Murat Dizdar abandoned his law degree for teaching - a passion he'd kept secret for years. Now he’s one of Australia’s top school bosses.
My Australia is a special series exploring cultural heritage and identity, and asking what it means to be Australian in 2019.
It’s the long summer break but Murat Dizdar still finds himself at a primary school in Sydney’s west.
He’s greeted by the principal of O’Connell Street Public School in Parramatta and they instantly connect over how they intend on approaching the challenges of the new academic year.
Dizdar says he feels a buzz walking across the playground, despite it being empty.
“In Year 9 I knew I wanted to be a teacher,” the 46-year-old tells SBS News.
“I was just not brave enough to tell anyone that. Not even my family.”
Today he is responsible for more than 800,000 students across 2,200 public schools as New South Wales Department of Education’s deputy director of school operation and performance.
But things could have been very different.
The Dizdar family - Murat, his sister and their parents - moved to Sydney from Turkey in the 1970s. Like many migrants at the time, his parents could not speak English but devoted their energy to the promise of a better life for their family.
“I could smell the working class nature of my parents,” he said.
I could smell the working class nature of my parents.
“I mean, I didn't know that phrase existed when I was five, six, seven years of age, but I saw how hard they worked.”
The family lived in the inner-city suburb of Summer Hill and spent time in housing commission.
“My dad would do night shift, we'd grow up with mum. Mum would do night shift, we'd grow up with dad,” he said.
His parents’ work ethic rubbed off on him. He finished dux of his high school after achieving a near-perfect Higher School Certificate mark.
“So what does a migrant boy do with a HSC of what was then 99.95? You go into law or you go into medicine,” he said.
What does a migrant boy do with a HSC of what was then 99.95? You go into law or you go into medicine.
Dizdar began his legal studies at the University of Sydney and worked for a law firm.
“My parents were absolutely beaming; that's the gold mine of careers.”
But mid-way through his studies he dropped a bombshell on his colleagues and his parents.
“I had a distinction average … I was doing really well. But I wasn't doing what I really wanted to be doing for the rest of my 40-50 year working career.”
“That's when I bit the bullet and went into teaching.”
It was “a moment of doubt,” he admits.
“You lost the faith and confidence of your family … [it] rattled everyone … They were a little bit concerned with what that was going to look like.”
It wasn’t the first time he found himself on a collision course with his father, he jokes.
Living in Sydney’s inner-west fostered his love of rugby league, despite his father’s passion for the round ball game.
“I got him to let me play one year. It was for Burwood United, under-10s, and I remember my dad coming, and watching me. I remember the pride of having your father watch you.”
“I could never convince him about rugby league, but he did watch me that year.”
Dizdar was determined to prove he’d made the right choice in changing career, and his commitment to hard work didn’t waiver.
To support his teaching studies he worked as a waiter and at the local delicatessen and at a newsagent. Throughout his first year as a teacher, he even kept up a job as a garbage man in the mornings before he went to class.
Throughout his first year as a teacher, he even kept up a job as a garbage man in the mornings before he went to class.
He recalls “running as fast as I could, emptying garbage bins. Ironically, including in the house I now live in.”
“Showering at the local pool, getting all the putrid off me to go and teach, which is what I was most passionate about.”
Dizdar went on to rise through the ranks of NSW’s public system. He began as a secondary social sciences teacher at Ashcroft High School in 1997, before becoming head of department at Belmore Boys’ High School. In 2005 he was appointed principal of Punchbowl Boys’ High School - winning an award for school cultural change - before getting the top job in the state department.
He still likes to spend one day a week out in the field and isn’t ruling out a return to the classroom in a voluntary capacity when he retires.
“I never, never lose sight of what it's like to teach five out of six periods a day in a high school,” he said.
“I consider myself to be a teacher across the system. Teaching goes to the core of who I am. I’m just a teacher trying to have a broader impact than one in my own class or in my own school.”
He has been known to turn up with very little notice, even taking over classes to see whether he still has the skills.
“No one says to me, ‘Murat, you’re not welcome at our school.’ It’s an access-all-areas pass. I see the fabulous things we’re doing in public education, in our classrooms, in meeting our young learners”.
He and his wife Ceyda – herself a lawyer who he met at law school - now have three children of their own; Aaliyah, 10, Aydin, six, and Adem, four. All are being educated in the state system.
Dizdar recalls being exposed to a melting pot of cultures, growing up in Sydney, and wants children in New South Wales to experience that too and use to their advantage.
“I remember fitting in very neatly alongside all of my peers. My friends were from all sorts of cultural groups.
Multicultural Day at school stood out.
“There I was, dressed in Turkish military outfit, and probably begging for people poking fun at, but we were so embracing to have a seven-year-old in military outfit for Multicultural Day because everyone was in their own national costume.”
“I [still] want us to expose [young people] to experiences that broaden their horizons, that broaden their viewpoint that open up career pathways for them.”
Dizdar has certainly made an impact and still gets recognised by his former students.
“I went to a 7-Eleven to buy a two-litre milk and a loaf of bread … I could see five young men and I thought ‘I know these boys, I think I taught them’.”
“I walked in and they rushed up and embraced me.”
“They had all gone on to trade and industries. They offered me to have my house painted, my electricals to be repaired. They all made a success of their lives, and these were boys that I remembered that had challenging school experiences.”
The former students decided to help Dizdar out with his shopping to say thanks.
“I went home with three loaves of bread, with three two-litre milks instead of one.”
“You get that in teaching; students always remember those that have had impact on them.”
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