Building an emotional bank account with students

27/04/2011 - 9 Responses

Last month I spoke at the Quality Teaching Conference in Coff’s Harbour. There were 500 delegates there and I talked about the notion of emotional bank accounts. I challenged them to think of a student they struggled to connect with… and then reconnect with them by building an emotional bank account with that particular student. I also invited them to post their story here on April 28. Hopefully we will get to read some inspiring stories.

With an emotional bank account a teacher builds credit by making their interactions with students positive. This can mean some really simple things that cost hardly any money… things like ..

– saying “Good morning.. It’s really great to see you here!’;
– asking how many fish they caught at the weekend;
– asking how many tries they scored at footy or how many goals in netball;
– saying things like.. ‘I know this seems reallly hard but I reckon you can do this!’
– writing a special note on their book to highlight the things they did well;
– finding them at lunchtime and shouting them lunch because they worked hard all morning.

This list is endless.. Sometimes it also means we have to actively pretend that we don’t see some naughty behaviour, or that we didn’t hear that swear word in the playground. Sometimes.. Not always!

As we have a positive interaction such as those above.. we build emotional credit. We need this emotional credit because there are times when we must discipline children.. This often results in an emotional debit.

The trick is to stay in emotional credit as much as possible. Unfortunately some teachers only seem to have negative exchanges with students and then they wonder why they are not respected. The reason is they are so far in ‘debt’ that students do not see them positively.

Some teachers might say ‘Why should I go out of my way if the kids show no respect?’

I have two responses to this.

Firstly, we have to go out of our way because we are paid as teachers to be in this relationship with students, and the only way we can engage them effectively is if we have a positive relationship.

Secondly… We are the adults in the relationship.

Accordingly.. there is greater incumbence upon us as teachers, and as adults… to go out of our way to have effective, functional and positive relationship with our students.

Feel free to add your stories about how you have managed to reconnect with students who have become disengaged.


High expectations welfare reform; firm but fair

12/04/2011 - 3 Responses

On Wednesday 6 April I had the honour of being hosted at Goodna State School alongside the Prime Minister. The school at Goodna is fantastic and it was great to see the leadership of Margaret Gurney in action. She challenged her students and her team to continue to ‘live’ and continue to maintain a high expectations learning environment, in spite of the complexity they were surrounded by. What I like about Margaret’s leadership is that a high expectations agenda is so explicit, that there is absolutely no room for excuses.

It got me thinking about recent discussions about public schooling and how disappointed I am in efforts to undermine its importance in Australia. Public schooling is a great institution.

It is an Institution with long and deeply held values. In 1880, Sir Henry Parkes, a passionate believer in public education said that investment in education is the greatest investment a country can make. He saw it as a duty to offer an education to every child “making no distinction of faith, asking no question about where a child was born, what may be his condition of life or what the position of his parents, but inviting all to sit side by side”.

Public Education is an institution that does the heavy lifting on the landscape of Australia’s productivity.

Public education is an institution that has no ‘fit in or farewell’ policy.

It is not an Institution that mostly cherry picks and enrols the kinds of students that are likely to succeed anyway.

It is an institution that sits readily at the top of any league table when the yardstick is about student distance travelled.

It is an Institution that has its challenges, but with the right investment into quality teachers, quality school leaders, and quality relationships, it can and does make a difference to the lives of children who truly can dream about becoming Prime Minister some day.

I was also delighted to be in Goodna to help launch the Family Centred Employment Project as well. As a member of the Australian Social Inclusion Board I played a part in advocating for such a Pilot Program. The program sets out a way of engaging people in policy approaches that acknowledge the human complexity of those Australians who, for whatever reason may be struggling. It is a policy approach that does not dishonour their humanity.

Welfare reform is a live topic.

Clearly the challenges are very complex. They are complex challenges that require sophisticated solutions NOT blanket assumptions that everyone on welfare is actively trying to avoid work.

This is simply not the case.

At the Stronger Smarter Institute we talk a lot about high expectations relationships in which we must support, develop, monitor, challenge and intervene.

There are many people who find themselves inadvertently on welfare, often through no active choice of their own. These people need supporting and developing. The Family Centred Employment Project is a very good example of such an enabling policy worth considering as a more honourable way of supporting vulnerable and struggling Australians to achieve their goal to move off welfare. This is part of the foundation of a high expectations relationship.

Notwithstanding, there certainly are some people on welfare who must be challenged to see themselves differently and having the capacity to contribute to Australian society by working for a living. Such people need challenging. This is part of the foundation of a high expectations relationship.

There are also people on welfare who unfortunately do seem to actively avoid opportunities to work. There must be intervention here. This is part of the foundation of a high expectations relationship.

Just supporting and developing, without the courage to challenge and intervene, signals a low expectations relationships.

Being unsophisticated and out of touch to the extent that the only thing we know to do is intervene, without supporting and developing, signals a low expectations relationship.

We need a high expectations welfare reform policy that is firm, with the courage to challenge and intervene, and fair, with the capacity to support and develop.

This is what symbolises high expectations relationships that honour the humanity of those Australians who are often vulnerable and struggling.

This is doing things ‘with people’… not ‘to them!’

Stronger Smarter – Toronto Success Story

11/04/2011 - 3 Responses

Guest columnist, Maxine McKew

Maxine McKew is a former Australian MP and award winning broadcast journalist. Maxine now works for Social Ventures Australia who are in partnership with the Stronger Smarter Institute.

So often in life it’s the gestures that matter.

At Toronto High School they’re still talking about the day that the newly installed Principal Mark McConville, arrived at the school swimming carnival and made straight for the spot where local indigenous families had gathered. As the one-time footballer and PE teacher got close, he was recognized by some fellow footy players who came forward and threw their arms around him.

Onlookers stared in disbelief. Most still had memories of what’s known colloquially as the “Toronto Massacre” – the brutal encounter with a previous Principal where local families expressed their disgust with a school that was so obviously failing their children. Until recently, a school that is only 2 hours drive north of Sydney, had a dismal record. Not one teenager completed Year 12.

