Learning to teach Aboriginal kids


Aboriginal students, photo from Queensland State LibraryA pedagogy of liberation

Teaching in a remote Aboriginal community alerts one's senses to the true nature of injustice that is hidden beneath our nation's facade of 'a fair go for all'.

The indicators leap out with alarming clarity: weeping sores on the arms and legs of students, dilapidated houses that frown on the side of the unkempt roads and an overarching sense of neglect that pulses in complete contrast to the natural beauty that abounds.

Apart from the failure to provide adequate housing and health care, the delivery of substandard, culturally insensitive education to the children of these remote schools is a major concern that urgently needs to be addressed.

This essay is a critique of current educational practices in isolated Aboriginal communities as well as a manifesto for positive change. Having taught in such a community I have experienced first hand the daunting challenge of uniting two vastly different cultures. After offering a detailed analysis of the inappropriate framework currently in place I will outline a series of suggestions that may improve the situation.

What will surface is the necessity to collaborate with individual communities to create an educational framework that thoroughly incorporates the distinctive cultures of different regions. Providing comprehensive and culturally relevant education to these remote schools is a central way to combat the cyclical oppression that has become the horrific norm.

Australia has an obligation to right this grave wrong because of the intrinsic humanity that binds all its citizens. The development of a collaborative approach to remote education may in fact plant the seeds for revolution so that finally Australia might embody the ideals it shouts so loud.

The Prime Minister's historic apology and last year's 40th anniversary of the 1967 referendum has sparked public interest and goodwill towards the plight of Aboriginal Australians.

However it seems the majority of citizens are unable to realise the relationship between Aboriginal disadvantage and their everyday lives. The endemic oppression of Aborigines reflects the spiritual oppression of society at large, thereby degrading the ideal of democracy and sentencing citizens to exist in a vacuum of social injustice.

The policies of paternalism remain entrenched because it is believed Aborigines can only contribute to society if they assimilate. This well-worn ideology has failed all Australians who cling to the dream of a reconciled continent.

The time has come to invert this warped viewpoint. We must have the humility to learn from the first people of this land.

The paternalistic provision of education to remote schools is a pivotal link in the chain of oppression that ensnares communities. If we use the example of the Top End, the Northern Territory Curriculum Framework is a mainstream scaffold by which all Territory schools must abide. This is seriously restrictive to the educational aspirations of students in remote locations because it doesn't cater to their unique and diverse needs.

The current pedagogy imposes Western ideology upon the students, suppressing their cultural identity that in turn diminishes their sense of self. It fails to accommodate the richness and rigidness of Aboriginal culture and this is why most students are disinterested from the outset. They find it impossible to relate to the material presented to them because it has no immediate relevance to their lives.

Along with the syllabus content there is also the problem of selecting appropriate teachers. From my observations there is a general reluctance for the teachers to actively integrate into the local society by either learning the local language or associating with community members outside the school environment.

It seems that a lot of teachers are lured to these remote schools by the lucrative salary and low expenses. There is an abnormally high turnover of teachers that may exit for a variety of reasons: safety concerns, emotional immaturity, inability to cope with the isolation or finding the cultural interface too confronting. The constant exodus wreaks havoc with the rhythms of the school, disrupting and fracturing the learning process.

The role of Aboriginal teacher aides has been pacified to a point where they are merely assistants at the beck and call of their superiors. They are not given an active responsibility in managing the direction of learning as they blend into the scenery of the classroom carrying out the menial tasks they are assigned.

These issues make up the core problem that is the insufficient delivery of quality education to remote schools. They must be addressed so as to empower students and communities to assert control over their lives.

Rather than adhering to the mainstream syllabus, those at the top of the hierarchy, education administrators, must have the foresight to bend the curriculum to cater to the needs of individual communities.

To do this they must consult respected and influential community elders about ways in which the school can nurture the traditional culture while also incorporating the highly important literacy and numeracy skills that are integral to the development of all children.

Students should not have to suppress their unique cultural identity in order to obtain an education other Australians take for granted. They have the right to live a bicultural existence because they were here first.

Bending the curriculum may comprise a spectrum of initiatives including: the use of native languages when delivering instruction, holding certain classes outside (perhaps in locations of cultural significance where knowledge may have been passed down in previous generations), comprehensive analysis of bush tucker in the region, reinforcement of totems and skin groupings, and ceremony workshops where students learn about traditional songs, dances and rhythms on the yidaki.

