Jenny Skinner
Wed, October 10, 2012 at 15:46
Stephanie Hunt in Coffs Coast, Coffs Harbour, Daphne Flanders, Interesting, Jaymin Hyland-Taylor, Jenny Skinner, Lachlan Skinner, Person

It seems ever so slightly nepotistic, but Lachlan Skinner and Jaymin Hyland-Taylor tell me that the most interesting person they know is their Nan, Jenny Skinner.  As it turns out she is richly deserving of the recognition for not only is she a huggable grandmother type, she is also an amazing example of the power of learning.


Willing to Learn

It’s been a long time since I’ve been to a primary school and I’d forgotten how noisy they are.  But the tip-tapping of running feet and the steady clamour of children’s voices punctuated by the odd high pitched screech doesn’t seem to faze Jenny Skinner at all.  In fact, sitting on the deck at Narranga Primary School as the hordes stream gleefully toward the NAIDOC week sausage sizzle, many crying out “g’day Auntie Jenny”, she seems completely in her element.

Jenny begins to tell me about her role as Aboriginal Education Officer here at Narranga, supporting Aboriginal kids to ensure they progress to the next class each year.  “Hello darling,” she calls out, interrupting our conversation to return the wave of an impish looking blonde boy.  I am about to ask how she came to work in a public school when Jenny calls out, “Michaela”, and a tall, graceful girl approaches.  “This is one of my grandchildren.”  Jenny beams.  A quick chat ensues before Jenny shoos her granddaughter and the friends who have gathered off to get their lunch.

“Let’s go somewhere quieter,” Jenny says and I breathe a sigh of relief.  We settle into an empty classroom, slightly chilly but blissfully quiet, and talk about how Jenny got here.

Geographically Jenny hasn’t travelled far.  She was born right here in Coffs and grew up near the Mission, which was on the site where the Plaza now sits.

But a career in education is a long way from where she started.  After her mother died young, Jenny was raised by her Auntie Rose and Uncle Louie, neither of whom had any education. “So when I was going to school they couldn’t help me with my work and I thought there was no use in staying if I can’t learn what I’m supposed to learn,” she says, explaining why she left school after year 9.

But dropping out of school didn’t mean following the path of alcohol and despair that so many of her generation followed.  “I thought, ‘Why should I be a drinker and a smoker and sit around and be a nothing?’  I just said, ‘No, I’m going to go out and work.’”  Jenny got a job as a cleaner, working for a number of ladies in town.

One of those ladies, Mrs. Armstrong, saw Jenny’s potential and encouraged her to become a nurse.   She marched Jenny down to meet the matron.  “Mrs. Armstrong told them, ‘Jenny hasn’t got her certificate but she’s willing to learn,” Jenny recalls.  She got the job.

“Freaked me out.”  That’s how Jenny remembers her initial days in the old hospital on Victoria Street.  “In them days you had to wear everything stiff: starched like cardboard,” she says laughing.  “I used to have to buy stockings every day ‘cause the beds in them days was real old and you got holes in your stockings when you’d go to make the beds or push people over to do their backs.”

Jenny went through a lot of stockings in her 7 years of nursing and mastered the practical aspects of being a good nurse.  But no matter how willing she was to learn, she could not pass the theoretical nursing exams.  “I tried and tried and tried,” she remembers.  “I could never write an essay.  I can read, but I can’t write.”  After twice failing her theory tests, Jenny decided it was time to leave nursing.

By this time Jenny was married to Noel and had two boys, Darren and Jason, to look after, so a job at the local pre-school made a lot of sense.  “I used to be the bus driver, plus the helper.  I was a sort of gypsy,” Jenny recalls.  Noelene was born, and Jenny brought her three kids to the pre-school, left them with her cousin or Noel in order to juggle work and motherhood.

After 13 years of juggling a letter came around advertising a job as Aboriginal Education Officer.  Jenny’s kids were older now and it was time to start thinking about her own learning. “As soon as I walked into (the interview) I told them I didn’t have an education, but I was willing to learn as I go along.  I did a lot of talking,” says Jenny, who talked her way right into that job.  She started off at Toormina Primary in 1991, moved to William Bayldon Primary in 1995, and last year was transferred to Narranga. 

An Aboriginal Education Officer is responsible for providing assistance to Aboriginal students, parents and teachers.  They work to keep Aboriginal students in school, and ensure that the students’ educational needs are being met.

The irony of a high school drop out, with limited literacy skills having a 20+ year career as an education officer is not lost on Jenny.  She said right from the beginning, “I’ll have the challenge, and if I need to know anything I’ll always go to the people that I have to ask.”  And that’s precisely what she has done, leveraged the support of the teachers and school staff to ensure she has the tools she needs to support the children who need her.

Now she says it’s up to the kids.  “I find that our children of today have a lot of opportunity for anything that they put in mind, but it’s up to them to make that step,” says Jenny.  Attitude, she explains, can get in the way of children achieving success.  “They still get in trouble because they hate the teacher to overrule them,” Jenny says, explaining that Aboriginal children in particular often mistake discipline for discrimination.  “But they’ve got to understand (the teachers) are only overruling them because they want them to try their best.”

Jenny points out that home life also has a role to play in children’s success.  “It’s hard because we can try to make the changes here, but when they get home it’s a different thing,” says Jenny.  “It’s the non-Aboriginal children too.  Some of their lives have hardship too.”

But Jenny says she will continue to do her best.  “While they’re here, for these certain hours, we do what we can for them, that’s how I look at it,” she says. 

And Jenny just keeps on doing what she can.  She made sure her own children finished high school, and looks forward to the graduation of her eldest grandchild this year.  Despite the loss of her husband Noel to a heart attack 18 years ago, she plans to travel when she retires.  There is much to learn from the world beyond Coffs Harbour.

If you have ever doubted the power of learning to change and enrich life, it might be time to have a good chat with Jenny Skinner.  I suspect she will set you straight in no time, and have you laughing just as quick.


Jenny can’t quite decide who is the most interesting person she knows, but after consulting with her sister Emily decides to nominate Daphne Flanders, an Aboriginal woman from the local Elders group.  “She has done a lot in the community,” Jenny explains.  “She mentors people who need help.”  The more Jenny talks about her, the more certain she is that Daphne is the right choice and she certainly sounds interesting to me.


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