As McConville tells the story, the spontaneous hugs at a sports event represented a “break-through moment” for the once troubled and divided community that snakes along the shore-line of picturesque Lake Macquarie. It immediately sent a message to Toronto’s teaching faculty and to the wider community that things were going to be different.

Four years into his term as Principal, McConville now runs a school where attendance has shot up, where disruptive behaviour is no longer tolerated, and where the attitude for all students, including a significant indigenous cohort, is that “success is culturally appropriate.”

McConville has an easy manner and a natural authority. He is an educator who cares about every single child and wants them to be the best they can be. On the day I visited the school, he walked me through the grounds of Toronto and proudly showed me the new buildings made possible by the Federal Government’s BER programme.

But it was the other things I noticed. McConville knew the name of every student we passed and had a friendly and encouraging exchange for each of them. The school is tidy, orderly and everyone is busily engaged.

This shouldn’t be remarkable, but when you consider that only a few years back, a police presence in the playground of Toronto High was the norm, not the exception, then McConville has obviously achieved a remarkable transformation.

In part, McConville credits the Stronger Smarter Leadership programme for the important changes at Toronto.

“It turned out to be the most important professional development I’ve ever undertaken” he says. McConville completed the course, along with other local educators in the Hunter region, with strong support from NSW DET officials. As a result, Toronto now functions as an SSI hub, with strong partnerships having been developed with other schools.

So what is it about the SSI approach that is making a difference? Why is it that a school that only a short time ago was derided by local families as “a crap place” now turns itself inside out to ensure students finish Year 12?

McConville says that as much as anything his SSI training gave him added confidence about how he influenced others.

“It taught me how to listen to all voices, about community engagement and most importantly, it taught me that you can’t collude in negative attitudes.”

This gets to the heart of it. McConville has since had two other teachers at the school inducted in the SSI approach and this, as well as a range of other pedagogical strategies means that Toronto is now setting the bar high for everyone.

You can hear the ambition and the excitement in the voice of the Community Liaison Officer, Tracey Walpole, as she tells you how hard she is working with a Year 12 Toronto student who wants to quit school before the end of the year to join the army.

“Along with his Mum, we’re working really hard with this kid. We’re saying to him, hang in there, it’s only two more terms and you’ll get your HSC and be able to join the ADF and start officer training. The families can see that we care, so it means they care and they’re helping us with the personal learning plans we have for everyone here.”

McConville still has his challenges. In a state where there is a substantial over-supply of teachers, he can’t get a specialist Maths teacher.

Equally, no-one is suggesting that the social divide that has been a feature of this community for generations, has suddenly dissolved.

But there is no doubt that McConville and his team have broken the cycle of mediocrity and failure that once characterized Toronto High.

Instead, there is energy discipline and a real sense of achievement for a school that now sees itself at the centre of a regional learning community.

Toronto has changed the tide.

Response to Tony Abbott’s Welfare Reform proposal

01/04/2011 - Leave a Response

Click to listen: An interview with NIRS journalist Patrick Pollock sharing my view on Federal Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s Welfare Reform proposal

Welcome new Qld Education Minister

03/03/2011 - 3 Responses

This week I welcome Cameron Dick as the new Education Minister in Queensland. My message to him is to emphasise three things in relation to Indigenous education. 1. High Expectations. 2. High Expectations… and 3. High Expectations.

It is so important that every person at every level of the Education system has high expectations of our children. Anything less is collusion with a stereotype that Indigenous children are underachievers. I have seen so many examples from so many schools around the country to know that this is simply an unfounded belief.

Another thing the new Minister must understand is that many Aboriginal children, and many Torres Strait Islander children, only encounter Standard Australian English when they are at school. This has dramatic implications for how schools and classrooms should be resourced. The best way to explain this is to consider what happens in an exceptional school like Goodna State School, led by Margaret Gurney. At Goodna where many children come from a range of language backgrounds, speaking a language other than English at home, a specialist language teacher coaches, models and mentors other teachers in methods to teach to children for whom English is a foreign language. Sometimes that specialist withdraws students for one on one work. This is precisely the type of technical and specialist approach that must be considered in many schools where Indigenous children are speaking a different language at home.

Another very important point to understand is that most Indigenous children are in rural, provincial and metropolitan areas, not in remote areas. This is not for a moment to say the needs of remote children are less important, as indeed the data says there is much work to do with remote children. But if all children in remote schools suddenly got ‘A’s on their reports we would still not close the gap because of the sheer volume of children in other rural, provincial and metropolitan areas that need attention.

The final point I will make, although not the ultimate point, is that positive change occurs in schools where there is quality leadership, quality teachers and quality relationships with parents. We have to stop grasping at ‘snake oil’ strategies that may be politically sexy, and look like we are doing something yet delivering very little. The best example of this is the ‘cut welfare payments’ to make kids go to school. Politically it looks like something is being done here, but when you get beyond the anecdotes about improvement, you quickly realise that we are spending tens of millions on this strategy for a slight shift, when there are other schools, such as Lockhart River and Kowanyama that are seeing dramatic improvements and there is no FRC, no SEAM trials, just quality leadership, quality teachers and quality relationships. Why would we spend tens of millions on ‘snake oil’ when we can get better results for nothing but quality?

There is more to know and understand of course… What are some of the things you think the new Minister, and indeed any politician should know about a better way forward in education for Torres Strait Islander children and for Aboriginal children?

Entering 2011

21/01/2011 - 2 Responses

Happy new year to all of you. What a crazy Christmas and New Year period hey? As for me I was caught up in the Bundaberg floods and helping my poor old mum to clean her house out after the bottom floor of our home was completely inundated. As we watched the water rise we were saying ‘No… it won’t come up much further than that!’. Famous last words we thought as my mum and sister had to climb into an SES boat at 4.30 the next morning.

