Collusion with a Stronger Smarter Indigenous Student Identity

Thanks to all of you following my blog. I have really appreciated the feedback from those who have left comments.

In this and subsequent posts I am aiming to be somewhat more interactive. Rather than just make a post that espouses what I think of the world I am very keen to hear from you… particularly from those of you working close to the front line in schools and classrooms. It has been some time now since I have been working in a school, I left Cherbourg State School in April 2005. Whilst I get to many schools throughout the country, I fully appreciate that this is in no way like the day to day complexities of working in a school where one has to accommodate the varying and sometimes demanding needs of students, parents, colleagues; then on top of that the district office people, the central office people, the book club people, the arts council people, and those who turn up in our staff room to sell us the next best product or PD to fix all of the problems in our classrooms.

So, from time to time it will be useful for me to hear from those of you in schools to let me know the things you think I need to know.

Just recently I was in Orange delivering the Stronger Smarter Leadership program to educators in that district. I had a great time with many educators there and I must make mention of the exceptional leadership of Jane Cameron, Principal of Glenroi Heights Public School. In our conversations we discussed the notion of collusion with a Stronger Smarter student identity, versus collusion with watered down expectation of Indigenous students. Put simply, the actions of one in schools will clearly indicate if they are an educator that is colluding with a Stronger Smarter Indigenous student identity, or something watered down. It is worth noting that sometimes we think we are being ‘culturally sensitive’ when we go easy on Indigenous students, or we somehow lower the bar for them. The truth here is that often this is not being ‘culturally sensitive’, this is simply colluding with low expectations or a belief that they cannot rise to the challenge.

It is time that all schools raised the bar of expectation for Indigenous children in schools. Of course we must be culturally sensitive along the way. But we must never enable any confusion here.

Below are some examples of actions, behaviours and beliefs that signal whether or not in our schools we are colluding with a stronger smarter Indigenous student identity or something watered down.

I urge you to add to the list based on your experiences in schools or communities, or add some constructive comments as you see fit.

Collusion with watered down expectations or a negative stereotype

Ignoring or being party to negative staffroom talk about students;

Blaming a student’s family or social context for failure without reflecting on what we as educators could/should change;

Having children assessed by special needs personnel without reflecting on what we as educators may or may not be doing to contribute to inappropriate classroom behaviour or poor student performance;

Failing to set homework for Aboriginal students after assuming that it will probably not be done;

Inconsistency with approaches to behaviour management of Indigenous students;

Accepting without questioning the consistent failure of Indigenous students without reflecting on what we as educators could/should change to stimulate better student progress.

Collusion with a Stronger Smarter Identity

Signalling to colleagues that you will not tolerate negative staffroom talk about students;

Continuing reflection on what you as an educator should/could do to get the very best out of Indigenous children;

Closely monitoring the performance of Indigenous students to ensure their performance results are not lost among mainstream students;

Reflecting on our own classrooms and schools to ask ‘What is in this place to make Indigenous students feel like they are a valued part of this?’

Ensuring firm but fair approaches to Indigenous students in which they understand absolutely your expectations;

Establishing and delivering clear consequences and rewards for good behaviour, and establishing clear consequences and discipline for inappropriate behaviour.

As I said, please add to the list any examples that you might practice, or might have observed in some places. Please do so in a way that is respectful and constructive so that those joining in can learn something from this.

It is pretty straightforward in many ways; yet complex in other ways. What never changes though, is that making a difference in Indigenous education means we must be prepared for very hard work, as well as building a positive and productive relationship with Individual students and their families. This is a recipe for success with any student, not just Indigenous students.

Once again, feel free to add your thoughts, and even ask questions if you like. Let’s get some useful discussion going.


16 Responses

  1. Hi Dr. Sarra

    As a pre-service teacher studying at a Western Australian university, I have found your blog to be really interesting. I often find it hard as a non-Indigenous person to understand the information that books and journal articles and lecture notes present; your blog helps me a lot to break through the ‘academic stuff’ and understand issues at a ground level.

