If you ask our “special envoy” what the biggest issue facing Aboriginal peoples is today, he will tell you it’s our attendance in school. In his opinion, every Indigenous student must be attending school every day or the “gap” in all other areas will never be “closed”. But is attendance really the issue? Or is it merely a symptom of something much bigger?
We are bombarded with op-eds about our lives from people who do not have the lived experience of being black in Australia – insightful comments on social media and expert opinions of the men in power who are neither qualified nor invested. Here we find the easy solution to all our “problems” with educational outcomes – assimilate in order to succeed. I love the simplicity of it all but there’s just one problem – I’m not interested in my students succeeding in spite of their blackness, I’m here for them to succeed because of it. Take a seat, put away your deficit language and allow our mob to celebrate the power that should rightfully be attached to our skin and our culture.
It is difficult to pinpoint the exact moment a young Aboriginal person is assaulted with that sliver of doubt as to the beauty and power of being black. Maybe it’s the first time their parents are stopped for a random breath test. Maybe it’s the first time they are called a name they haven’t quite heard before. Maybe it’s each time they are stopped outside a shopping centre for no reason. I’m not sure – but the one time it shouldn’t happen is on the first day of school. When a non-Aboriginal child enters the classroom, they are greeted with overwhelmingly familiar faces, even though this is the first time they’ve been in this space. For Aboriginal students, too often they enter a classroom for the first time and they don’t see people who look like them/speak like them/act like them. If you think it’s important having Aboriginal people in film and television – imagine how important it is having them in the classroom.
I work at a school that has a 100% Aboriginal student population, situated on beautiful Wadjuk country. Students from Borroloola in the Northern Territory, Beagle Bay in the Kimberley, Kalgoorlie in the Goldfields, and everywhere in between, come to us because they know that our college will provide them with a push for excellence in an education system that has previously failed them, while protecting and celebrating their connection to culture and country. These two tasks are not mutually exclusive. Our college recognises the important role culture should play in the education of our mob, while understanding that school needs to be engaging and challenging. The job our college does should not be limited to those schools with a large Aboriginal population. In fact, my concerns lie with those schools who “only have one, I think”.
Here’s what I’m thinking: representation in classrooms actually matters. Research supports me too – studies show there is a significant impact on the learning of students when they are taught by people of the same cultural background as them. We simply connect better with people who get our experience and understand us on a personal, spiritual and cultural level, and naturally we learn better from people we can connect with. If our young people feel connected to the learning, feel represented in the way their school is run and feel they have a voice, we’ve got students who are actively engaged with their schooling and who actually want to be there.
What we bring to that educational table is invaluable because not only do we provide a role model for our young mob, we bring with us the knowledge of how we learn best, and we know the realities of the world our kids come from. Having us there also shifts the perspectives that are being brought to the classroom and encourages teachers to reflect on their own practice. Our mob come to school with a different context that is often forgotten, particularly when it comes to measuring our success. While university has always been deemed as the epitome of success, do we really think that this is the only achievement worth celebrating? Get your head out of them white clouds …
So, my question is – why aren’t more schools making an effort to have Aboriginal people on their staff in roles that allow them to connect with our young mob? It’s about looking beyond the traditional role of what an educator was, and recognising the wealth of knowledge that our mob can bring to schools while working with young people. It’s important for schools to take a step away from only allowing the western understanding of educators in the classroom, and take a look at the way our young people learn – uncles, aunties, nans and pops are the family teachers, the holders of our knowledge and the ones who will ensure our young people continue living our culture.
I mean, we’ve been teaching for time immemorial … I think we know what we’re doing.