All eventually settled in Bundaberg, and it was truly remarkable to be part of an experience in which other people just ‘chipped in’ and help do what had to be done, despite it being such and arduous and messy task.

We did get to see our house on TV… that was pretty exciting. With all settled and back to normal I returned with my family back to Caboolture, only to be flooded out there as well. For a while there I was thinking it was just me!

The Brisbane floods were just as devastating and again it was remarkable to be a part of a recovery effort in which nobody cared too much about our differences, but just recognised that fellow human beings were struggling and needed help. So many individuals stories united by one humanity. There is something very important for all of us to reflect on here.

Like so many others I thought the leadership of Anna Bligh, Campbell Newman and Paul Pisasale was superb and well balanced.

A heartfelt thanks to all of those who rang or sent a text to check if we were ok.

As for the Institute this year we continue the journey of building stronger smarter schools and communities, and supporting and developing school and community leaders to support, develop and challenge others around them. In February we are running the National Learn, Earn, Legend Indigenous Youth Summit in partnership with DEEWR and the NRL which I am certain will be a very powerful and exciting time for all of us. This is just a start. I will let you know more about what we get up to down the track.

Best wishes for a great 2011 for all of us as we get back into the rhythm of the year.

2010 Mabo Oration

29/10/2010 - Leave a Response

Hi everyone..

Last Monday evening I had the pleasure of being in Townsville to deliver the Mabo Lecture. In this lecture I took the opportunity to speak about the complexities of Aboriginal identity, in which there are different ways that people take on ‘being’ Aboriginal, and the different ways in which ‘mainstream Australia’ has cast us as different ‘types’ of Aboriginal.

I also spoke about the complexities of Aboriginal leadership, in particular how some of us lead by ‘being the victim’, some of us lead by ‘booting the victim’, and others lead by being ‘beyond the victim’.

I am very interested in your thoughts either way about this. It is something I am keen to stretch my own thinking about.


Eddie Koiki Mabo Lecture
25 October, 2010

Let me start this evening by acknowledging and honouring the traditional custodians of the land.

Let me also acknowledge those family members of Mr Mabo that are here this evening, in particular, Mrs Mabo, his wife.

It is a great honour and privilege to be asked to deliver a lecture designed to honour a great Australian, Eddie Koiki Mabo. I said “Australian” deliberately because I want to emphasize that although Mr Mabo was a very unique individual and a Torres Strait Islander, he was also a very great Australian. Tonight I want to examine some notions of identity and contemplate what some of this might means for all Australians. In doing so, I have no intention of visiting the past to find means to divide Australians from one another. Nor however have I any intention of saying what I know would make me popular with many white Australians.

As an Aboriginal Australian I am fully aware of the suffering and the marginalisation and the injustices that many Indigenous Australians endure in the areas of health, justice and education. I have travelled all over this country and seen suffering, disadvantage and impoverishment. But I also have seen Aboriginal people, and Torres Strait Islander people, do all they can to raise their people up and inject and realise a sense of hope.

One of the greatest of these people was Eddie Koiki Mabo.

At the heart of Mr Mabo’s heroic endeavours on behalf of the Indigenous people of Australia was an attachment to country. This attachment is qualitatively different from the relationship to land that prevails in Mainstream Australia but white Australia must make the effort to come to terms with the full meaning of what country means to Indigenous Australians as it is a crucial part of the Indigenous Identity.

It is then Mr Mabo’s gift to all Australians that he helped to keep alive a notion of a relationship to the land where the land was not a commodity that stands outside of us and exists only to be bought and sold. For Mr Mabo and Indigenous Australians the land is a part of us, and we are part of it. This is not for a moment to relinquish any right to prosper from the use of our land in a modern society.

We need to build then on Mr Mabo’s achievements to understand ourselves as a people. At this point let me offer an intellectual concept devised by a friend and philosopher, Roy Bhaskar who works at the London Institute of Education, which might enable us to better contemplate a more harmonious Australia.

Bhaskar discusses the concept of the Concrete Universal which has four dimensions. At its base is the notion of a core universal Human nature. We are all of the Human Race and this should ensure unquestionable grounds for human rights.

At a higher level this basic core is acted upon or mediated through a variety of differentiae such as gender, sexuality, age, ethnicity etc. The core and the mediations result in a concretely singularized individual. The fourth dimension to this concept is that or processuality or the rhythms of time in action.
The key to understanding the importance of the concept of the Concrete Universal is that it is part of a stratified ontology. Put simply, each of us has layers or stratifications of being.

As well, the notion of processuality allows one to recognize at differing times in the life of the individual the mediations or the individuality or the core humaneness will be of greater or less salience. A good example of this is reflected in those times in the year when we cheer loudest for the cowboys throughout the year, then cheer for Queensland during State of Origin matches, and then cheer for Australia when they play tests against New Zealand or England.

The concept of a stratified ontology also enables one to escape entanglement in the seemingly intractable dualities such as the individual versus community. From the Concrete Universal we can see that we can indeed be both individual and community.

Applied to Indigenous Australians the core universal Humanity guarantees or should guarantee, as I have said, our access to Human Rights. The mediations for us of course can include clan, language group, country, murris, kooris etc. If we can honour the core universal Humanity of Indigenous Australians, and its mediations, then we can perhaps begin to appreciate that we dishonour these dynamics when we do things like deploy forceful mechanisms and stealth, such as cutting basic social security payments to individuals if they do not succumb to economic forces and move off country to provincial locations. These mechanisms dishonour and diminish mediations of cultural significance.

Let me give an example here about how this plays out in the space of traditional Aboriginal art. If we appreciate authentic visual Aboriginal cultural artwork we must understand that its authenticity emerges from a connection to country. It is not just about putting designs on canvas in the proximity of tourists who might buy it, or indeed some other point of demand. Traditional Aboriginal art is about culture, is about connectedness to country. To dishonour any of these mediations is to diminish any sense of authenticity.
For Mr Mabo, in his efforts to assert his title rights on his country, various mediations were no doubt at play. He was a Murray Islander, a Torres Strait Islander, an Indigenous Australian, an Australian, and at his core a Human Being; with rights worthy of acknowledgement and honour.

