Our news

Indigenous teachers on how to approach education

Six minutes
Teach For Australia Wednesday, July 6th, 2016

“As a teacher, you are stepping into the trench of reconciliation,” said Scott Fatnowna, Principal of Aurukun Primary School in Far North Queensland.

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.

For example, the importance of engaging with the community in which you work and understanding trauma.


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 said.

His grandchildren, for example, are the first in his family for generations to be learning Noongar language and culture in earnest.

Jim impressed the fact that teachers should not just assume that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in their classrooms know their own cultures. Teachers should be wary that, for some children, lack of understanding of their cultures can be bound up in more trauma.

“We all need to heal from this trauma,” he said. “Not just Aboriginal people.”


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.

“As a Noongar woman, I have had to work extremely hard to get to where I am today,” she said.

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.

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.

“It’s the importance of putting our events at the right time,” she said.


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 that teachers of non-Indigenous backgrounds can sometimes expect to feel a little resistance from the Indigenous students in their classes.

“Don’t take it personally,” he advised.

“Think of it culturally. Remember that, in this situation, it’s not necessarily you [eliciting this response] but potentially those who came before you.”

As such, he recommended getting to know the communities above all else.

“One of the things you have to do as a teacher is adapt to the community,” he said.

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.

“Know your own heritage and where you come from. Know the details. You can then share your story with them in return for their own.”


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.

Troy suggested that when teaching Indigenous young people, it is more important than ever to set high expectations in order to bridge the gap that exists in our education system.

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.

“Remember that English is often the third or fourth language within our classrooms. Gain a real understanding of code-switching to help your students,” he said.


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:

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

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).

Discover the resources our panelists recommended using the links below:

You can also learn more about our Western Australia Mid-Year Intensive by following #TeachForWA.

Continue reading

Learn more about Teach for Australia, our programs and our cohorts.
Read more
Read more
Tuesday, December 19th, 2023
Read more