What Works - The Work Program

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Comment from a principal in a regional secondary school

What I try to do is get non-Indigenous teachers to go through the culture shock process. It doesn't matter what you're like as a person, if you go into an area where there is a different culture there is that culture shock. You've got to get them through it. It's not a quick process and some people take a year to work through it or even a couple of years. And some take decades or never get there.

We have to adjust to the fact that Indigenous people are different. Sometimes the stereotypes come first: they're poor, their families are dysfunctional, that sort of thing. That becomes our armour. But eventually we realise, yes, there is a cultural difference.

Then you've got to work through the 'I'll save the world' syndrome. But, in the end, you've got to recognise Aboriginality. They're Aboriginal people! Once you get it, you can treat people as people but never ever forget there are Aboriginal cultures. So actually, it's really simple, but it's a long process.

So I try to get teachers to get to know Aboriginal people as people. At one school, there was a big social golf competition every Wednesday afternoon and a lot of the Aboriginal parents used to play. Through golf, teachers were exposed to Aboriginal people as people, not as stereotypes. They realised that, hey, this is an Aboriginal man, he's not going to knock your money off or bludge your fags, he's a person. He's got a kid at school and he wants his kid to do well. And once you start to be able to relate as adults, person to person, you can develop better relationships with the kids as well. It's so important because otherwise you're scared of everything: scared of the Aboriginal Elders and scared to do anything with the kids. And that makes you defensive and you can't do your job properly.

I guess in educational terms I believe in catering to the individual, which is one of those bloody good phrases which means absolutely nothing except what it means in practice. The beauty is that what turns out to be good education for Aboriginal kids is actually a good education for everybody. You need that ability to look at your class as individuals because, in any class, you can so easily get caught up in groups. You know, that group of boys up the back are always mucking up. And teachers can focus on that group so the others miss out.

We have to extend every kid, so in the end they can make their own choices. That's how you value people. That's how you teach people as individuals.

Teachers are often worried about behaviour generally. So the systemic things you can do are things like structured lesson procedures, making sure that work is prepared, making sure the work is followed up. You can encourage kids to work in groups so the teacher doesn't have to be the 'dominant dog' who has to control everything. One of the easiest ways to develop conflict in the class is to be the dominant dog. With structured lessons you know you have definite points to get through and the kids are very clear on it. So you can cater for the kids who like the big picture; and you can cater for the kids who can only handle a little bit at a time — but there is plenty of that feedback, reward and clarification. Just the classic stuff. And trying to get teachers to be less like control freaks.

For instance, with a lot of Aboriginal kids, listening isn't an eyeball-to-eyeball thing. You don't have to insist they look at you. You don't need that sort of control. For the kids, it's very much more: 'I'm looking away, I'm thinking, but I'm not looking at you'. And you can test that because they'll know the answers to your questions.

When people have choices and can work with each other then it is a much calmer situation. And I think that's how you start to handle individual interests. If a kid is still mucking up you can go and talk to that kid rather than try and keep the whole class quiet while you're handling the problem. If you're just up there dominating then obviously there is nothing for the other kids to go on with. So they're all off task.

Literacy and numeracy isn't just a school problem, it's a reconciliation problem. Until we have real reconciliation it will be very hard for Aboriginal kids to do as well as white kids in schools because the power difference will always be there. When everybody is treated as an equal by every system then everybody will have an equal chance. That's not philosophy. It's the real issue.

Above all, you've got to be sincere and honest. Don't pretend and don't be a fake. Kids are crap detectors from way back and Aboriginal kids are very, very experienced at being super-special crap detectors. So you've got to work through that because you might think you're going to make yourself into a fantastic person, but kids will see right through you. Just be sincere and honest.

And don't castigate yourself or beat yourself around the head and shoulders. I've done that too, it's easy to do, but it makes no difference. To make a difference, you've got to get in there and do the yards. And that's what Aboriginal communities want from you too.

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