The will and capacity to acknowledge and honour the humanity of Aboriginal Australians, and Torres Strait Islander Australians, has indeed presented challenges for many Australians, not all. If we can seriously attend to this challenge, then we can begin to understand that in many ways our differences at our core, may not be as great as we think; yet in our mediations and differentiae, we can be tremendously and richly diverse. All of which, is perfectly ok.

As we do this we will acknowledge and embrace the core humanity of others. This is important for two reasons. Firstly, when we acknowledge one’s core humanity, we acknowledge that regardless of how complex their lives might be, they have the capacity to rise above the challenges they face, which in turn means we must be intent on creating and sustaining an environment and services that enable such capacity. Secondly, we acknowledge one’s human right to a chance. In our country everyone deserves a fair go, or so we say!

One of the richest men in Australia, Twiggy Forrest has decided it is time to end disadvantage in Indigenous communities. Having met Twiggy Forrest on several occasions it is clear to me that his motives are somewhat pure, although I don’t think he will mind me suggesting there is room to question his sense of understanding about ‘what it is that is actually broken’. A glance at his website reveals a range of social discrepancies that have persisted in Australia for as long as I can remember:-

• The Indigenous unemployment rate is around three times higher than that of non-Indigenous people.
• Eight out of ten jobless Indigenous people are unable to work, because of illiteracy, alcohol or other psychological problems.
• In some rural areas, up to 70% of Indigenous students regularly do not attend school.
• Indigenous students are HALF as likely to stay at school until the end of year 12 as other students.
• 29% of Indigenous young people age 15-24 are NOT “earning or learning” compared with 9% of non Indigenous young people.
• 48% of Indigenous adults receive government welfare as their main source of income, compared to 17% of non-Indigenous people

Sadly there is nothing new about the discrepancies exposed here by Forrest and his GenerationOne website. Such discrepancies were perhaps first quantified comprehensively by the Miller Review into Aboriginal Employment and Training (1984). What is significant about the Forrest push to make a difference is that it is at long last backed by significant white Australian leadership, in a way that promises to rally prominent media players, as well as a generation of young Australians buoyed by the Australian Government’s apology to those of the Stolen Generation, and keen to ensure that it counts for something in a way that sees an end to Indigenous disadvantage.

All of this is promising, but has the potential to be futile if we fail to recognise what might be considered the ‘true cause’ of Indigenous disadvantage. For white Australia part of this means having to acknowledge the perceptions of Indigenous people, and the extent to which they have failed to embrace them positively. To me this is what seems closer to the ‘true cause’; this inability to acknowledge and honour the humanity of Aboriginal people, and Torres Strait Islander people.

There is much to be said of embracing the core humanity of Indigenous people positively in an effort to effect positive change. As principal at Cherbourg School in Queensland, the ‘Strong and Smart’ approach was a philosophy designed precisely to do this by signalling to students, a very prominent belief that they had a human right to a quality education, and in a way that enhanced their sense of cultural identity. This approach saw very positive results:-

– 94% reduction of unexplained absenteeism within 18 months;
– Real attendance improved from 63% to 94%
– 58% improvement in Year 2 literacy within 2 years;
– 81% of students within the state average band for literacy in 2004, compared to 0% in 1999.
(Sarra, 2004)

In an effort to extrapolate such positive outcomes for Indigenous children in schools throughout Australia I have been fortunate enough to establish the Stronger Smarter Institute. At the Institute we have established the Stronger Smarter philosophy which has proven to underpin success in the pursuit of improved outcomes for Indigenous students in schools (see

The Stronger Smarter philosophy is articulated as follows:-

– Acknowledging, embracing and developing a positive sense of Indigenous identity;
– Acknowledging and embracing Indigenous leadership in communities, especially among our youth;
– Innovative and dynamic school models in complex social and cultural contexts;
– Innovative and dynamic school staffing in complex social and cultural contexts;
– High expectations leadership to ensure high expectations classrooms with high expectations teacher-student relationships

As far as rhetoric goes the Stronger Smarter philosophy is as sexy as any that has been developed by government. Converting this rhetoric to reality remains just as challenging and for the remainder of this paper I will focus on two ‘problem areas’ in this regard. Firstly I will examine the extent to which a positive sense of Indigenous identity is adequately understood, and secondly, let me explore some complexities around notions of Indigenous leadership. For the moment though let me make it clear that for this part of the discussions about my research, the research focus is on Aboriginal matters, not Torres Strait Islander matters, although I am confident in assuming that that the dynamics at play are quite similar.

Perceptions of Aboriginal Australians

My own empirical research as well as countless anecdotal information readily available in everyday conversations and the news media, suggests that mainstream Australians often have negative perceptions of Aboriginal people (Sarra, 2004). As we all know, perception is interpretation not reality, so it should also be no surprise at the tendency of people to hold negative views of people or groups of people they have never met or interacted with (Lipman, 1998: 77; Bishop & Berryman, 2006: 204).

For the purposes of my PhD research I conducted 30 forums, involving more than 200 people, at which I asked participants to offer adjectives or words to articulate mainstream Australian perceptions of Aboriginal people. I was always cautious to point out at each forum that I was not after their ‘personal perceptions’ but rather, how they thought mainstream Australians would describe Aboriginal people.

Below is a list of the words that were presented at every forum:

– Alcoholics, Drunks
– Boongs, Coons, Niggers, Black Bastards, Gins, Darkies
– Got it Good, Well kept by government, Privileged
– Welfare dependent, Dole bludgers, Handout Syndrome
– Lazy, Won’t work
– Aggressive, Violent, Troublemakers, Disrespectful

(Sarra: 2004)
You might wonder why there is nothing positive listed here. On many occasions there were positive references to Aboriginal people as being artistic, family oriented, sporty. For now though I want to reflect on those words presented on every occasion.

