What Works - The Work Program

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Comment from an Indigenous education consultant

In order to put into place the basic teaching principle of beginning where the student feels comfortable, respecting the home environment of their students is a principle which teachers must put into action every day of their teaching careers.

Some may feel that this concept is compromised or made more difficult when the student and the teacher come from different cultural backgrounds. Difference does not equal difficulty or deficit. Difference equals diverse and distinct. Diversity is one of the sure things of contemporary society — both as a mirror and a moulder. Education as an institution and teachers as its agents must respect diversity and acknowledge the distinct cultural identities which together form the national identity of Australia.

Knowing the cultural background of your students means, among other things, knowing who their caregivers are and the employment status of those caregivers which will, in turn, give an idea of the economic situation of the family. It should also be recognised that the family's economic responsibilities may, in some instances, reach beyond the immediate family and thus they may be worse or better off than employment status might suggest. Economic and other social circumstances may affect the relative mobility of the family and will certainly affect the state of students' health and general wellbeing.

At the same time as knowing each individual child's home circumstances and his or her individual strengths, needs and aspirations, teachers need to work on ensuring their place as a member of a larger group. Peer group acceptance is important to an individual's wellbeing. That means being constantly alert to racism and racist behaviour as well as bullying and other forms of antisocial behaviour. Schools and classrooms must be safe places for children. All children must feel free to come to school without being harassed, or made to feel inferior or subject to unreal expectations.

It is important that teachers start with their individual students, not with the collective cultural group to which students belong. There are diversities within each cultural group and the child should not be stereotyped. All cultures are powerfully influenced by their local context in which they must be situated and understood.

However, it must also be remembered that all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander individuals, families and communities have their own distinctive cultural heritage. They have their own histories and memories, many of which are affected by invasion, dispossession and ill-treatment.

It is within the living memory of individuals that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men, women and children were forcibly moved to missions and reserves where they were often restricted with regards to everyday activities such as attending school, working, recreation and entertainment, attending church, even shopping.

Teachers who find Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander community members reticent to participate in supporting schooling, or who have negative attitudes to the very idea, should remember that many of the grandparents of today's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children had their schooling and employment proscribed by legislation — institutionalised racism. Many of their parents would have had school experiences which were distinguished by neglect and encouragement of feelings of inferiority and inadequacy — individualised racism. Both forms of racism persist in many parts of Australia today.

Schools which acknowledge Australian Indigenous people's rights to a distinct cultural identity are more likely to succeed in engaging Australian Indigenous students in the learning process.

Australian Indigenous people who have been successful in education in conventional terms remain the exception to the rule and may be justifiably proud of having defied the odds.

These people are bicultural and able to use the language of power — Standard Australian English as well as their own community language/s. People living in geographically remote communities are more likely to speak two, maybe even three or four languages, with an Australian Indigenous language as their first language, a dialect or second Australian Indigenous language, Aboriginal English or Torres Strait Islander Creole, and then Standard Australian English. This does not mean, however, that Australian Indigenous peoples living within urban settings do not still have knowledge of or use of Australian Indigenous languages even if the language is only one of survival such as Murri English or Koori English. The languages of survival are the markers of cultural identity within Australian Indigenous communities and should be recognised as such.

Other ways to begin the process of acknowledging cultural identity include displaying art from the local community and employing custodians of local cultural knowledge who are willing and able to share such knowledge with students. Being aware of and using the local language group's names for particular landmarks shows respect for, knowledge and a willingness to integrate that knowledge into the everyday life of the school.

The 'Warm Demander' is the best teacher model for use with most children and this is just as true for Australia's Indigenous students. Against a background of personal concern and knowledge, Warm Demanders expect their students — black, white or brindle and all other shades of humanity — to do well.

Distinguished Aboriginal academic Professor Colin Bourke writes of a 'fourth wave' of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students existing at present, the first to go through education from Year 1 to completion of higher degrees. The fourth wave is the generation in schools today and they are the hope for a better future for Australia's Indigenous peoples as a whole.

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