    This entry was particularly meaningful for me. It can be so easy to follow the crowd and stay silent when you hear others bad mouthing a group of people. I understand that what is easy isn’t necessarily what is right (it sounds a little bit like a line for a movie but hey, it is the truth). My own experiences on my teaching pract left me feeling a little bewildered at the attitudes of some teachers (and I emphasise some) towards Indigenous students. It was as though they felt there was simply no point making an effort, which I found really heart breaking.

    In regards to the National Curriculum: English, I noticed that it includes recognition of dialects other than Australian Standard English, but it doesn’t actually go much further than that. Do you think that different dialects should not only be recognised in classrooms but taught? I wonder if students will find it difficult to recognise/respect something without experiencing it.

    Thanks so much for this blog, it is a real eye-opener 🙂

  2. Thanks for your comments and question AJF. You mentioned your frustration about some teachers… I suspect in some cases… older teachers to whom rookie teachers look to for guidance and direction. Lots of Principals say to me that having so many first year teachers is a problem in complex schools. I never saw it this way… as long as they are passionate and committed to making a difference. It was my responsibility as a school leader to ensure the young rookies were mentored by experienced teachers who remained passionate about the job and believed in every child. My advice to you… and indeed all rookie teachers… is to be cautious about assuming that long serving teachers are automatically worth considering as good mentors. You should look for the experienced teacher who remains passionate about being an educator, even after many years. There are many such teachers… and unfortunately there are many of the former.

    On Indigenous languages in schools, this is very much an issue that depends largely on the community leadership at the local level. Some communities will say they want language taught in schools, others will say otherwise and that language should be left for home. In some places as you would know there are serious questions about the extent to which some languages have survived.

    For me personally… I think it would be great where possible, to honour local Indigenous languages in schools by giving them a valid place in classrooms. In every school, however, there must be a very solid commitment to ensuring language proficiency in Standard Australian English.

  3. Hi Chris, love the second list in the post – the positive outlooks – because it puts in writing what many good teachers out there know they should be like, but it can be very intangible at times, so good to have it written down. One issue I’ve come across recently in working with OLPC Australia and remote communities is the issue of ‘shame’ – I had asked a teacher about the general possibility of students using some of the music software to jam and create a performance, but was told it might not happen due to students feeling obliged in a way not to ‘show off’ or try to be seen as better. This struck me as opposite to much of what you’ve written and I’d be interested in your perspective. Thanks.

  4. Dear Dr Sarra,
    I echo the thanks for your insights, thanks for making some of this ‘real’ for me.
    I am also pre-service, and I’m finishing up my Dip Ed in June. The current subject I am doing in NSW is Aboriginal Education – sadly it’s only one subject but I can identify at least some links between it and other units I’ve done.
    I have an interview with the NSWDET on 27 April and have elected to teach in schools with a high Aboriginal enrolment. I’m a bit worried though as I will be teaching History in secondary schools. Given the curriculum, do you have any suggestions regarding how to properly and sensitively frame history in the classroom? At the moment I feel like I’m looking at a minefield and don’t know where to put my first footstep. So much resource material is Eurocentric and I feel as though I can’t teach what isn’t really true.

    Thanks once again,

  5. This may not be the right forum to ask this question but, i was wondering what role ICT should play in indigenous education. I currently work in a remote community in WA and see great value in the use of online communities and resources. Thousands of dollars have been spent in installing IWBS and in the case of our school i could be doing 1:1 computing. However, i am frequently reminded by some people that our primary goal is literacy and numeracy and i thoroughly agree. But in some ways aren’t these students being left behind in a digital age that is moving at a rapid pace ? Shouldn’t indigenous kids be creating online content and learning about becoming connected to the online world ?

  6. Hi Eddie – hope its ok for me to chime in – but your desire for an ICT platform that focuses on enabling students to create their own content and be connected (which the most recent MYCEEDA report showed is still a big lack) is being met in many ways by the efforts of One Laptop per Child Australia with the designed-for-kids XO laptop (I’m one of the educators working with them to facilitate this). See . There are several WA schools (in the P-10) bracket) with them already.

