Using real voices to inspire student teachers

OUP Authors Neil Harrison and Juanita Sellwood show the importance of using real stories in teaching by sharing their own experiences.

Be generous and stay a while

Numbulwar is a tropical paradise, replete with coconut palms and golden beaches. This was my first school appointment in Arnhem Land, Northern Territory.

I had been teaching for ten days, when suddenly the kids starting yelling, ‘Get down, get down!’ But it was too late! I was left standing as a shovel-nosed spear sliced through the classroom door, its tail end vibrating like a rattle snake. One of the older students had been misbehaving the previous night and was being cautioned, publically!

1988: The sun as the provider of life

1988: The sun as the provider of life

Teachers came running from all directions to see that I was OK. Yes, I was fine, stirred but not shaken. Following some emotional checks on the beginning teacher, everybody returned to the classroom, and I returned to my teaching. Discipline can be swift and severe in some Indigenous communities if children do not do the right thing.

I went on to work with an amazing Yolŋu (Aboriginal) teacher in north-east Arnhem Land. We established a shop in the school where the students sold everything from bubblegum to dresses, toys and comics.

We made a fortune, and the kids who previously could not add single digit numbers all of a sudden were counting the day’s takings in hundreds of dollars. Previously, it had been almost impossible to get parents into the school for any reason, now hundreds of parents were coming to the school to shop and talk and feel at home.

In the meantime, my amazing Yolŋu colleague negotiated a place for me in the local community, made sure that I was given a skin name (an Aboriginal name), and guided me through the local protocols. She was absolutely generous with her heart and time, and was an expert in working across cultures. Like me, she is still teaching today.

That gift of generosity has been part of my experience wherever I have worked with Indigenous people in education.

I moved to Sydney in 2007. I felt absolutely intimidated by the big city at the time, but I soon started to work with the Darug people, the traditional custodians of the Country here, and again I met with generosity of spirit. I asked for advice and received it; I asked for help with my teaching and people were only too happy to give their time and assistance. Because of that generosity, I now feel like I have a home here just as I did in Arnhem Land. It is good to feel at home in many places.

1982: Eel on the Parramatta River, Sydney

1988: The sun as the provider of life

Be generous and respectful in how you speak to your students about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people—your language in the classroom will govern how kids learn about the Indigenous people.

Learning and Teaching in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education will set you up to teach well, and to enjoy your collaborations with Indigenous people, whether that be in the city or in rural and remote regions. It takes time to meet people, and to establish networks and to feel comfortable. Take your time – you have a lifetime. Working in Indigenous education is a lifetime commitment.

– Neil Harrison

Apasin (respect) and good pasin (sharing our good ways)

It was with much anticipation and excitement that I arrived on my family island in the Torres Strait, Masig: a beautiful coral cay shaped in a tear drop, surrounded by the most vibrant reef and turquoise waters. In such a small island community of 50 families (about 340 people), everybody knows who is coming to the island and the nature of their visit, so everyone knew that I had arrived for my eight-week practicum at Yorke  Island (Masig) State School.

I was assigned a composite Year 5–7 class. The behaviour in the class seemed challenging and I couldn’t keep the kids on task. I was trying all sorts of strategies to get them engaged. I tried speaking Yumplatok with them, but a couple of the older girls said my accent was not a Masig accent (and they were right). I tried talking about my father being a fisherman and working with him, but still the kids seemed to be testing me with defiant behaviour. It didn’t even matter that my uncle was one of the policemen on the island.

By the end of the first week, I was exasperated and I still had seven weeks of teaching ahead of me. I decided to observe the other two teachers in their classes and to my surprise everything was fine. I went back to my class and found my supervising teacher effortlessly teaching and the students working contentedly. All of the teachers had been on Masig for a number of years and each had developed good relationships with the children and their families.

Even though this was my family island, I was still considered an ‘outsider’ by the younger generation (who I had never met before). I then realised I had to earn apasin (respect). My role as the teacher had a certain kind of status in the community that exceeded my role as ‘Aunty’. It meant the children positioned me in a more formal way. I assumed that I would easily engage with the children because of family connections and I expected an automatic rapport. It did not happen, and like the other teachers who had been teaching on the island for a while, I had to develop a relationship with the children and show them I had good pasin (sharing our good ways) by being courteous and caring beyond the school context.

I started going to public events in the community and to the local church every Sunday, and I made sure I always chatted to parents, taking a genuine interest in their family and life on the island (and I made sure the children saw me doing this). Over those weeks the challenging behaviour ceased. By the end of my prac, I knew that I had developed a good rapport with the children as every afternoon the children would follow me along the beach, like the Pied Piper (and they still always called me ‘Miss’).

During your practicums when you get the opportunity to meet Indigenous students and their families, give your time generously and show interest in their lives both in and outside the school context. ‘Sharing our good ways’ will go a long way in establishing long lasting connections with families.

– Juanita Sellwood

9780190303204 Learning and Teaching in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education 3eNeil Harrison and Juanita Sellwood are the authors of Learning and Teaching in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education third edition.

Dr Neil Harrison is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education at Macquarie University. He has over 30 years teaching and research experience in Indigenous education.
Juanita Sellwood is a Lecturer in the College of Arts, Society and Education at James Cook University. She enjoys the opportunity to work with students and inspire them to become passionate about Indigenous education.

Featured image credits: Neil Harrison

2 thoughts on “Using real voices to inspire student teachers

  1. I have started face to face teaching this semester and am thoroughly enjoying the generosity of those around me to share their experiences and enable me to develop my teaching skills and confidence. Thank you for reminding me of how generosity benefits not only me but all those around me.

    • Thank you for sharing; we’re glad you enjoyed the article and took Neil and Juanita’s message to heart. We love hearing about the experiences of teachers and student teachers. Good luck this semester!

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