This is certainly not who we are. This isn’t to deny that we have these elements in our communities, as all communities do, but it is to affirm that those descriptors are not part of the Indigenous cultural identity. These are stereotypes we have acquired. Just as movies depict Italians as mobsters, surely we don’t think all Italians are in the mafia? While they are not real, their dynamic presence has a dramatic effect as it typecasts an entire group of Australians as some form of ‘feared/despised other’, as noted by MacLennan and Mitropolous (2000) in their discussions about notions of the Differentiated Other. The clue to understanding their notion of Differentiated Other is seeing the ‘other’ as part of a binary: Same – Other. In the Australian context this might be contemplated as ‘mainstream Australian’, whatever that might be; and ‘other’ is ‘the rest’.

It is worth taking the time to reflect on this binary, and their differential notions of being ‘other’.

From here a stigma about Aboriginal people as an ‘other’ emerges. Goffman explains what happens in this context:

The attitudes we normals [those without the stigmatised attribute] have towards a person with a stigma, and the actions we take in regard to him, are well known, since these responses are what benevolent social action is designed to soften and ameliorate. By definition, of course we believe the person with a stigma is not quite human. On this assumption we exercise varieties of discrimination, through which we effectively, if often unthinkingly, reduce his life chances. We construct a stigma theory, an ideology to explain his inferiority and account for the danger he represents, sometimes rationalising an animosity based on other differences, such as those of social class. We use specific stigma terms such as cripple, bastard, moron in our daily discourse without giving thought to the original meaning. We impute a wide range of imperfections on the basis of the original one … (Goffman, 1986: 15-16).

Aboriginal people in the ‘feared/despised Other’ realm then occupy the slot of the untermensch – the less than human. MacLennan and Mitropolous (2000) in their discussions of the Differentiated Other also explain the notion of the ‘pitiable’ other. This is the ‘Other’ that features in advertisements for organisations such as World Vision. It is the kind of ‘Other’ that runs the risk of appearing in the Generation One campaign. Here the ‘Same’ looks on the ‘Other’ in pity. It is the slot where we are patronised and subjected to the tender mercies of charities. The ‘pitiable’ other can also be described as the ‘victim’ and tragically for too many Aboriginal people, this has been interiorised to the extent that some of us consider this victim status as part of our cultural identity.

There is also the slot of the ‘Comical’ other, which is often laughed at and considered quite harmless and good for a few giggles. This ‘other’ is often palatable to the dominant ‘same’ and having them around for entertainment promotes a sense of freedom from guilt. This type of other is best deployed by ‘same’ when they are challenged about the use of racist terms or racist comedy.

The ‘resource’ other makes sense to me when I think of those Aborigines who cleared the trees around Cherbourg for white settlers in Murgon and Wondai. Often they worked for meagre wages or rations or for nothing. In his history of the settlement Thom Blake supplies us with a typical instance:

One person in the Murgon district who took full advantage of settlement labour was the Barambah [Cherbourg] Superintendent, Albert Tronson. Six months after his arrival at Barambah, his wife acquired two 65 ha blocks at Cloyna, fifteen miles away from the settlement. With the help of at times eight men from the settlement, rapid progress was made on the Tronson selection. He admitted that in just six months he was able to have a house, barn and pigsty erected, as well as having cleared ‘about 36 hectares of scrub…and planted about 20 ha of corn and pumpkins’ (Blake, 2001: 122).

I think also of the wages that were stolen by successive Queensland governments from 1897 to 1992 under the so-called Protection Acts. It is estimated that:-

Thousands of Aboriginal workers across several generations lost an estimated $500 million because of the Queensland Governments’ negligence, through diverting withheld wages to raise government revenue, and through misuse of Trust monies (NTEU, 2004)

MacLennan and Mitropoulos next category of differentiated other is that of the Exotic (2000). This ‘Other’ is of the ideology of romanticism; as MacLennan and Mitropoulos point out, the staple diet of the tourist industry. Here the Aborigine is the noble savage, the last relic of the world before modernity, the sign that the world was once thoroughly enchanted.

Having Aborigines typecast as this form of exotic ‘other’ explains how some educators and anthropologists strive to ensure that Aborigines have no access to a quality Western education that will enable mobility in modern economies. This is a position that might serve the interests of such types who can enjoy a connection to relics of the past while at the same time flit in and out of that connection in a way that is functional for them. This position does very little to serve the interests of Aboriginal people who are stuck effectively in a circumstance where they remain relics of the past with little or no skill or choice about accessing other societies in any way that is functional. Whilst I have heard many Indigenous Australians articulate a desire to retain a connection to ancient ways and practices, I have never heard any articulate a desire to be rendered dysfunctional in the context of modern economies and societies as a result.

Tuhiwai Smith blends the notion of exotic and resource ‘other’ in her discussion of Indigenous culture as a commodity for trading and appropriation (Smith, 1999). Writing of the ‘spirituality industry’ she says:

… spirituality will continue to expand as people, particularly those in First World nations, become uncertain about their identities, rights, privileges and very existence. New Age groups currently appropriate Indigenous spiritual beliefs at will; some claim to be inhabited by Indigenous spirit guides while others merely interpret their own (individualized) dreams as an Indigenous spiritual experience. Writers and poets have also created a mystique around their work which, as Wendy Rose has argued, aspires to ‘embody the Indian’, in effect ‘becoming: the “real” Indian’. Despite protestations that spirituality is an experience through which non-Indigenous people aim to help people, it is clearly a profitable experience (Smith, 1999: 102).

