It’s easy to see why Wollongong’s Henry Rajendra was elected as president of the NSW Teachers Federation – after more than 30 years in the sector his passion for teaching is irrepressible.
“It’s a cliche, but teaching does run in the family,” he laughed.
“My dad is a retired high school teacher from Western Sydney, and I was inspired by a great teacher, Mark Perry, during high school.
“He was someone to look up to and I aspired to be a fraction as engaging as a teacher.”
Henry stepped into the role as president of the union last week.
He believes teaching is about more than the curriculum. It’s about building students into capable, confident members of their community.
He arrived in Western Sydney from Malaysia with his parents as a child and is proud to be the first NSW Teachers Federation president with an Asian background.
After he graduated, he went straight to work at a Western Sydney high school as a science teacher in the mid-90s.
He still remembers his first day on the job, and some of his earliest classes – one in particular.
“To take charge of a class and know your content on the first day out of university was overwhelming,” he said.
“It’s a challenging profession and the first couple of years are the most challenging of your entire career, but you develop your skills and build relationships.
“I really wanted to instil in my kids the confidence that they matter as much as anyone else, so I developed programs that ensured they would be active citizens beyond the classroom.
“There was a significant oil spill around ’93. I asked my students what we were going to do about it, and after we knocked around a couple of silly ideas they said, ‘We’re going to write to the premier,’ and they did.
“They knew they were valued the moment they received a reply; all those letters came back individually signed.
“They knew they mattered; the premier took the time to consider their views, so they could connect the curriculum with their values, and take action.”
He still has the letters, and said he pulled them out when he needed a boost.
It’s still one of his proudest moments – and when he ran into one of his former students a couple of years ago he found out it had left a mark on her, too.
“This young woman was a migrant, too – she’s gone on to become a lawyer,” he said.
“She told me because of that one experience in Year Nine, ever since in her adult life whenever she’s angry about something the government has failed to do, she picks up a pen and writes them a letter.
“To create that active citizen who stands up for what she believes in, what more do you want out of teaching?”
Joining the Teachers Federation was a natural move for Henry – he joined on his first day at university.
As a high school student he was frustrated by the injustices he saw towards Indigenous Australians, and deeply concerned about the environment.
He thinks the union should take an active role in Australia’s responsibility to teachers and students in our broader region, as well as here at home.
“My dad was a member of the union and I proudly signed up back in 1991 for $8 a year,” he said.
“In our profession there is a shared common goal and set of values. Every teacher wants to move their students closer to their potential.
“Those values inform what we stand for; if you’re looking after students’ learning conditions, you’re looking after teachers’ working conditions.
“Every single thing we have achieved comes from the strength of our membership.”
Henry and his wife made the move to Wollongong almost 15 years ago, after they were struck by the strong sense of community while they were there visiting friends.
His wife is a school principal in the region, and he hopes one of their three kids will join the teaching profession one day,
In his downtime, Henry loves to cook – a passion he inherited from his mum.
“My greatest therapy is cooking,” he said.
“Malaysia has the most incredible food in the world, and with my Indian and Eurasian background, Mum and Dad heavily influenced how I cook.
“In Year Nine with my double-cassette ghetto blaster I’d take a blank tape, get Mum cooking and talking and record her.
“I’ve got an outdoor kitchen at home and it’s an escape; I can think of the world and what can be done as I’m browning the onions.”