Sally is now arriving late, and has stopped handing in work. When Mr D speaks to her about it she gets quite angry and tells him that there is no point in her doing any work because people like her always end up ‘unemployed or pissed’. She finally reveals to Mr D that she is Koorie and does not want anyone to know as they might treat her differently.
I’ve spent the last few weeks with Sally – an imaginary student of an imaginary teacher with challenges that are depressingly real. Last week two colleagues and I facilitated an hour-long think about students like Sally, considering policy documents and educational strategies related to Indigenous students. The class went well and our fellow teacher-candidates seemed engaged by the material. With Victoria’s Aboriginal population both young and growing, it’s more and more likely that all of us will encounter Indigenous families as soon as we’re employed in schools.
As discussed in our lesson, preparing for this should be a complex task. In the 1250-word reflective piece below (adapted from a submission within our core subject, “Social and Professional Contexts”) I explore the relationship of Indigenous education to my own development as a teacher. I hope you enjoy it.
From primary school onwards, Indigenous Australia has been a part of my studies. At school I was troubled by the nature and meaning of early contact between Indigenous people and European arrivals, and at university a focus on Australian history and literature exposed me to rich analyses of Indigenous culture and thought. Likewise in the political arena, I have engaged with movements for reconciliation and equality, watching with interest policy debates about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs. But, despite this knowledge and interest, I’ve always assumed a disempowered position in relation to the topic, adopting the role of observer, not participant. It’s only now as I prepare to be a teacher that I see a different possibility: that my awareness can translate into action that affects the lives of Indigenous Australians.
Over the last few weeks my colleagues and I developed a presentation based on Sally, a diligent middle-school student who experiences a sudden drop in motivation. “There is no point,” she explains, before starkly summarising possible futures for her people: “unemployed or pissed.” Importantly, she’s talking with her SOSE teacher, giving him a valuable insight into her self-perception and an opportunity to interrupt her disengagement. Until this year I would have read this scenario as an outsider, empathising with both characters. Now, I’m Mr D.
“Indigenous Australians are the most educationally disadvantaged Australians,” according to researchers at the University of Western Sydney, who note a difference in self-efficacy between different groups of students: across several studies, Indigenous students “consistently reported lower self-concepts and schooling outcomes” than their non-Indigenous peers (Bodkin-Andrews, O’Rourke & Craven, 2010, pp. 278–79). This is the context for Sally’s disengagment. As a Koorie, she’s at risk of seeing her cultural identity as a predictor of negative educational outcomes, as seen in other studies that correlate “perceived racial discrimination” with low academic achievement among Indigenous high-school students (Bodkin-Andrews et al, 2010, p. 1). Conditions like this make it less surprising that Sally wishes to hide her cultural identity from members of her school community, as “they might treat her differently” and consolidate a categorisation she sees as bad news.
Sadly, statistically, Sally’s onto something. In defence of her self-assessment she could produce any number of studies and policy documents that correlate Indigenous status with educational (non-)success. David Gonski’s Review of Funding for Schooling lists indigeneity alongside remoteness, disability and low socioeconomic status as a “disadvantage” for Australian students (2011, pp. 115–17). Others put it more starkly: for Gray and Beresford, “Australia has the worst Indigenous educational outcomes of any comparable Western settler society” (2008, p. 204). In line with this, our scenario presentation opened with a litany of demoralising statistics describing the status quo. “Are you okay with this?” asked my colleague. Nobody replied.
I was up next, introducing government policy about the issue, all of which chimed with Sally’s pessimism about her educational predicament. For instance the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Action Plan 2010–2014 opens in the style of our presentation – with the gap, “clear on all indicators,” and stubbornly resistant to generational change (2010, p. 7). It was only in the last minutes of our lesson that an answer to Sally’s concern began to emerge. Thankfully, it became emphatic: as teachers, our impact on Indigenous students should be as significant as our access to them. After all, as John Hattie has demonstrated, “within school settings, effective classroom teachers account for the greatest predictor of student academic success” (2009, cited in Bodkin-Andrews, G., O’Rourke, V., & Craven, R. 2010, p. 299). In short, even if she is waving the Gonski review in his face, Mr D’s answer to Sally should be emphatic, and start with “see you tomorrow.”
Our group approached Erin Birch’s lecture with a blend of hope and fear. It was the day before our presentation. Would everything be overturned? Happily, she reaffirmed the direction we had taken, and the significant role individual teachers can play in the educational outcomes of Indigenous students. In addition, she explored two topics of particular interest to me, which I was then able to feed into the next day’s class: regional specificity and transgenerational trauma.
