Melissa’s story

I’ve been a teacher for 12 years. In my first year I was at Seaside High and I taught English and History and I did a lot of Indigenous content. At Uni, I had majored in Indigenous Studies, and I’m from Port Augusta, so I’ve always grown up around Aboriginal culture. And my partner is Indigenous too, so my kids are Indigenous. So I’ve always felt that I’ve got to make society better for them. I’ve always had an obsession with religions and just learning about other cultures and differences.

In the following year I started teaching in the new middle-school FLO[1] program. There was a bit of conflict with the program so they divided it. The five Indigenous kids were separated out of the program and I ran the Indigenous FLO program. So I had a three-day-a-week contract, five Indigenous kids. I rock up the first day and I’m just twiddling my thumbs going ,‘Where are the kids?’ ‘Oh they might come’. ‘What do you mean?’. So I said ‘Look where do they live? Do you mind if I go in my car and get them?’ So I went down, picked them up.

So we came up with the agreement that I would pick them up every day for school, I’d take them home every day. I basically spent the first six months just with those five. I think one got locked up so then it became four and then one wouldn’t attend much, so it kind of dwindled down to three, but it was very much one-on-one. This class wasn’t allowed on-site on Wednesdays, so I was given $100 every Wednesday and I could do whatever I wanted with them. So we’d go to the zoo; they loved cars so we went up to the Historic Motor Museum and I think to every wildlife park. I would buy food, we’d find a barbeque, we’d cook or I’d make food the night before and take a picnic basket. And so it was all about the food and the experience and just things perhaps they’d missed out on as kids because they were from very big families and one kid didn’t have parents. Well actually three of them didn’t have parents basically. They taught me so much about Aboriginal culture that year.

And one of the boys unfortunately had been in over 30 schools. He was 14, he was almost illiterate, and he would tell me he’d go to a school, the teacher would help him for the first week or so and then he’d get really frustrated because he couldn’t do the work and he’d end up lashing out and he’d get suspended or expelled. And so that kid had terrible experiences with all these schools. I did a lot of one-on-one with him; we went back to phonics so I’d made him big books that he could take home, probably around a Year 1, Year 2 level, but I had a lot of time to spend with him which was great.

And then we had to re-join the other FLO kids in the middle of Term 3. I think they ran out of funding and the other teacher left. It wasn’t great, in fact it was very confronting. The other FLO kids were very, very intense kids and the Aboriginal kids were basically like my body-guards. So they protected me. In the combined FLO class I had a horrible time; I got assaulted, a camp car got vandalised, I got spat on. I cried every morning on the way to work and every night on the way home. It was atrocious and my mental health just went so low.

And I quit teaching at the end of that year. I went and got a retail job. I actually became a manager of a store really quickly but I don’t like spending the day by myself and it’s quite unfulfilling. So just out of the blue I quit that job thinking, I’ll go start TRT-ing.

Eventually I was offered a Year 6/7 class to teach, which was always my dream. I had a fantastic year. I thoroughly enjoyed it, I did a lot of Indigenous Studies with the class and did a lot of gardening and things with them and native plants. And then I got the call to Wattle Secondary, and I’ve been here for six years.

This year I had six Indigenous kids in my class. One left the school during the action research. One has a really serious disability so she’s still trying to get back to school. Three students were frequent non-attenders who didn’t hand up any work. They haven’t been in the classroom and I don’t think I could have really impacted on that because I don’t have control over whether kids come to school or not. That’s the biggest issue in this school—attendance—so in our class of 43 kids we had eight we didn’t meet.

I noticed the student interest really sparked in the Global Civil Rights unit. We started with the ending of World War II and all of the really atrocious things that happened, which is a segue to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A lot of the kids didn’t know it exists. ‘Wow are you kidding me, these exist? But why are there wars around the world?’ Then I talk about the legal and the moral issues and mention that a lot of countries don’t uphold these rights, including Australia. So then we examine how they clearly don’t exist in a lot of the parts of the world, or countries like Australia are violating them in regards to refugees and Indigenous people.