In an Australian context, while all of these forms of ‘differentiated others’ present a range of complexities worth contemplating, the most deeply problematic of these forms of other, is that of the feared, despised and pitiable. It is against this background, tolerating poor conditions in some Aboriginal communities becomes explainable. Put simply, if it is only Aborigines then why would we bother trying to make a difference? If it is only Aborigines then what is the big deal if a police officer is found to ‘cause the death’ of one of them? If it is only Indigenous communities then why bother injecting quality teachers and health workers when we can just continue to blame the community for such appalling dysfunction?

It is the casting of Indigenous Australians as a ‘feared/despised or pitiable ‘other’, which enables such disobliging cycles of chronic neglect and draconian intervention.

Intervention in terms of dispossession and alienation from land, neglect in terms of leaving people to die; intervention in terms of Assimilation policies, neglect in terms of provision of adequate infrastructure and quality service provision. At this point in the disobliging cycle I speak of, casting Indigenous Australians as hopeless and despicable enabled the NT intervention in which it is assumed that people are so hopeless that we must send in the army to ‘fix’ them, and we must paradoxically ‘empower’ people to spend money appropriately by quarantining their income. Time will tell whether or not we will indeed transcend beyond this cycle.

There is of course much more complexity to this discussion and the scope of this lecture enables one simply to touch on this matter. Similarly one can only touch on the complexities of embracing Indigenous leadership and in a way that is quite basic.

Embracing Indigenous Leadership

The second pillar, if you like, of the Stronger Smarter philosophy signals the need to embrace Indigenous leadership. Again this is not so straightforward. In my own assessments of Indigenous leadership overtime there seems to be at least three categories of leadership worth observing: one, those who focus being the victim; those leaders who make use of the victim culture; two, those who focus on booting the victim; those who find political leverage in denigrating Indigenous people as part of their “tough love” strategy; and three, those who look beyond the victim, those who embrace a positive Indigenous cultural identity as complementary (if not essential) to success rather than an impediment to it.

Being the Victim

Many Indigenous Australians and indeed many Indigenous communities around the world have come to be seen and in turn see themselves as victims of history. It is clear that our colonial histories have left us with the idea that Indigenous peoples are the victims and the colonizers as the victimisers. In adhering to a victim culture, the two (victim and victimiser) are co-dependent, they need each other otherwise the culture couldn’t exist.

Some years ago it was my belief that when school leadership and community leadership walked in partnership, then positive results would emerge. I had to change this position after seeing school leadership walking in partnership, but with both colluding with ‘victim status’. The relationship could be described as highly functional, but only for the purposes of colluding with low expectations of Indigenous students. For instance, students were not turning up to start school at 9am which was the expected time to commence. The collaborative response from school and community leadership was to make school starting time at 10am, effectively lowering the bar of expectation. Some will argue that the manoeuvre of delaying the school starting time from 9am to 10am is being culturally receptive to the needs of students, when. My argument that such a strategy is clearly collusion with ‘victim status’ or low expectations.

Over the years, Australian governments for its part have either affirmed or denied their role as victimiser depending on the politics of the day and in turn Indigenous communities have affirmed or attempted to shed light on their victimisation, depending on the counter-politics of the day. Some Indigenous leaders have found success in encouraging victimhood, leading a cause that leaves Indigenous people powerless to act on their own behalf and are therefore at the mercy of those in political power. They are encouraged to see themselves as victims, victims who should be compensated in some way or every way by the victimisers for their historical grievances.

Psychologist Dr Ofer Zur observes,

In claiming the status of victim and by assailing all blame to others, a person can achieve moral superiority while simultaneously disowning any responsibility for one’s behaviour and its outcome. The victim ‘merely’ seek justice and fairness. If they become violent, it is only as a last resort, in self-defence. The victim stance is a powerful one. The victim is always morally right, neither responsible nor accountable, and forever entitled to sympathy.

Leading through victim status entails pushing for preferential treatment, as will all Indigenous leaders to some extent, but in this model, Indigenous communities are likely to be seen as mere receivers of service rather than creators of emancipatory processes. Under this type of leadership government will do things ‘to’ Indigenous communities, not “with” them. Adhering strictly to victim status means that Indigenous people are not responsible for their own lives and are what Malcolm X called “zombies” marching to the beat of someone else’s orders.

Booting the Victim

There are those who have discovered that while ‘being the victim’ is compelling at some levels, it is not always politically attractive. Therefore, another group of Indigenous leaders have found political traction by booting the victim.

It is arguable that the ‘being the victim’ and ‘booting the victim’ type leadership both subscribe in ways, to the notion that Indigenous people a kind of ‘other’ that is considered ‘pitiable, hopeless, feared or despised’.

The ‘booting the victim’ type leadership is deeply problematic for a range of reasons. At one level it dismisses the genuine complexity of the victim story. Such complexity is perhaps dismissed by this type of Indigenous leadership, because it is either not completely understood or experienced.

There is indeed another explanation which can be offered here. There is every chance that the complexities of dysfunction in communities are indeed understood by those Indigenous leaders who boot the victims. But in the discourse with political or corporate ‘white’ masters, this leadership will proffer the view that on such complexity, the deficits, or causes of dysfunction reside primarily with Aboriginal people. At the same they will time pretend there is no room to question those same political and corporate masters who may indeed be central to the complexity of the dysfunction in question.

Put simply, they will avoid articulating the unpalatable messages that need to be heard, and only tell their political and corporate masters what they want to hear!

The bleating of this kind of leadership can be music to their ears and readily attracts attention, celebration and generous rewards. One of those apparent rewards, is being described as ‘honest and courageous’ when in fact this is not entirely true. So ensues a seductive, yet toxic relationship in which particular individuals may attract handsome rewards, and leave other Indigenous people to endure costly, clumsy simplistic approaches to policy reform. Even worse, if such clumsy approaches fail, we simply encounter a means to boot the victim yet again, like the resulting failure is somehow their fault. Either this, or the data is embellished and stacked in a way that even the clumsiest ideas can appear successful.