  7. Thanks Johnathan, I had a look at the link and i wasn’t aware of the program. What a fantastic idea!I guess that part of what i was trying to say is that sometimes ICT skills are overlooked as some teachers don’t see the point and will come out with comments like “why teach them about ICT when they have no access at home” Whereas i think they are an excellent platform to promote and develop literacy and numeracy skills as well as becoming connected and contributing to online communities.

  8. Hi Eddie .. thanks for your comments. I have been on the track from Wingelina through Blackstone, Laverton, Mt Margaret, Cosmo Newbury, and down on into to Kalgoorlie… and boy what a long track it is. I have seen the IWBS’s put to excellent use, particularly by two excellent teachers at Wingelina. They were using the IWBS as a tool to enhance literacy and numeracy teaching. ICTs are not something that should be seen in isolation. If used effectively they are an exceptional tool for use across all subject areas, particularly literacy and numeracy. You are absolutely right when you say your students should not be left behind in a digital age. At Cherbourg I would say to students there.. “ICT’s are the new literacy. Our people got left behind on the old literacy and WE WILL NOT BE LEFT BEHIND with this one!” ICT’s really are the new literacy of new economies. We owe it to children to ensure they get a good piece of it, and to ensure they can be excellent with it. If we can conquer this, we can conquer many of the challenges presented by remoteness.

  9. Hey Kelly.. The more you can build a positive relationship with your students and local community people, the less it becomes like a minefield. You will find that if people realise that you are in the school to seriously work hard and make a difference to the lives of your children, then you are likely to be embraced in a way that you will learn just as much as you teach. You will also find that in a positive relationship where people know you’re the real deal, you will be allowed to make mistakes, as long as you are committed to learning from them.

    In many ways you are bound by a structured curriculum and the texts provided… but if you think there are serious questions about their content, then this makes a perfect opportunity for higher order learning by encouraging your students to seriously critique the words on the page… just because words are written in a book.. doesn’t mean they are true. And if they seem questionable, this doesn’t mean we have to throw them out either. This a perfect opportunity to get your students to explore questions of power in relationships, and who gets to define how we understand history, and who gets to write the history books.

    Good luck with it Kelly and get stuck into it.. I bet you will love it!

  10. Hey Jonathan.. thanks for your question and I am sorry it has taken a while to respond to your post.

    Again it comes down to the relationship with your students, and the type of classroom culture and environment you create together. If for instance you wanted children to be ‘strong and smart’ like we said at Cherbourg, then this means students have to be strong enough to overcome any sense of shame. I know this is not as straightforward and easy as it sounds. It does take work, but it is absolutely possible. I know this because I have seen it with my own eyes. Not just in Cherbourg, but in schools all over the country. Check out the students on our websites and I am sure you’ll agree they do not look ‘shame’.

    My advice would be to go for it in a measured way in which you get to know the students and build your relationship with them, and the classroom culture. As you do this I would hope that your students gradually let go of that feeling of shame. They have to feel safe and comfortable with you and the other students around. Depending on their age I would not be afraid to gently challenge them about the extent to which this sense of shame is letting them be powerful, or keeping the truth about who they really are locked away.

    Promise me you will get back to us in a few months to let us know how you got on.

  11. Thanks Chris, will think through now, and yes, get back to you! I just got back from Doomadgee, and Qld XOs will start to appear later in the year. Will try and catchup sometime.

  12. There is not enough training or information for pre-service teachers. As one myself, I feel completely out of my depth while on prac if I have an Indigenous student that is displaying behaviour issues in my class.