Reinforcing these vital strands of culture in the classroom validates Aboriginality, putting it on an equal footing with the dominant culture thus restoring a much-needed sense of dignity among the locals.

A radical shift in the attitude and approach of teachers is also desperately needed to tackle the social injustice of lacklustre education. As mentioned earlier a high number of teachers are currently drawn out bush by the generous salary. If this is the sole motivation then it is a recipe for disaster as there are several factors that prospective teachers must consider.

The education authority in the respective states or territories has an obligation to adequately inform teachers about what teaching in a remote community entails. Teachers must undergo a comprehensive inter-cultural course so as to understand the dynamics of the community, and most importantly, their place in it.

Such a course may comprise an intense study of the local language, the skin name system, any cultural taboos and teacher expectations.

Despite their best intentions it must be made clear that they represent a long line of teachers who have flown in and out of communities for years. The only thing that will separate them from their predecessors is their ability to listen and learn from the people whose land they now live on.

Prospective teachers should also be alerted to the hardships of living in isolation; perhaps they could hear some first-hand accounts from teachers who have had similar placements. By honestly informing teachers about the nature of teaching in remote regions it gives them the best chance to make a decision about whether or not it is for them.

No longer can remote schools afford to lose so many teachers so regularly. The high turnover severely disrupts the learning process and fractures the already fragile rapport between the community and anyone who comes in to help.

The final measure that must be implemented to improve the provision of education to the remote schools is strengthening the involvement of Aboriginal teaching aides and other local staff in the formulation and delivery of information.

It is positive that so many members of the community are already working at the school but they can make a greater contribution if given a chance.

In the same way that community elders will have helped bend the curriculum, aides and assistants must consult with teachers to plan and prepare classes that engage the students. Also they must be seen to have an equal standing as the class teacher as this portrays a sense of equality.

It is imperative that the aides and assistants are given greater responsibility and are more actively involved as they are the positive role models whose behaviour the students should be encouraged to absorb.

Ultimately, we paint the portrait of the world we want to own. It is time to rise above the haze of mediocrity that has settled upon this nation's soul and deliver justice to the first people of this land by providing them with an education that embraces their unique cultures and equips them with the skills to navigate modernity's motorways.

By collaborating with communities to create integrated educational frameworks a pedagogy of liberation may emerge, empowering students and communities to reclaim their rightful place in society by living a bicultural existence and shattering the shackles of oppression which have enslaved them for far too long.

Jonathan HillJonathan Hill is a qualified teacher who has worked with Aboriginal communities in Ngukurr, Minyerri and Sydney. The above essay received Second Place in the 2008 Margaret Dooley Award.


Topic tags: jonathan hill, remote aboriginal communities, schools, manifesto for change, pedagogy of liberation



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Existing comments

Like most solutions for Aboriginal people and their need, the voice of the balanda cannot be heard alone. I would like to know what Aboriginal leaders like Pat Dodson, Noel Pearson etc. think about the propositions presented by this essay.

Ray O'Donoghue | 10 September 2008  

What saddens me most about this article is that teachers don't seem to have the skills to use the indigenous aides as they should be used. I have worked in my city both in school ed and TAFE with women who have started as aides then moved on to struggle through teacher training because they want a better life for their kids. These women have been invaluable in helping young men and women to value their Aboriginality while succeeding in the broader Australian culture. We all respond better to a role model we feel has experienced what we have. I certainly respect these people and hold them up as role models for my own children. I have learned a great deal of wisdom from them.

Margaret McDonald | 10 September 2008  

I commend Jonathan Hill's essay and agree, however there are many competant teachers working in the N.T.& isolated comm.who should be commended, including my daughter. She has taught around the Darwin area for many years and has been heavily involved in the Accelerated Literacy Program for the last five years.This program is having a great deal of success.

Beverley Scott | 11 September 2008  

"From my observations there is a general reluctance for the teachers to actively integrate into the local society by either learning the local language or associating with community members outside the school environment".

This begs the question of why school is as it is.

Do the teachers have the administrative authority and freedom to operate new forms of school which would be integrated into the local society? If not, isn't this the problem - that teachers are required to operate a system which is not integrated into people's lives.

richard | 11 September 2008  

well-written with depth and strike the core. There is a future for a colorful and respectful teaching and learning environment.

Rosy | 02 March 2015  


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