Working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students - ED. ADVICE

What's up, PRAC-Es!?

We hope you are all enjoying your Christmas Holidays. Since our interview with Al Barnett from ED. Advice, he has been writing up a deep dive into his perspectives on teaching Indigenous Australians in rural/remote schools.

We hope you enjoy Al's perspectives here. Be sure to check out Ed. Advice, and our videos together.

As a guest speaker on PRAC-E, I spoke with Liam Aulliciems on a range of topics from working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, life as a teacher within rural/remote regions of Australia, how experiences as a full-time teacher would differ to that of a pre-service teacher and essentials for a successful practicum.

I asked PRAC-E if I could provide further information and elaboration on the topic of working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to paint a clearer picture for preservice and beginning teachers. I would also like to take this opportunity to promote teaching/living in rural and remote communities by briefly sharing the amazing experiences I have had and the knowledge I have gained over the last six years living in Far North Queensland.

Moving from a big city to live in Far North Queensland Cairns, I have experienced a side of Australia that not many non-indigenous people would get the chance to. At the age of twenty-one, I moved to FNQ and had never met an Aboriginal or a Torres Strait Islander person before nor did I even know where the Torres Strait Islands were.

As luck would have it, after completing my 1st year teaching contract at Mareeba SHS and me getting ready to move to the UK to teach, I received a phone call from a deputy principal of Trinity Bay State High School in Cairns. Trinity Bay SHS offered me a six-month Health & Physical Education contract which I accepted. Little did I know that this phone call and me accepting this opportunity would put me on a journey I could never have dreamed off.

Trinity Bay State High School has the largest high school population of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in Australia, making up around 35% of the student body. I fell in love with the many different Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures in FNQ and thoroughly enjoyed learning about them from my students and being apart of the humour, passion and energy my Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students had for life.

Diving in and getting involved I took on roles within the school such as an Indigenous Leaders of Tomorrow and Indigenous Leaders of the Future (ILT/ILF) mentor teacher, helped out with NAIDOC week, coached a plethora of sporting teams and made an effort to understand Torres Strait creole and eventually became a teacher of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander studies.

Through my effort and gaining the trust of the wider community I was lucky enough to be accepted into Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander communities where I was invited to ceremonies, a Torres Strait Islander shaving party where a young male was introduced to his mob as a man, milestone birthdays; sometimes being the only white person there, which wasn’t an issue at all as I felt so accepted.

Within this text I will share with you my experiences, both positive and negative, and provide you with the whole picture about working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and closing the gap.

First and foremost, as a teacher you need to remember that kids are kids. All students want the same thing no matter who they are or what they look like. It isn't a secret and it is pretty simple, students want respect, quality time and to know that their teacher cares about them.

This could be a generalisation, though during my brief time on contracts and supply teaching in Brisbane and the Gold Coast I saw and noticed that teachers and admin did not know how to treat Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students nor know how to deal with ill behaviour. There was a lot of walking on eggshells, perhaps authority figures worrying about being racist. It was plain and simple to see that there was a disconnect and a lack of understanding by both parties involved. This is a complicated situation and is one that has generational and historical context. For Aboriginal students being a minority in an urban school, predominantly made up of an Anglo Saxon student population and then being treated differently through tacit racism, is but a simple explanation.

The issue of generational trauma runs deep for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and has so for the last 249 years since British invasion/colonisation of Australia. Let’s have a look at Australia’s brief history to help readers understand the generational trauma Aboriginal people face.

Before we begin, I would like to highlight that each case is individual and that non-indigenous students can also suffer from generational trauma as a person’s living/family socio-economic situation is unique to the individual. This is not an excuse for ill behavior or disinterest in schooling. I am just shedding light on a larger issue that needs to be addressed and solved to close the gap for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.

Let’s start from the beginning. In 1770, explorer James Cook rediscovered Australia for the British during the age of discovery under the banner of Terra Nullius aka no man's land. Dark Emu, an informative novel by Bruce Pascoe, highlights the impact that Charles Darwin's theory of evolution had on the mindset of colonising nations, that the strong would survive and the weak would perish. Aboriginal peoples were seen as less than human and a problem that needed to be eradicated, which is evident in the historical events of Australia’s short history. Aboriginal cultures, connection to land, religious beliefs, architecture, agriculture, farming methods and ability to survive on such a harsh continent for over 60,000 years, was watered down to being savages - “hunter/gatherers” that ate witchetty grubs, lived a simple caveman lifestyle of little ingenuity or governing system. This white-washed stereotypical ideology of what an Aboriginal person was and looked like was then incorporated within the Australia education curriculum and may have been mentioned if lucky within a classroom nationwide up until the 21st century. Thankfully this has now changed and Aboriginal studies are covered within the Australian Curriculum during primary and early secondary schooling.

