Worimi woman and mother of three, Tracy Saunders, powered through her Indigenous teacher-training program at ACU in Strathfield while working full time as an Aboriginal Education Worker (AEW) at a local Catholic School. It was this previous experience, particularly in the ‘craft’ of behaviour management that helped her through her Bachelor of Education.
“I think that’s what gave me more confidence and the boost to keep going and going and not quit uni when it got really hard. Because God, it got hard…”
During her previous work as an AEW, Tracy learned that it’s each teacher’s responsibility to look at their own practice, and the school’s responsibility to make sure that Indigenous culture is “built it” not “bolted on”.
“If you’re doing that, then you attract all the Indigenous teachers to your school. Because they will want to be there because they can see that their culture is valued. No one wants to be where they’re not valued.”
Her suggestion to “buy people, not resources” was taken on board, and the school now has three AEW’s who incorporate cultural activities such as dancing.
“That bunch of kids is so the opposite of shame. You can’t keep them off the stage because they want to get on again. They’re tired but they leave their paint on; that says so much. They’re out in the field at 1:40 at lunch playing footy, still with their paint on. They love it and they’re so proud.”
In her current position as a casual teacher for both the Catholic School’s Office and the Department of Education and Training (DET), Tracy hopes to see more schools integrating cultural awareness into their professional development programs, rather than immediately looking at Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander disadvantage.
“The thing is, principals in schools want Aboriginal teachers to come in to fix those problems, when in actual fact, you could fix it internally from the ground up if you start making sure that all your staff were culturally aware of Aboriginal protocols. “
AEWs and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teachers are critical if young people are to build confidence and pride. As the first in her family to go to university, Tracey knows what it feels like to be “winging it” without her elders to guide her.
“Why aren’t I in a long line of people who have done this before me? Why am I always the first doing things now? Where are my role models? It’s like being a kid again, you know?”
University can be a foreign world for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, and as Tracy said, “a clash between two cultural systems.”
“University is a westernised culture. It’s not part of Aboriginal culture at all. As an Aboriginal person, your knowledge is valued because you have that knowledge, whereas at university, you might have the knowledge but it’s not valued until you have the bit of paper.”
The Yalbalinga Indigenous Higher Education Unit at ACU was the reason Tracy felt she had the social and cultural support she needed when she began to doubt herself.
“It was the only way. I searched around for a long time before I found a degree I felt would suit me and my family. That was the only way that I could do it where I could stay in my community and go away for that week block. I made great friends. The friends that I made from my cohort at uni are my best friends. I met family. It was the best experience of my life actually. I’d do it all again.”
27-year-old musician Belinda Whyte, a descendent of the Murrawarri people of North Western New South Wales, wants to be the kind of teacher that she never had in high school.
“I actually dropped out of school, right at the very end, before the High School Certificate. I was never a very successful student. I want to be that person that I probably needed back then – somebody to believe in me and offer support.”
After attending the MATSITI conference earlier in the year, Belinda is excited about the prospect of being assigned a mentor.
“The Ngunnawal Centre at the University of Canberra offers a lot of support, but to have mentors that are currently teaching in the schools, that would be great.”
One of her biggest role models is writer and educationalist Chris Sarra, who is now at the University of Canberra for Belinda to learn from directly.
“I’m looking forward to possibly being able to meet him and have opportunities to gain wisdom from him. I have sometimes felt like giving up, but he is one of the reasons why I keep going because he inspired me to want to become a teacher.”
Belinda never had an Aboriginal teacher through out her schooling. She was faced with racism and ignorance about her culture, which inspired her to want to help create the change that Indigenous students need.
“Usually there’s this unspoken spiritual connection that each one of us share, and I can’t explain it, but there’s just this understanding that exists between yourself and another Indigenous person… it’s spiritual, it’s deep, it’s unexplainable, it’s indescribable.
To be able to learn from an Indigenous person at school as well, would have extended that sense of belonging, and it would have also helped to strengthen my identity.”
Belinda believes strongly in respect, relationships and reconciliation in the education system. In high school, she had an English teacher who integrated Aboriginal culture into her classes and became an important role model. This, she says, gave her a sense of pride within herself.
