‘My attitude COMPLETELY changed’: why universities should move new teachers from resentment to respect for Indigenous Australia as we vote on the Voice

By Mitchell Rom

Editor’s note: One of the biggest challenges in Australian education is how we embed an understanding of Indigenous cultures and knowledges. As Australia approaches a vote on The Voice, universities have a responsibility to change Initial Teacher Education (ITE)  to incorporate cultures and knowledges appropriately. Students enrolled in ITE already have views on what they will learn in their compulsory courses – and those views are confronting. How can educators move students from uncomfortable and scared, to be bold and prepared? This is a longer blog post than usual – but in it, Quandamooka scholar Dr Mitchell Rom explores how we might produce a teaching workforce that places sufficient value on Indigenous knowledges and perspectives.

In June this year, the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) released its final report Building a culturally responsive Australian teaching workforce as part of its Indigenous cultural competency project. This national report is a progressive step in the right direction towards raising awareness and understanding of how to better support Indigenous students in schools. The term “cultural competency” is defined in the report as, “When organisations and individuals…expand their cultural knowledge and resources in order to better meet the needs of minority populations” (Cross et al., 1989, as cited in AITSL, 2022, p. 35). The term “cultural responsiveness” is also used in the report which stated that “Being ‘culturally responsive’, in the context of Australian schools, is the ability to respond to the diverse knowledges, skills and cultural identities of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students” (AITSL, 2022, p. 9). 

Prepared over three years, the report suggested that ITE should play a key role in developing the cultural competency and responsiveness levels of pre-service teachers or future teachers in Indigenous education. It stated “It is critical that ITE programs prepare teachers for the wide range of students they may teach, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students” (AITSL, 2022, p. 17). The report further recommended that “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander content should be included as a mandatory unit of study or indeed, mandatory cross-curricula focus, within ITE programs” (AITSL, 2022, p. 6). Having recently completed my PhD in ITE and compulsory Indigenous education, I agree with these statements and the importance of ITE programs. However, the recent report unfortunately does not acknowledge that the Indigenous education space at university is filled with colonising and complex challenges for academic teaching teams and pre-service teachers. Before looking to ITE programs as one of the answers to improving the cultural competency of teachers, it is important to consider the varied challenges linked to Indigenous education courses in these programs.

Study findings

My PhD study was grounded in the context of the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers (APST), Graduate Standards 1.4 and 2.4, which were introduced by AITSL in 2011. These two national standards emphasise teaching Indigenous students (1.4) and teacher skills and knowledge around reconciliation in schools (2.4) (AITSL, 2011). Universities have now turned their attention to preparing our future teachers to be able to meet these national standards and develop cultural competency in this area through offering Indigenous education courses.

The study specifically focused on the key learning, teaching and education policy challenges situated in contemporary Indigenous education courses at university. The study involved 174 non-Indigenous pre-service teachers from an elite Queensland university who were studying a compulsory Indigenous education course. It also involved five academic teaching staff from the same course, as well as myself as a Quandamooka teacher who has taught in three Indigenous education courses across two Queensland universities. The research identified, through a storying methodological approach (Phillips & Bunda, 2018), a total of 11 key challenges across three interrelated areas of the university. These three areas included key challenges within the university classroom space (lecture or tutorial context), the broader university institution, as well as with education policy, namely APST 1.4 and 2.4 by AITSL.

Pre-service teacher journeys in Indigenous education

Pre-service teachers can have varied experiences of studying Indigenous education at university. The study found that some pre-service teachers were willing to engage with Indigenous education from the initial commencement of the course. For example, one pre-service teacher shared “At the beginning of the course, I felt excited and ready to expand my views and knowledge”. Another pre-service teacher noted “I felt increasingly comfortable with the way everything was taught and became more understanding, appreciative and open minded about Indigenous ways of knowing, being & doing”. Some pre-service teachers began the course displaying resistance towards Indigenous education and then were able to change their attitude and position as the course progressed. In addition to this, some pre-service teachers remained resistant learners throughout the entirety of the course, despite the efforts of teaching teams and national policy agendas such as APST 1.4 and 2.4.  Overall, the research found that many Queensland pre-service teachers experienced challenges navigating a compulsory Indigenous education course within their ITE program.

