I have a pretty strong vested interest in Aboriginal education as my father is Aboriginal, and I recently started identifying more and more as being an Aboriginal person. My training background was primarily as a science teacher. I have been a teacher at Paperbark Secondary for about 7 years and I’d never really looked for leadership positions, but this Aboriginal Education leadership role was something that I felt was calling me. And seeing the injustice of some of the things that were happening, I put my hand up. So it started from there, and I haven’t looked back.
For the action research, I looked at hands-on activities and relating to culture, Aboriginal culture, and just trying to connect and improve engagement through hands-on work. So we started with a cultural hands-on activity, and segued into more complicated technology and relating between the two as we went along.
Initially I wanted to focus on the students themselves, how they’re engaging, and how they’re participating in particular activities and working with each other. However, as it went along, I started looking at what I was doing, my pedagogy, and that’s where it clicked for me. It was really an interesting lightbulb moment where I asked myself ‘So what am I doing today that is going to get these kids to engage in that activity’?
Because obviously I’ve worked with Aboriginal kids for a long time, and a lot of them come in with little boundaries, walls, shyness, reluctant to have a go, confidence issues. So then I thought, ‘Everyone’s born with the same brain and ability, so what’s lacking here’. In my ethos, I always come across really supportive, but in this particular unit, I was very encouraging, very positive, looking at every individual step of individual students. I was concentrating on some of my Aboriginal students, I wanted to see them succeed.
So there was a couple of boys who were very standoffish and I took an almost motherly approach, like ‘Come on you can really do this’ rather than ‘You will do this or you will not get the grade’. It was very much ‘I really think you can do this’ ‘You’re very smart’ ‘You’re very intelligent, I’ve seen what else you can do’. And I had a few breakthroughs with boys like that, and then I just kept working on things that way. Little steps. It was almost a matter of sitting next to them and having a really good look at what they’re doing, ‘That’s really good, I can see’, and asking them questions about where their thoughts are going, and letting them set up what their next step was going to be. So putting a bit of ownership in their basket.
I had one boy who I focused on, very negative all the time ‘I’m not doing that, I’m not giving that a go, no, no, no’, and that sort of thing. This is year 9, so he’s 14 years old, a teenager. He had a very tough background and he had pretty much given up. And by the end of it, I felt like we’ve got this real relationship now, I feel like I know how to work with him now. More of a humanistic individual approach, rather than ‘You are in the group, you will do this’.
I let go a lot with this as well. I sort of had to relax, I had to sit back and go, ‘Alright, this is experimental, let’s see what happens’. And one thing that I’ve always felt quite strongly about is placing those little snippets of culture into the curriculum, like into science. With the message sticks the kids were making, you’d show a picture of a symbol on some wood and say ‘Well what does this mean in Aboriginal culture?’ And even the kids who weren’t in touch with their own culture, their ears prick up and they want to know. I sort of sow those little seeds around, and there have been a few outcomes from that.
I was pleasantly surprised, even with the non-Indigenous kids. For example, Abdul, he’s Egyptian. We were talking about this willy wagtail story, how he’s got a bad reputation, because we were holding the session in the Nunga room and we get onto all these conversations. And Abdul started recording himself on the digeridoo. He had actually taught himself how to play the digeridoo and was recording it onto a scratch program. And one of the boys said ‘Oh that’s the most engaged I’ve ever seen Abdul’, because he’s usually pretty all over the place.
And when we were wood burning our message sticks, everyone was very calm, they were concentrating. It’s something I think really resonated with all types of kids.
At the beginning of the project, I did honestly think how is this going to work, what’s going to happen, the unknown, what’s happening here? I think it’s a good thing because teachers need to actually refresh and look at their pedagogy and change. So I’m happy to say that I am now one of those people, and it makes me feel more confident to try new things. I feel like a changed teacher.
My practice has changed. So now I want to be more individually focused. I want to have students able to self-reflect on themselves, where they’re up to, what their competencies are and what they think. And we already do that to a point. I’d also like to look at keeping those Aboriginal perspectives in there, and having more people really comfortable with talking about Aboriginal perspectives and just to help those kids along.
I had Ross, our ASETO, come in to class several times, he came in and worked with the kids. So his relationship with the kids developed really strongly through that. They saw him as a bit of an expert, that sort of go-to person. He’s very artistic and very spiritual. So they liked having him in there, and he liked coming into the classroom too. I thought it went really well, they loved it, if he wasn’t there they’d ask where he was. It was a good thing for him as well, I think that’s definitely given him the confidence to go in and work with the kids in the class, any class.
Next year I want to focus more on how can I transfer some of this pedagogy into the wider school community, and that’s for the benefit of my kids too, the Aboriginal kids. I think it’s important that we do have proof of that the pedagogy works. So I’d like to contribute to that pool of evidence.
 A culturally safe room for Indigenous students.