“She picked texts like the film Radiance, and Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s poetry to study in class. I really enjoyed how she successfully implemented Indigenous perspectives.” 10 years later, Belinda is studying a Bachelor of Secondary Education and a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Music and Indigenous studies.
Having experienced a lack of cultural awareness in her own education, Belinda is determined to make sure that all her students feel proud of their Aboriginality and to teach non-Indigenous students “about our beautiful and rich culture”.
“If there was more awareness of our culture within schools, then Indigenous kids would probably feel more comfortable within their school environment.”
Photo credit: Marissa McDowell
Michael Tyreman, a Gumbaynggirr man from Bowraville, is one of 12 children. He says although he’s not a father, he sometimes feels like he has kids. A natural leader in the family, Michael always knew he had the capacity to go to university, but he didn’t know whether he would study law or teaching.
He eventually chose teaching, but the first attempt didn’t go as expected.
“I started doing teaching actually out of Western Sydney. I did a semester out there and then I dropped out because I just felt the support out there wasn’t really good and I failed a subject and stuff. No one really talked to me about it.”
Even though at first he found it difficult, he stayed in the education system before giving it another go.
“I just ended up dropping out and then I moved back home, started working in the schools and they were like, while you are doing teacher’s aid work, you may as well do your degree. There’s this program; they told me about it.”
The lack of support made it difficult for Michael to continue with his studies, so when his cousin and his best mate decided to also enrol in the Bachelor of Education (Primary) at ACU in Strathfield, he jumped at the chance to do it together.
“I suppose because the three of us all lived in the same town and we could work together on assignments and stuff.”
The relationships he had with his best friend and cousin certainly made it easier to remain motivated when the stresses of study became too much, but it was also internal support from the university that saw him succeed.
“I think you’ve got to build your relationships with your tutors and lecturers. If I didn’t understand something I wasn’t afraid to stay back after class to clarify something. I think some people would have just thought ‘I won’t worry about; I’m just going to fail’.”
Now, Michael is working casually at two high schools and a day care before he sets off to play football in France at the end of the year. When it comes to Indigenous language in the education system, Michael says he’s glad someone is trying to teach it, even if the non-Indigenous teachers “don’t really get it”.
“I’ll go in and I’m thinking, ‘at least somebody is teaching it, it’s not dying out’. Sometimes they get the words wrong and stuff but at least they’re trying.”
Michael is considering going back to University to study Secondary Education when he returns from overseas. Well aware of the impact he has on his Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, he’s keen to continue his own education.
“A lot of kids up to me and a lot are always looking to communicate with me instead of their normal teachers. I’m only a casual most of the time at school and they would rather me be there … they’ll say “can’t you just teach our class?”
After working as a teacher’s aid and doing youth work in her community, Fallon Patolo decided to take the next step and study a Bachelor of Education. As a remote student, she says becoming a teacher would have been impossible if she wasn’t able to study and work in her own community through online study.
“I think I have that self-determination but I’m just so blessed and grateful that I can study in my own community at the primary school where I work. I know where I come from. I know where it is I want to go to, so having that perspective is the drive that’s continuing to push me.”
Although she had a young daughter at the time and found the work/family balance a challenge, she believed that it was important to use her leadership potential to be a role model for other Indigenous students.
“Teachers are there to make a difference, but I think also to inspire children and to help them to reach their full potential. I think it starts at that young age of prep, setting that high expectation for them and building a rapport with them so that you can understand the child,” she said.
Because Fallon is culturally and socially connected to her students, she is able to act as the link between the school and families, helping to create a more inclusive and collaborative environment.
“I find that I’m a key person that is helping to link that gap or building that bridge between home and community. When the Indigenous people are from where I’m from, having me in the school makes them feel much more comfortable to come into the school.”
When asked what it would take to attract more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teachers, Fallon said it’s all about role modelling.
“Empowering our own people and encouraging our own mob… we need more Indigenous educators in the school to make the difference, to close the gap with our people.”
Three years of employment as an Aboriginal Education Worker, and some part-time work in the disability sector during his degree prepared Christopher Duncan for his career as a teacher.