There were also the frontier wars, attempted genocide, massacres, stolen generation, stolen wages, removal from ancestral land into missions, introduction of Christianity, no recognition as Australian citiziens or Australian war veterans, generational incarceration, ostracised from society with boundaries and laws, introduction of drugs and alcohol, loss of skill sets, loss of history, culture, diet, LORE, identity, and language, then finally racism, to name a few. People don’t like to hear it but racism is still present, overtly, covertly, or casually.

Jumping back to the interview between PRAC-E & ED. ADVICE. As Liam and I spoke, I highlighted the disadvantages some students face within low socio-economic communities within Australia. I emphasised my experience of seeing one of my Aboriginal students walking around the streets late at night in a rural town, as he lived in an overcrowded three-bedroom house with twenty of his family members. Due to the overcrowding there was little to no space for him to sleep as he had given up his bed for his younger siblings.

The experience I shared with PRAC-E was delivered with no context behind it, to explain how this child or person like him was born into this situation. Hopefully now, by reading the text above you can see how any number of combinations of these events could cause generational flow-on effects to Aboriginal students.

I would like to take this opportunity to highlight the issue of tacit racism of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students still present within Australian schools and share with the readers an example by a primary school teacher set in Cairns, Far North Queensland in 1996. For a large percentage of Aboriginal students in Northern and Central Australia, English is not their first language or dialect. This is also the case for Torres Strait Islander students.

A teacher new to the Far North noticed groups of students speaking Creole (a broad version of Standard Australian English, ‘SSE’). She believed some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids were not achieving in literacy because their language or dialect was different. Kids that came from overseas received support for their learning... How come Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander students who were speaking a distinguishably different dialect of English did not? Where was the support for them, especially students from the Cape and communities? The situation is better now, but teachers need to realise the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students speak other dialects. It needs to be made explicit that they ‘code-switch’ from home language to ‘school English’/SSE. Home language is their language and is strong with culture.

In my experience, it is assumed that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students know English as they are born in Australia and therefore when they come to school, generally their literacy requirements are not met. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics in the 2016 Census, 63,754 persons reported speaking an Australian Indigenous language at home making up 10 percent of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population. (ABS Census of Population and Housing, 2016).

Evidence can be cited from the 2018 NAPLAN national report which shows how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students fared to non - Indigenous students within the literacy testing components. Looking at the literacy data for both reading and writing from years 3,5,7 & 9 it can be seen that non - Indigenous students did better across the board with reading and writing in all year levels tested.

Of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students tested in year 3, 18% of students were below the national standard in reading and 21.6% in writing. In year 5, 22.8% of students were below the national standard in reading and 35.1% in writing. In year 7, 24.4% of students were below the national standard in reading and 41.8% in writing and finally in year 9, 26.1% of students were below the national standard in reading and 54.3% in writing. (Citation - Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority 2018, NAPLAN Achievement in Reading, Writing, Language Conventions and Numeracy: National Report for 2018, ACARA, Sydney.)

How can teachers help aid in the literacy development of non - Indigenous and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students?

A teacher can do the following teaching methods:

  1. Teach the vocabulary needed in your unit of work first. Put large charts up at the start of the lesson. Verbally practise the language needed in say, procedural texts. Repeat till memorised.

  2. Contextualise any reading and writing tasks in your unit of work. Provide scaffolds on charts wherever you can, explicitly for the type of text you are expecting in the assessment.

  3. Use highlighted texts in your classroom which explicitly show the heavy lexical items in your topic. Make a list. Display on the wall. Carry them from classroom to classroom if needed. Ask a reliable kid to put them up each time.

  4. If absenteeism is a problem, in your warm up you need to account for this by having a couple of slides to recount content to give them some chance to catch up.

  5. Make your assessment expectations crystal clear. Distribute highlighted criteria sheets where possible. “Do this for a C”, “this for a B” etc. Put this into your warm-up.

  6. Use your whole “You Do” time to circulate effectively and use that time wisely to give explicit assistance to the low achievers. An effective teacher does not spend their whole lesson time sitting at their desk.

  7. Celebrate the small wins. Eg, if a student moves from an E to a D (or C), or a D to a C etc, celebrate and congratulate. (Check with the student first!)

  8. Consult “Explicit Instruction” by Archer and Hughes and/or “Visible Learning” by Prof John Hattie. If you ever buy two books about effective teaching, there are it.

  9. Avail yourself of any relevant professional development opportunities in your school.

For teachers moving out into rural or remote regions of Australia it is important to make an effort in learning or understanding the the local Aboriginal / Torres Strait Islander dialect. Even if you just learn to say a few words. This will make a great impression on the students and help build relationships and respect. It is also very important to understand that when you are at school you are to speak Standard Australian English, otherwise we are doing a disservice to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, as they will not often have the same acquired literacy/language skills as other Australians. That doesn't mean that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students cannot speak creole to each other socially or explain a classroom task to other students in creole to help them understand.

Hopefully this article has provided you with an insight into teaching Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in remote/ rural regions of Australia. I highly recommend that you jump in and take the dive as there is an amazing world to be explored and experienced. Please see the glossary below for further reading.


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