The deeper problem here is that such views proffered by this kind of Indigenous leadership, validate the ignorance of political and corporate masters with the power to make significant change. There becomes no need for such masters to have to engage with and understand the deep complexities of Indigenous people and communities. When those people are challenged morally or intellectually about the merits of their beliefs or actions relating to Indigenous people, they simply have the luxury of disengaging from any robust scrutiny or dialogue by saying ‘Well, I agree with my pet Aborigine!’

There is therefore little discussion about some of the constraints faced by Indigenous communities be it physical, psychological or situational. Clearly, there are situational constraints for many Indigenous people in both urban and rural communities that are simply overlooked; such as access to quality infrastructure like roads, public transit, properly staffed hospitals and health centres. In my own field of education there remain serious concerns about the extent of properly staffed schools with quality teachers that are culturally competent.

Some may choose to see booting the victim as a kind of “tough love” but is it really? Since blame is a psychological construct, there are inherent biases at play when we blame people for outcomes they cannot control, based on expectations they didn’t develop. There is an overabundance of information to be found and used as proof that Indigenous people are the cause of their own misery. This is possible according to American psychologist Mark Alicke, (2000) because the “evidential standards for blame” are usually lowered especially when people are specifically “seeking information to support their blame attribution.” Intentionally or unintentionally we engage in what he calls “biased information search” in order to support our desire to blame the victim for their unfavourable condition. These selective data collection processes enable the deficit to appear to reside with Aboriginal people, when in fact this may not be the truth. For example, chronic poor student performance in literacy might signal poor student ability, but the same data viewed from another angle can easily signal dramatic teacher incompetence and laziness.

Beyond the Victim

Whilst history has no doubt dealt Indigenous people a questionable hand, there is no need to wallow in it such that it cripples us from acting and creating better present and futures for our communities. When one is busy being the victim or booting the victim, very rarely does one stop to ask: What am I doing to contribute to underachievement? What am I doing to contribute to the “disadvantage” and victimisation of Indigenous communities?

As Aboriginal Australians, and Torres Strait Islander Australians, we do have to be accountable for our actions. We do have to have the hard and honest conversations. Researchers, like Ofer Zur (1994) have shown that “the victim culture” and ‘victim blaming’ have not been very helpful and in fact have led to further victimization.

It is time we moved beyond the victim, as indeed many have done so already.

This is not to say that we should not look critically at our communities and behaviours within our families and communities that are destructive to ourselves and and others. This is also not to shut out discussions from those who are actively being marginalised by government policies or corporate developments.

We have to act under the principles of self-determination, not in the political sense but in the psychological sense in that we have the power to shape our present and future. In fact, is it our responsibility to do so! It is worth reinvoking Roy Bhaskar’s concept of the concrete Universal, at the core of which is our humanity, and mediating from this, our cultural identity. Despite what some anthropologists imply lately, our cultural identity in NOT a weakness… it is a strength!

Neither the mainstream nor government can give us honour and dignity.

It resides in us already.

It is not something others give to us; therefore it is not something others can take away.

For a long time we have been the ‘other’ in Australian society. Historically Australia has tried to engineer us as the kind of ‘other’ that is either useful only as little more than slaves or domestics, or as the kind of ‘other’ that is hopeless or despicable. They have even rounded up a few of our own to validate this belief and design policy to inflict punishment upon us.

Many of us have always known however that we are more than this. A different truth has always existed about us and it is our time to assert that truth in a way that should not threaten white Australia, but instead, will indeed set us all free.

Some Australians think the solution is to abandon this sense of being the ‘other’ in Australian society so that we can all be the ‘same’. This is not an Australian future to which we should aspire. We must be content being an ‘other’ with no desire to be ‘same’ as mainstream Australia.

We must prefer to be ‘other’ but only on the grounds that WE decide what kind of ‘other’ we will be. We will triumph as Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islander Australians, when we assert ourselves in Australia as the Strong, Smart, Black and Deadly Australians that we are.

In our triumph it is crucial that other Australians do not feel threatened or divided by this. Whilst it may be a different circumstance to the historical status quo in which we were often powerless; celebrating the notion that we are the only Australians who are connected to the oldest human existence on the planet, and the true descendants of the very first Australians, has never ever been about alienating or putting other Australians down.

As a people we have known what it is like to be put down. It is never good to dishonour one’s humanity. In this context you have not been our teachers!

We must never forget the sacrifices of our old people in the past that walked in the long grass to lay a solid platform upon which many of us as Indigenous people could stand proudly. We must also keep in our minds the times when some of us had to fight. The Freedom Rides, the Redfern Riots, the courage of Lex Wotton and others who risked this lives in the pursuit of justice during the Palm Island riots; whilst we never want to re-visit such times, they serve as reminders to all our people that our children still have a journey to make into a stronger smarter Australian future. It is a journey they must be armed for. Not with rocks and sticks and petrol bombs, but with intellectual, psychological and spiritual integrity.

This however is not an area in which only Indigenous leadership can guide us out of. This indeed is an area in which Indigenous and non-Indigenous leadership must stand side by side, colluding with high expectations; determined to end disadvantage for all Australians. In some ways we are making the right moves at the moment, as long as we have the right understanding about what is truly broken here, and accordingly, what truly needs fixing.

Throughout this lecture I have articulated the Stronger Smarter philosophy as an approach worth considering, accepting that there are indeed some complexities. To reiterate, these complexities include challenges to white Australia to engage in processes that will enable a much deeper and more valid and positive understanding of Aboriginal identity and Torres Strait Islander identity. For us as Indigenous Australians we must be clear about the type of leadership that is best placed to lead within this very complex arena, without being seduced by the trappings of victim status, or the trinkets that come with booting the victims. Instead we must recognise and assert a circumstance in which there is no disadvantage or shame about being an ‘other’ in Australian society, as long as it is the type of ‘other’ that we define.