In our scenario, Sally (reluctantly) identifies as Koorie, a designation specific to Victorian Aboriginal people. As Birch reminded us, the identity and history of Indigenous Australians is at least as varied as their several hundred language goups. According to ReconciliACTION, some five hundred to seven hundred such groups existed before colonisation, “each with their own systems of government, languages, cultural practices, religions and traditions” (2007). For me this offers a kind of counter-story to the national and statistical lens through which Indigenous Australians are so often viewed, including within educational discourses. A first step for engaging Sally’s self-stereotyping might be to work with her family to connect her with a more local and nuanced story of Indigenous culture. In our seminar it was great to record suggestions for how this might be done, including hearing stories of local Indigenous people in class or commemorating local First People in school lay-out and architecture. Such strategies are in line with Goal 1 of the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians, which mandates “that schools build on local cultural knowledge and experience of Indigenous students as a foundation for learning” (2008, p. 7).
Unfortunately, Mr D has never met Sally’s family before. A necessary first step for this work of engagement will be making contact with her community, liaising with them about how best to integrate Sally’s school and home life. Even before this class I’d seen the profound connection between the first and last of the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership’s Australian Professional Standards for Teachers: “know students and how they learn” and “engage professionaly with colleagues, parents/carers and the community” (2011, p. 5) Now I’m convinced that, especially for Indigenous students, these standards are intertwined.
The concept of transgenerational trauma also gives a context for teachers to assist Indigenous students at school. The term refers to the inherited effects of colonisation, including a lack of trust among Indigenous communities for institutional structures like schools, rightly seen as historical sites of their oppression. As Gray and Beresford explain, “dispossession, segregation and assimilation have created intergenerational disadvantage and trauma that impede educational progress among most Indigenous students” (2008, p. 205) – a notion movingly reinforced in Birch’s lecture.
Oddly enough, I find a kind of optimism in this explanatory model. Somehow naming a trauma invokes the possibility of its healing, even as it expands an issue into the psychological realm. Teachers and support staff will be more empowered by human beings than alarming statistics, however troubled those human beings might be. And viewing schools as sites of trauma for Indigenous communities puts the onus on schools to enact reconciliation and healing, which over time will itself “close the gap.”
I opened this essay with a claim to prior knowledge. As I finish it, I realise how much more there is to know – not about history, for all its importance, but about the students I will teach and the communities in which I will work as a professional teacher. The encounter between Sally and Mr D has had a significant effect on my thinking, especially when paired with Erin Birch’s evidence about the growing number of Indigenous students in Victoria, the state in which I plan to work. As I begin my career I will do so with close attention to individual students, especially when they identify as Indigenous Australians. And, for the first time, I feel ready to make a difference.
Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership. (2011). Australian Professional Standards for Teachers. Carlton South, Australia: MCEECDYA. Retrieved from http://www.teacherstandards.aitsl.edu.au/static/docs/Australian_Professional_Standard_for_Teachers_FINAL.pdf
Bodkin-Andrews, G., O’Rourke, V., & Craven, R. (2010). The utility of general self-esteem and domain-specific self-concepts: Their influence on Indigenous and non-Indigenous students’ educational outcomes. Australian Journal of Education, 54(3), 277–306.
Bodkin-Andrews, G. H., Seaton, M., Nelson, G. F., Craven, R., & Yeung, A. S. (2010). Questioning the General Self-Esteem Vaccine: General Self-Esteem, Racial Discrimination, and Standardised Achievement Across Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Students. Australian Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 20(1), 1–21.
Gonski, D. et al. (2011). Review of Funding for Schooling: Final Report. Canberra, Australia: DEEWR. Retrieved from http://foi.deewr.gov.au/system/files/doc/other/review-of-funding-for-schooling-final-report-dec-2011.pdf
Gray, J. & Beresford, Q. A. (2008). A ‘formidable challenge’: Australia’s quest for equity in Indigenous education. Australian Journal of Education, 52(2), 197–223.
Hattie, J. (2008). Visible Learning. London, UK: Routledge.
Ministerial Council for Education, Early Childhood Development and Youth Affairs. (2010). Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Action Plan 2010–2014. Carlton South, Australia: MCEECDYA. Retrieved from http://www.mceecdya.edu.au/verve/_resources/a10-0945_ieap_web_version_final2.pdf
Ministerial Council for Education, Early Childhood Development and Youth Affairs. (2008). Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians. Carlton South, Australia: MCEECDYA. Retrieved from http://www.mceecdya.edu.au/verve/_resources/national_declaration_on_the_educational_goals_for_young_australians.pdf
ReconciliACTION. (2007). About Indigenous Australia. Retrieved April 20, 2013, from http://reconciliaction.org.au/nsw/education-kit/about/