Alec Warner is a Kuku Yalanji man from Mossman, North Queensland. After studying performing arts at the Aboriginal Centre for the Performing Arts, he followed in the footsteps of his mother and decided to study teaching.
At the end of 2015, he graduated with a Bachelor of Education from the University of Queensland in Brisbane and began teaching full-time at Pullenvale state school.
“We have one Indigenous student. I’m lucky enough to have her in my class. I’d say that the benefit having me at the front of the class is I can be a role model to her. I’m also very close to the family, so I’m more than just a role model if she ever needs that. It’s the way of our people to look after each other.”
During his studies, Alec found that the mentoring program at the University of Queensland was by far the most beneficial aspect of the course. Not only was he able to have one-on-one discussions with a qualified teacher, he had the opportunity to get into the classroom and get some real life experience.
“I think it boosted my confidence as a teacher. As I said before, being in the classroom, and being able to talk to someone about the real things coming out of the degree. Yeah, I think it helped me a lot further than where I would have been if I didn’t have mentor.”
While he was at university, Alec was involved in ‘My People, My Place, My Country’, a series of educational videos that Pullenvale developed with some of the local Indigenous community. Alec used the videos in the classroom during NAIDOC week.
“These videos were about their lives, and what they encountered when they were growing up. I was lucky enough to be one of the people. I think there were about eight to ten of us: elders and younger people. I think I was the youngest. What each year level is doing is we’re watching my video, and then we’re watching an uncle’s video at the same time. What we’ll do is a response to that stimulus. Each class is doing a different response to each different stimulus.”
Although NAIDOC week is a celebration of Indigenous culture and history, and Alec is the only Aboriginal teacher at Pullenvale, he wasn’t expected to run the show.
“My former principal didn’t put me in charge because he didn’t want to overwhelm me in my first year of teaching, and he believed that it was something that I needed to do, but only when I felt comfortable with it. I’m kind of just sitting back and offering little words of advice every now and then. I’m not the one to go straight to, and I appreciate that.”
It’s this kind of respect and consciousness in the school environment that made Alec feel supported during his first year of teaching. For teachers, students and others in the education profession, Alec has some other ideas about how to increase retention rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student teachers and provide culturally competent education.
“Well, first of all, a training or a professional development style thing for teachers to train cultural awareness. You know, there’s a lot of talk about cultural competency, but it’s kind of a taboo topic in the tertiary level these days here. Just how to develop meaningful relationships with indigenous students, and how to empower them, and how to empower their grounding as an indigenous person, and what that means for them. The other thing that I would say is more education about the first nations people at Uni. We had some semester course about it, and it really wasn’t enough to learn the ins and outs of everything from an outsider’s perspective.”
Mother of four, Raylene Weldon, grew up in Western New South Wales in a remote town called Nyngan. After working as an education officer with the Department of Education since 1997, she began studying her Bachelor of Early Childhood at in the 5-year residential program at Charles Sturt University in Dubbo.
Being a remote student has its challenges, but the MATSITI program and Illawarra ITeC have provided her with some of the cultural support she needs to help her during her studies.
“It’s because I’m so remote, I like to have face to face tutoring. That’s the biggest thing for me and I’m a person that needs that face to face contact. I can’t do things over the phone or on Skype…”
Having had the support and guidance of “very strong, political parents” meant that Raylene developed a strong sense of independence and resilience.
“Growing up they were always like “Don’t ever put barriers in your life. Life’s a challenge. If you want something you have to go for it.” My Mum and Dad would always say, “You fall off a horse, you have to get up and get back on it.” It’s really something to amount to and the profoundness of being aboriginal. The racism that you deal with all your life, Mum and Dad would never let us let pride go away or hang our head in shame. They would find away to make us feel proud of who we were.”
Now, in a leadership position herself, Raylene is able to instil in her students the same kind of strength and perseverance.
“I’ve had lots of challenges in my life. I’m determined to succeed. To me, life’s all about balance… I just love being in a learning environment and being around children and guiding them throughout life.”
Michael Heuston, a Gumbaynggirr man living on Dunghutti Country in Kempsey, always knew he wanted to be a teacher, but it wasn’t until he was on a trip around Australia with his family that he considered going to university to study.
“I was teaching the kids through distance education and it was the feedback that I got off the teachers who were supervising my kids’ learning then, said, “I really think you should consider this as a profession.””
Soon after, he decided to enrol in the Bachelor of Education at ACU Strathfield and has been pleased with the way that the university has tailored their education program for Aboriginal students.
In 2015, Michael attended and presented at the MATSITI conference in Adelaide, where he spoke about retention and resilience in the profession of teaching. When asked how he dealt with the pressures of the degree, he said that having support and a culturally aware university helped him keep going when the going got tough.
“For me, the biggest thing is the fact that it’s a cultural course through ACU. It’s all about our collective stories and the collective experience we share that bond us together. When you might be having those down moments where you doubt yourself or you doubt whether you can complete the course, it’s your brother, it’s a cousin, it’s your uncle, it’s one of your best friends that you’ve met through this course.”
He gives the university credit for the amount of Indigenous students seeing out the end of their courses. But he knows how difficult is can be for some students to adjust to university, especially because of the strong focus on academic skills.
“There are so many reasons: social demographics, cultural context, history, stolen generation. There are that many reasons why we are behind in terms of our literacy and numeracy.”
The key to good teaching, Michael believes, is not exceptional English and Maths skills, but the ability to “connect to a child on a fundamental, human level and actually see the good in somebody and not the bad.”
“So many of our young boys get disengaged early because of their poor literacy and numeracy. They’re instantly branded… [The teachers] see them as a problem, they see them as a complication, but what they don’t see is they are exactly the same as every other kid in the room, they just haven’t reached them yet.”
Michael understands the importance of literacy and numeracy, but he also believes that all children are different, and for some, the traditional classroom setting is not conducive to learning. Catering to individual learning styles and taking into account cultural differences are fundamental.
“We learn from each other through talk, through play, through activities, through songs, through dance, but none of them are inside a classroom. Yet, all of our formalized testing and all of our formal structure for education are just about all in-doors.”
The most important thing, Michael feels, is making sure that every single child feels they are equally important.
“Some kids will be able to sing, some will be able to dance and some will be able to write. It’s that simple. We just have to make sure that the opportunities are there for all of our kids to succeed. That’s it. In nutshell, that’s teaching.”