Stepping into the course, 126 pre-service teachers shared that they had mixed initial views towards learning Indigenous education. One pre-service teacher stated “I was wary [the course] would be wrapped in anti-Western rhetoric and would focus on demonizing Western culture”. Another pre-service teacher shared “I didn’t have a high opinion or high expectation from the course title alone and felt apprehensive going into this course mainly due to what people had said about previous semesters (most people told me this course sucked)”. Other words used to describe student feelings towards beginning Indigenous education included “uncomfortable”, “borderline apathetic”, “unimpressed”, “confused”, “confronted”, “dreading it”, “pointless”, “guilty”, “very hesitant” and “unprepared”. Moreover, 66 pre-service teachers shared that they had limited engagement, knowledge and understanding with regards to Indigenous education prior to university. In the study, pre-service teachers shared that “I’d never had much to do with Indigenous studies in my schooling so I wasn’t sure what to expect in this course” and “My experiences [with Indigenous studies] at school were mostly tokenistic”.

Within the university classroom, nearly 40 pre-service teachers showed a level of resistance towards studying the course. One pre-service teacher commented on the compulsory nature of the course and stated “I was not looking forward to beginning the course and was extremely unhappy it was compulsory since I knew I’d be thought of as a middle-class white male that oppressed everyone”. In relation to being introduced to the concept of white privilege in class, another pre-service teacher shared “I didn’t like how the tutorials made me feel. It felt like the teaching staff would make activities that addressed how white privileged I was and almost make me feel shit about being white”.

As the course progressed during the semester, a number of pre-service teachers were able to shift their attitudes regarding Indigenous peoples and education. For example, one pre-service teacher wrote “My perspectives, understandings and attitude around Indigenous education have COMPLETELY changed but I also believe that this was attributed to the study habits and attitudes I brought into tutorials and lectures”. Another pre-service teacher shared “In class, I was continually faced with situations where I would think ‘But that’s not my fault’, but was able to stop and transform my understanding so that I could use my white privilege to ensure the deserved respect is given to the first peoples of Australia”. These student experiences demonstrate learning, understanding and growth in this contested learning and teaching space. I am confident these non-Indigenous pre-service teachers will continue to work to strengthen Indigenous education as allies.

Unfortunately, the study also highlighted various inconsistencies in relation to pre-service teacher development. In the final week of studying the course, one pre-service teacher mentioned “I would say that the nature of this course has made me look at Indigenous education more negatively”. Another pre-service teacher shared “Right now, I feel confused and this course has left me more scared of teaching Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students than I was before”. On finishing the course, one hesitant pre-service teacher wrote “While I write this in the final week of the course, I still do not feel like I’m prepared to meet [APST] 1.4 & 2.4”.

Moving forward

Some pre-service teacher experiences shared above highlight an education system that is gradually shifting towards a greater respect for Indigenous education matters. While this is positive, the findings also reflect a current system (particularly in relation to some schools in Queensland), that does not place sufficient value on Indigenous knowledges and perspectives. This is reflected in many pre-service teacher comments around their previous learning and their own ill-preparedness to commence the Indigenous ITE course. In light of this, and the broader study findings, education stakeholders including AITSL need to be aware that improving cultural competency requires an understanding of the complex challenges situated in compulsory Indigenous education. It also requires a recognition that there are key challenges that sit external to the control of academic teaching teams including, in particular, pre-service teachers arriving at university ill-prepared from schools and remaining resistant to studying Indigenous education. Broadly speaking, for these challenges to improve, educational institutions at all levels (from primary schools to universities), and those who lead and work in these social institutions need to continue to shift and change. This is needed so that by the time our pre-service teachers commence Indigenous education studies at university, they are more equipped to navigate these spaces and become culturally competent and responsive practitioners. One way of doing so is by placing greater value on Indigenous knowledges and perspectives in schools. This includes ways of thinking that seek to challenge the colonial status quo. By doing so, this will support our future teachers to be more effectively prepared when working with Indigenous students in our schools and therefore will continue to strengthen Indigenous education.

Mitchell is a postdoctoral researcher interested in Decolonial studies, Education and Health. His PhD focused on the key learning, teaching and education policy (Australian Professional Standards for Teachers 1.4 and 2.4) challenges situated in the contemporary Indigenous Australian education space at university. He initially trained as a secondary school teacher in the disciplines of English and History in Queensland and studied Education for over a decade. He also taught at university, published and worked across various levels of education. As a Quandamooka researcher, Mitchell is interested in discussing social matters with like-minded scholars for positive community change. Mitchell is an advocate of strength-based thinking and decoloniality. Contact him on LInkedIn.

Image in header is Ren Perkins, a PhD student undertaking research with and about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teachers, in action.

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