Scott, alongside other experts on Indigenous education and Indigenous affairs, gathered at St. George’s College in Perth, Western Australia, to mark NAIDOC week with our Western Australian Associates.
The experts made up a panel who offered their knowledge and advice to Associates as part of our West Australian Mid-Year Intensive training program.
While each expert came from a different background and with different advice to offer, their remarks included some common themes: the importance of engaging with the community in which you work and understanding trauma being poignant examples.
Jim Morrison is a Noongar elder and respected community leader, having worked on Bringing Them Home and many other community campaigns over the course of his career.
“The intergenerational effects of trauma are still being felt today,” Jim told our Associates. His grandchildren, for example, are the first in his family for generations to be learning Noongar language and culture in earnest.
Jim impressed, teachers should not just assume that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in their classrooms know their own cultures and should be wary that, for some children, lack of understanding of their cultures can be bound up in more trauma.
Angela Ryder is Chairperson of the Langford Aboriginal Association and is employed by Relationships Australia as the Senior Manager of Aboriginal Services in Western Australia.
Angela wasn’t able to finish Year 10 or to attend much school through Year 9 due to family circumstances.
“The key issues impacting the community are the ability to manage grief and loss, and racism,” she said. Educators, in particular, should be aware of these issues, not least in the context of holding events that Indigenous children are expected to attend.
When one Teach For Australia Associate questioned why so few Indigenous children at their school had attended on the Friday that the school held a NAIDOC activity day, Angela urged that all teachers become aware of important dates for the community: the Noongar people hold their funerals on Fridays, which would have likely prevented a number of students attending.
Scott Fatnowna is a Wik man from Far North Queensland who has spent his career teaching across Australia. He recently returned to his mother’s community of Aurukun where he is now principal of Aurukun Primary School.
Scott began his conversation by advising our Western Australian Associates to remember how they behaved as students and thereby to be more forgiving of the students in their classes, whatever those students’ backgrounds. He also warned, however, that teachers of non-Indigenous backgrounds can sometimes expect to feel a little resistance from the Indigenous students in their classes:
“Think of it culturally. Remember that, in this situation, it’s not necessarily you but potentially those who came before you” who are eliciting such a response from students.
As such, he recommended getting to know the communities above all else. “One of the things you have to do as a teacher,” he said, “is adapt to the community.” He advised that teachers of Indigenous students work hard to truly understand the contexts within which they are operating and not to impose their own values on students.
Scott also expressed the importance of understanding your own family history as this is vital to Indigenous culture. “That is your currency with Aboriginal students,” he said.
Troy Hayter is the Principal of Clontarf Aboriginal College in Perth. His work at the College is grounded in the idea that all children can achieve and it is the College’s aim for all students to complete Year 12 and go onto tertiary studies.
He recommended individualising expectations and goals to a specific student and to do so with an understanding of their culture, community and upbringing. Giving the example of a student who entered the College wanting to be a diesel mechanic, Troy said he’d asked, “Well, why not be an engineer?”
Troy also recommended gaining an understanding of Indigenous students’ linguistic heritage.
Finally, John Scougall is an academic, consultant and writer who said that his work as a non-Indigenous person in Indigenous affairs has been guided by Lilla Watson’s famous quote:
He urged teachers from non-Indigenous backgrounds to ‘unlearn’ what they think they know about Indigenous culture and to start from scratch by learning about the communities in which they work. He suggested that teachers look at what’s working in terms of Indigenous education and interrogate why in order to learn from it.
“It’s crucial that we remember that, for so many people, school was an unsafe experience bound up in trauma,” he said. In order to truly work within Indigenous communities, teachers need to determine how to make schools into inclusive and welcoming environments.
Indigenous students currently make up on average 8 per cent of the student population across Teach For Australia’s current partner schools, compared to the broader Indigenous population of 3 per cent (according to our analysis of 2015 MySchool data).
You can also learn more about our Western Australia Mid-Year Intensive by following #TeachForWA.