The decision by the Northern Territory Department of Health to employ Aboriginal health workers has supposedly resulted in a shift in emphasis for non Aboriginal rural health nurses from clinical work to education and consultation. This paper examines the gap between the rhetoric and the reality of this claim by applying, with modifications, Burton Clark's (1958) theory of the marginality of adult education to an educational innovation. In 1981 rural health nurses were requested to implement an educational program that included teaching Aboriginal health workers literacy and numeracy along with clinical skills. The results of an evaluation research of this innovation conducted over the period 1982–3 show that this activity was avoided by nurses because of its marginal status. Those who took up the innovation also risked sharing in this marginality. It is also argued that while Clark's theory is applied to only one case, i.e. the teaching of literacy, it points the way to a formal theory for explaining the difficulties experienced by rural health nurses who wish to take up any formal educational activities on Aboriginal settlements.