The award recognised Ms Donnelley’s contribution to music education since she started teaching two years ago in Wilcannia, a town of 750 that struggles to recruit and keep teachers.
This week, Ms Donnelley, who had a permanent position at a school in an affluent Sydney suburb, heard that her application to move permanently to Wilcannia had been successful.
Her first project with year 6 students was writing lyrics to a song about the Baarka, as the Darling River is known. Students also wrote their own lyrics to the national anthem.
“When I came to Wilcannia, I saw myself as a visitor and someone coming to learn, and I felt very lucky to be here. To engage the kids, I used song and music because of the lyrical ability to draw you into English, history and stories,” she said.
The use of music culminated during lockdown when the school’s community recorded a COVID-era version of Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody’s From Little Things Big Things Grow, which they recorded on phones and Facebook.
About 95 per cent of the school’s 70 regular students in kindergarten to year 12 are Indigenous. Nearly all speak Barkandji, the local Indigenous language, at home. Attendance is low by state standards.
When lockdown hit, Ms Donnelley’s Sydney colleagues were talking about delivering classes by Zoom. With Wilcannia’s mobile coverage among the worst in Australia, that was impossible. Only three families had reliable internet. “We also had people who, as soon as they walked inside, lose their cell coverage,” she said. Others used pay-as-you-go mobiles.
To deliver classes, Wilcannia River Radio started broadcasting storytimes and teachers used radio to walk students and families through lessons at home.
Inspired by a “yarning circle” at school where a ball of wool was passed around, Ms Donnelley then tried something unusual to keep students connected. In lockdown, she drove from one family to another, connecting them physically with nine kilometres of tape and recorded their reactions on video. It worked so well that she decided to set photos and video of the big tape hook-up to music.
She rewrote Carmody and Kelly’s lyrics to reflect local challenges during the pandemic. Wilcannia River Radio manager Brendon Adams played the song repeatedly, encouraging everyone to sing along to what he called “Koori-oke” – the Indigenous version of karaoke.
Barkandji man Owen Whyman said his two daughters now came home from school singing.
He has seen a big change among his daughters and at the school since Ms Donnelley took over, with students responding to her willingness to sit down and talk.
One of his daughters was suspended repeatedly before Ms Donnelley arrived.
“As we got Sarah, everything changed,” he said. “If you [suspend] them, the kid will develop a hatred of school … and think, ‘It is no good going to school if the teacher hates me.’ Sarah is good, I don’t think she realises how good she is. My daughters now won’t have a day off. They love school,” he said.
School principal Greg Hodges said Ms Donnelley was one of the best educators he had ever seen.
While many schools in remote areas such as Wilcannia had a decline in attendance during the past year, Wilcannia Central School’s stayed consistent.
“For our kids, school is a safe place to be,” he said. “Some of our young boys can get distracted easily, and she keeps them on the move. She has a repertoire a mile long, and she loves to use song, and get them to echo back choruses,” he said.
In a town that is often disparaged by outsiders, the video and ARIA Award have made students proud, and more confident about trying new things and speaking out.
“She’s got no shame, eh?” said a student about Ms Donnelley. When she won the award, one of her students said, “When we are teachers like Miss, we can win an award like this.”
Julie Power is a senior reporter at The Sydney Morning Herald.