  13. Hi Chris,
    just an extension to my previous post, which I put up before reading all the comments … I feel quite let down by not only the lack of useful curriculum content to incorporate The Indigenous perspectve into my lessons (as is required in the Qld Teaching Professional Standards), but also the lack of pro-active behaviour management for Indigenous students. I often hear people say that it’s no use using “recognized” BM techniques such as microskills or choice theory with Indigenous students, but am not offered workable alternatives. I feel completely unprepared for teaching in a class that has Indigenous students, as if I should have one rule for one and a different rule for another.
    Kind regards, Doris

  14. Thanks for your input into the discussion Doris.. A common mistake that many teachers make.. even experienced teachers .. is thinking that Indigenous children are ‘so different’, that they actually forget that at some level Indigenous students, are just ‘students’. Of course they are different in many ways. But all students are different.

    Take it from me.. recognised BM techniques work perfectly with Indigenous students, as long as you have a positive relationship with them. This means you must work hard to get to know Indigenous students in your classroom and also work hard at letting them know you have high expectations for them. This may even mean getting to know their parents and family. For some this might seem daunting, but this is a feeling usually anchored by fear. I would put this down to fear of those who are different, which I certainly get.. but feel the need to challenge, as this is a fear that stifles absolutely, the potential for a teacher/student teacher/parent relationship to be productive.

    When I was principal at Cherbourg School I insisted that teachers would get out of the school and make the effort to get to know parents and family of their students. To me this was crucial as the students had obviously come from a different social and cultural context to the teacher. I knew at the time this would seem intimidating, and so we made it less intimidating by getting them to work in partnership with Aboriginal staff at the school who brokered very positive relationships with families. Once they got to know students and families there was no need to be supported by Aboriginal staff.

    On every occasion the teachers could never understand what they were fearful of in the first place.

    My advice to you is to develop a positive relationship with Indigenous staff in your school, and utilise this to build a positive relationship with Indigenous students and parents. As for useful curriculum, Indigenous perspectives, effective BM strategies, this will come as you get to know Indigenous students better; what curriculum and pedagogies excite them, minimising the need for effective BM strategies; and what BM strategies will get them back on track if you need to.

    An Indigenous student has to get a sense of whether or not you are fair dinkum about them. If they think you are there to get the best out of them, then they will more than likely respond positively to you. Importantly though, you must remember that being there for them, does not mean lowering expectations or feeling sorry for them.

    Then… Like for any student.. be firm, fair, fun, and fanatical about the job. Quality teaching for Indigenous students is quality teaching for any student.

    It’s good that you have the honesty and courage to admit that you are struggling Doris. Don’t give up before you even start though. I am sure you can give it a good crack!

    Good luck.

  15. Hi Chris
    I love that you state “quality teaching for Indigenous students is quality teaching for any student.” As a uni student I am still finding it difficult to ensure a minority student (any minority student) is not disenfranchised within the classroom. Readings suggest that I should incorporate ie: Indigenous aspects into my teaching to make it authentic and perhaps incorporate Indigenous artefacts and print rich walls to encompass the student. I am happy to do so but I also worry if I focus on a student’s individual culture or heritage during class discussions and question time it will signal the student out and cause discomfort or embarrassment to that student. How do I find a balanced approach to incorporating Indigenous content without signalling out the Indigenous student? I’m concerned that non indigenous students might label the Indigenous student as a ‘teacher’s pet’ or similar because I have incorporated Indigenous content?

    I note that you state in part “to be strong and smart children …. children have to be strong enough to overcome any sense of shame.” If I only have one Indigenous student in a classroom what strategies can I implement to help overcome this feeling of shame? I do understand that I need to nurture a positive and trusting relationship between myself and the student but should I do more.
    Many thanks Mandy Bennett

  16. Hey Mandy..

    It’s great that you appreciate very much the need to develop a classroom environment but make sure you don’t get crippled by the extent of your sensitivities. My advice is to make some time to have a yarn with the student to see how they are travelling. See if they like the classroom.. and if they could add something what would it be? This way they’ll see you are genuinely out to make the classroom, ‘their’ classroom. Somewhere in that yarn slip in some questions about the artefacts and print rich walls you mention.

    Really … as you seem to know and understand, it comes down to knowing the student really well. In addition to this, it is crucial that you are seeing the child’s Indigenous identity as something positive and worth honouring in the classroom… along with the cultural identities of every other student.

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