“It gave me good experience to actually be able to get into the classroom and to interact with staff… and on top of that I got a number of good interactions with the students, so I was able to build up relationships with them… Just being able to build up those sorts of skills to go back and rely on when I had to.”
At only 22 years old, Christopher Duncan from New South Wales is already teaching full-time at the Good Samaritan Catholic College. But if it weren’t for his excellent mentors, both inside and outside the classroom, he said wouldn’t be in the position he is now.
“I think that was really, really critical in terms of basically just getting me through the prac and knowing that there was someone else I could talk to if I needed to.”
During his four year Bachelor of Education, Christopher was allocated a mentor as part of the MATSITI program. He said this was crucial in terms of getting him through the challenges of adjusting to university, and he believes that all students should be afforded the same opportunity.
“I think that would really help because otherwise, if the cluelessness continues, I suppose the drop out rates won’t improve… Hopefully, that will create a sort of repetitive cycle where there is that link when they say, “to hell with this,” there will be processes and people they can go to,” he said.
Christopher found that having a mentor helped him get through his studies, but it didn’t stop there. The real world challenges of finding a job were still ahead of him.
“In terms of the end of the year and looking for jobs, what to put on our resume, how to go through interview process, and things like that, and specific to the education field, because I found out there are few differences between how I’d attack a normal interview compared to an education based interview, so I think the allocation of the mentor was absolutely imperative. That was the biggest positive.”
His own experience with mentorship has demonstrated the significant benefit of having good role models, especially for young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.
|“It just shows to some of them that the benchmark has been set, and it’s something that they can do because someone else has done it before them. I think having an Aboriginal teacher in the classroom definitely helps to give them a bit of a sense of belonging as well.”Not only can Christopher set an example of what his students can achieve through their education, but he also knows that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teachers are able to bring Indigenous education into the classroom with passion.“They’ve got a bit more experience and know a little bit more, and can apply it because it’s basically what they have gone through with their own lives and what they’ve grown up with… I think when you’ve lived as part of a culture, it sort of comes out a little bit more naturally.”|
Like many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teachers, Mallissa Fourmile began as a teacher’s aide in 2002. Having spent years building strong relationships with parents and their children, she decided that having more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teachers in schools was the key to getting better results from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.
“If you have an Indigenous teacher, how much more effective would they be in mixing with their own community members? Because they have that connection with their community, also, they are role models to their young students.”
Mallissa’s thesis for her Bachelor of Education found that good relationships between parents and teachers could make all the difference in a child’s performance and attendance at school.
While all good teachers are imperative to a child’s development, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teachers have an ability to connect with the community and foster positive relationships between families and schools in a way that non-Indigenous teachers often can’t.
“It is very important to get those connections, I think even with any community members because you’ve got to be able to empathize with them,” said Mallissa.
“There might be various reasons why the student is not attending or they’re not performing well for whatever reason and you’ve got to be able to talk with the community to be able to find out what is actually going on.”
Sometimes it’s the relationship between a parent and a teacher that means a child will turn up to school. If a parent has trust in their child’s teacher, they are more likely to value education and provide encouragement in the home.
“Some parents might not see the value in education but if you have a good connection with that family and they have an understanding that you’ve got their best interest at heart, then naturally they’re going to send their kids.”
Not only do Indigenous teachers act as inspiring role models for their students, they are able to keep their local languages and culture alive in the education system. For many Indigenous students, English is their second or third language.
Mallissa remembers on a conversation with her mother, who explained that it wasn’t seen as necessary in her day to speak traditional language. But things are different now, and teachers like Mallissa and her older sister have the opportunity to bring language into school.
“It’s good to mix it up too so that you’re showing that you value their language as well.”
For many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, it’s this kind cultural knowledge and sense of community that helps them excel in the classroom.
Mallissa knew that these strong relationships would help her be a successful teacher, but going into the profession was not as easy as she had thought. Her “famous last words” were “how hard can it be?”
“You become a workaholic I think when you become a teacher… You do have your days when you think, “I don’t know why I’m a teacher”… buy you can see that they get attached to you and you get attached to them too because wonder where they are when they’re not at school. Yeah, it is definitely worth being a teacher I reckon.”