Out of these discussions they choose a country of interest or that they’re from. For example, one Cambodian girl doesn’t come to school a lot, doesn’t complete a lot of work. She did the Cambodian civil rights timeline; she got an A-plus. And she got an A for her iMovie about Cambodia. So, to me, it was really evident that because it was related to her life-world she wanted to do it. And she did it well. Her grandparents featured in the iMovie and so it was very personalised and she had great success and so she finished with an A for this unit. I daresay her report for the year won’t have a lot of subjects passed. She will end up on a B in History, so I do think she was a prime example of a great success.

But often there are dissenters. For instance, a few boys in the class and one girl, a group of about five—they are a little bit like this in all classes, not just mine—but they’re very vocal, opinionated. I sometimes think they’re a little bit unwilling to learn the truth. When we were doing the Australian civil rights timeline, they started calling me anti-Australian. And I said, ‘Why do you think I’m anti-Australian because I’m speaking about the White Australia Policy, the Assimilation Policy, the Immigration Restriction Act, the Stolen Generations? I’m sorry, I’m not going to lie, I’m not going to whitewash this history, it’s what happened’. So it’s really like they’re unwilling to take it on board that these were negative things.

One of the boys is obsessed with Nazis and attracted to white supremacy, and he loves to argue with teachers and loves to provide his opinion everywhere, every subject all the time, he loves to debate teachers. One teacher said ‘I’ve always been wondering who was going to be the lucky teacher to get Callum in Year 10 History’. Because this kid’s been waiting for Year 10 History for three years, to do World War II so that he can spout off about all that he knows about the Holocaust. I don’t know where his views have come from, I think from his own research and the internet. The other students often tell him to shut up because a lot of them have been with him since Year 8, so they’ve had three years of this. I had him for Year 9 History, however I had a very highly intellectual girl in my class and she used to rebut his arguments better than anyone I’ve ever seen. She was so good at just shutting him down; he really had nowhere to go with her. I don’t have a student who’s willing to do that in this class; they don’t feel comfortable doing it. One girl said, ‘I really wanted to say something Miss, I just wanted him to stop’. I said, ‘Well I hope you can develop the confidence to do that’. She’s an African student.

I also do the Aboriginal History in South Australia role play activity. I added it into Year 9 History about four or five years ago because I was teaching and I thought, ‘Where’s the Indigenous content? We’re talking immigration and World War I but what’s happened to the Indigenous people at this time; why aren’t the kids finding out that?’ So I actually did this role play when I was a prac teacher. I’ve done it in nearly every class in every school I’ve been in, I’ve fitted it in. I made it compulsory so it’s an expectation that every Year 9 student has done it and every graduate of high school has done it.

As far as culturally responsive pedagogy is concerned, I feel like that as a teacher, or anything you do in life, the longer you do it you get better at it. I just liked the concepts of CRP: ensuring a high intellectual challenge, or high expectations of students. I really loved using the cultural diversity in the room. They have the knowledge, teach us about what you know. I love that concept of negotiated curriculum. I do have quite a lot of negotiated curriculum in the subjects I teach but now I’m taking it to another level. I love that it’s student centred and what I think promotes success was creating an audience for them. So they have to show their work—it has to be quite good because you’ve got a huge audience of your peers. And also I thought it was really important to give them a voice. Some of the personal stories that have come out provided a voice that kids haven’t had before ever.

And I’ve got to do it in my other classes. I’m already thinking of units for next year in other subjects. I’m going to really relate it to their life-worlds. I teach Aboriginal Language and Culture in Year 8 and 9. Most of the tasks I do are along these lines but I’m going to really make it evident and I’m going to really link it to make it a year program based on your identity; finding out more about your culture and your identity.

[1] FLO: Flexible Learning Options. https://www.education.sa.gov.au/supporting-students/flexible-learning-options-flo

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