must learn from the momentary losses. The losses hurt, but I figure you just pick yourself up, dust yourself off and get back on the horse or whatever. I also subscribe to the regenerative powers of the occasional pyjama day (or weekend). Nothing gives you back your energy like slothing around in your pyjamas all day, enjoying your favourite foods and doing nothing more physical than changing the channel on the remote or turning the page of the book you’re reading. It’s a truism that you need to look after yourself before you can look after anyone else and on the really hurtful days (like the day after the federal election) you need to take care of yourself first. I think I went and sat by the ocean and contemplated the beauty of nature and reminded myself of the positive things in the world.

Michelle: You have a great team of organisers and members who have worked hard beside you through the long campaign. What strategies do you use to keep everyone motivated?

Maxine: It really helps to be surrounded by brilliant people!I really am lucky to be part of such a great team.We all have different skills and abilities that just seem to complement each other. I’ve always thought it’s best to let people do the things they enjoy – you’ll always be good at something you like doing and so the team just naturally divies everything up that way. We’ve never argued over who does what because we kind of chose our own role and are really clear about what the expectations of each other is.

You have to have some fun along the way; I think that’s really important. And when others see a bunch of people having fun, they want to be a part of it. Bringing new people along is very motivating. It’s really important to make sure there’s social time together built in to the hard slog, so we can have something to laugh at.

We had a saying,” if I’m awake I’m working” and that’s pretty true. Opportunities can pop up at the most inconvenient time and you can never let an opportunity go by when you’re campaigning, so you never really “clock off”. It helps if you love what you do!

Michelle: Remind us of some your favourite highlights of the campaign, so often they can be forgotten.

Maxine: The moment the NSW Labor party agreed to campaign for guaranteed funding for TAFE was an absolute breakthrough. I’ll never forget that day. This led to the ACTU policy calling for guaranteed funding for TAFE and ultimately, federally, Labor asserted 2/3 of all government funding should go to TAFE. They were each pivotal moments in the campaign. The growth of the Stop TAFE Cuts campaign website was amazing – the way it took off took a lot of us by surprise. But of course, it was a lot of hard work keeping it updated and relevant, and that happened due to the amazing work of Rosie Scroggie.

We started 2014 running a three day stall at the Tamworth Music Festival and then drove down to Sydney to hold a stall at the Big Day Out the next day. What a contrast! We didn’t know what to expect of the crowd, but they loved us. They were really enthusiastic about TAFE, many sharing stories of how good TAFE was before the marketization experiment damaged it. Others shared sad stories of their encounters with private for profit providers. It was surreal to experience the universality of the campaign in just that one week, but it was really affirming as well. What we were doing was in the best interests of so many people leading such varied lives. That week was definitely a highlight for me.

Michelle: Going forward, what are some of the key issues you want to focus on as Federal TAFE Secretary?

Maxine: Obviously, regrowing the TAFE workforce and therefore our union membership. Permanency has to be a key priority- all TAFE teachers need stability and that starts with a secure job. Also, status – for the Institution and the profession. While ever TAFE is seen by governments as “just another provider”, we will have no status. But of course, none of this can occur until we smash the marketization, contestable funding model. I have no doubt we will prevail, our society will eventually demand a fairer and more stable system and it’s just a matter of time. But we need to keep building our membership base.