History will judge whether or not the interest of Twiggy Forrest and his influential mates rallied enough and focussed on the ‘true causes’ to end disadvantage for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. At some point in the future I would also like to think that history acknowledges the place of the Stronger Smarter philosophy as a significant means with which to stimulate the kind of change required in this regard. Ultimately it doesn’t really matter which approach is most significant. What matters most is that Indigenous disadvantage is truly ended in a way that sees white Australians able to stand alongside us, with our cultural identities intact, respected, understood and appreciated.

Marcus Garvey once said that to improve our condition, leaders need to inspire hope, dignity and a positive destiny.

This is the legacy of Edward Koiki Mabo.

A leader who inspired hope, dignity and a positive destiny.

Alicke, M. D. (2000). Culpable Control and the Psychology of Blame. Psychological Bulletin, 126 (4), 556-574
Bhaskar, R. (1989). Reclaiming Reality: A Critical Introduction to Contemporary Philosophy, London: Verso.
Bhaskar, R. (1993). Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom, London: Verso.
Bishop, R. & Berryman, M. (2006) Culture Speaks: Cultural Relationships and Classroom Learning. Huia, NZ.
Blake, T. (2001). A Dumping Ground: A History of Cherbourg Settlement, Brisbane:
Goffman, E. (1986) Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled identity, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Lipman, P. (1998) Race, Class and Power in School Restructuring. State University of New York Press.
MacLennan, G. & Mitropoulos, M.(2002). Bothering about Othering. Paper presented at International Association of Critical Realism Conference, Bradford. UK.
Mason, P. (1990). Deconstructing America: Representations of the Other, New York: Routledge.
NTEU, Stolen Wages – A Campaign for Justice, Retrieved on 5 August, 2004 from
Sarra, C. (2004) Strong and Smart: Reinforcing Aboriginal Perceptions of Being Aboriginal at Cherbourg State School, PhD Thesis, Murdoch University.

Smith, L. T. (1999). Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, London: Zed Books.

Zur, O. (1994). Rethinking ‘Don’t Blame the Victim’: The Psychology of Victimhood. Journal of Couple Therapy, 4 (3/4), 15-36

A new reality in Indigenous education

15/10/2010 - Leave a Response

In the September Issue of the Stronger Smarter Newsletter, Changing the Tide, we showcased some Stronger Smarter schools in WA. These schools have embraced the Stronger Smarter philosophy and are making it their own by shaping it to suit their circumstances. Other schools have done similar and are getting positive outcomes. One such school in Queensland is Tullawong State High School in Caboolture. Their story of “Ripples into waves” shows that the ripples have affected not only the school but the community as well. You can read their story here.

The Hunter Central Coast of NSW has been very active and among the most successful in sustaining transformation. They are still faced with challenges as most schools are, but they are actively in pursuit of solutions and embracing Aboriginal communities in the process. You can read about their “work in progress” here.

Here at the Institute we are not claiming that schools become transformed after doing the stronger smarter thing with us although sometimes this is the case. At other times it is more about confirming and reinforcing the ‘high expectations’ school cultures that such leaders have already established. It is crucial for us to work with these types of leaders so we can support them by connecting them to other school and community leaders.

Why is connecting them important? Because we want to create and strengthen a critical mass of stronger smarter schools and communities and drive home the point that this is what ‘normal’ should look like in Indigenous education.

For too long, too many of us have just accepted that it is too hard to get positive outcomes for our children, and that our failure is somehow justifiable. This is an approach that has conspired with failure and enables dysfunction to flourish.

Tragically this dysfunction emerges as ‘normal’ in Indigenous education. Even more tragic is that somehow Indigenous communities get blamed for it. The stories I have highlighted above clearly signal that if we actively reject such deficit thinking about Indigenous students, then we get positive change. Sometimes it is really hard work. Sometimes it happens so easily.

Put simply, when schools and communities can work together to nurture and embrace a positive sense of cultural identity, acknowledge and embrace community leadership, and develop and maintain a high expectations agenda with high expectations relationships; failure, deficit thinking and dysfunction is abolished; and a new and more positive reality emerges.

Please join us on our journey to unveil a new, more positive, stronger smarter reality in Indigenous education.

If you have a school transformation story to tell, I’d love to hear about it.

Audio blog: Stronger Smarter approaches to dealing with challenging students…

21/09/2010 - Leave a Response

Listen to the interview here

Dr Chris Sarra speaks with primary school teacher Sharna Beahan about her experience with developing Stronger Smarter approaches to dealing with challenging students in the classroom. Sharna explains how being committed to providing a quality education and building quality relationships with students can create positive outcomes in the classroom.

Unsung Heroes

30/07/2010 - 4 Responses

This past NAIDOC Week, we had the opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate the unsung heroes in our communities. These people don’t get the recognition they deserve, but are the ones who are always the first to lend a helping hand.  We want to ensure that our unsung heroes are recognised and appreciated beyond NAIDOC Week.

For those who have heard me speak about my time as Principal at Cherbourg School you will recall that I mention people like Mum Rae, Martina, Pop John, Mrs Langton, Fred Cobbo, Frank Malone, Mrs Gambrill, Aunty Ada and my old friend Hooper. There are so many others who were with me at Cherbourg and I’m sorry that I can’t name them all here. These people were highly regarded and influential in the community and were integral to the success we had at Cherbourg School. They didn’t need a high profile, celebrity status or a flash piece of paper outlining their qualifications, what they offered me was much more.  They assisted me on school and community matters, let me know who was who in the community, who to visit when a child misbehaved, when to go easy on a child because things were not so good at home and when to push harder because they were trying to pull the wool over my eyes. It was an excellent partnership that saw me allied with real authority in the community. It made life as the Principal so much easier, especially when I had to push harder on particular issues.

There are so many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people like this working their guts out in schools throughout Australia, often with very little pay but always with the highest degree of passion and love for our children. I am very keen for you to take a moment to honour such people from your own school and community, leave a note to tell everybody who your unsung heroes are.

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