Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander

We need more Indigenous voices to help attract and keep Indigenous teachers

I am a Murri man from South East Queensland. I have connections with the Quandamooka People from North Stradbroke Island and to the Aboriginal Community of Cherbourg, Queensland. I am proud of my Aboriginal heritage and would like to contribute to my people through education and research.

I have worked in Indigenous education for over twenty years. The majority of my experience has involved developing and teaching vocational programs to Aboriginal communities throughout NSW. I also have experience working at a strategic level with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education in Queensland Catholic schools. I have lectured at universities and I had a recent posting as a teaching Deputy Principal at a school in Alice Springs with a nearly 100% Aboriginal student enrolment. With this experience, I want my Aboriginal voice to contribute to the literature in Indigenous education.

The critical shortage of Indigenous people in the teacher workforce in Australia

The National Teaching Workforce Dataset, 2014, shows that there were 3100 Indigenous educators working in the profession in 2015, who made up 1% of the total teacher workforce. This was in contrast to Indigenous students, who made up 5.3% of the total Australian student population in 2015.

The recent More Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Teachers Initiative (MATSITI) of 2017 aimed to increase the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people entering and remaining in professional teaching positions in Australian schools. Despite this initiative and further calls for urgent investment to increase the Indigenous teacher workforce, the small number of Indigenous teachers is an ongoing issue for Australian schools.

My research focus

My research is to analyse existing literature about Indigenous teachers who have remained in the profession and why they have chosen to remain, rather than focusing on the reasons for the critical shortage of Indigenous teachers and emphasising the problem. I specifically want to look at what impact Indigenous teachers have in the profession, in Australia and in an international context, particularly on outcomes for Indigenous students.

This post is a start to the literature analysis, attached to my PhD study that will privilege the voices of Indigenous teachers who have remained in the profession, despite the challenges they face in undertaking their roles in schools.

I hope by investigating the issue through a lens of exploring what has worked and kept the small number of Indigenous teachers we do have in the workforce, that I can provide a different way of understanding the issue. I want to emphasise what works in attracting and keeping Indigenous teachers teaching, over what doesn’t work. 

My findings so far

Numerous studies, including the 2018 Australian Principal and Deputy Principal Health and Wellbeing Survey, demonstrate that unacceptable stress levels are affecting teachers at all career stages. The World Health Organisation says that education and health are highly correlated. That is, more education indicates better health and vice versa.

Teacher burnout is common in Australia because of unacceptable stress levels. However, there are numerous programs that support teacher wellbeing and in turn, help promote teacher retention. However, little is known about the effectiveness of teacher support programs for Indigenous teachers, which is problematic because we know from past research that Indigenous teachers have reported experiencing high levels of racism and stress.

Director of the More Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Teachers Initiative Professor Peter Buckskin said

One of the things we need to talk about is race and racism. People need to acknowledge their own racism and how it shapes their thinking.”

He also said

Good practice when you teach for diversity is teaching for difference – and treating that difference not as a deficit, but as a strength.”

My list of some of the literature that I have found so far

Students, teachers, community members and those interested in the issue I am researching might like to check out some of these.

  • Resilience  (by Christopher Day and Quing Gu, 2010) Resilience is an important part of teaching. Teaching is a demanding job and research has demonstrated that it is one of the factors that helps keep teachers in the profession.
  • Collaboration and teams (by Christopher Day, 2019). This paper investigates the research into how relationships and collaboration are fundamental to successful teachers.
  • School conditions and culture (by Bruce Johnson, Barry Down, Rosie Le Cornu, Judy Peters, Anna Sullivan, Jane Pearce and Jane Hunter, 2014). This research also investigates how resilience is a crucial aspect for retaining teachers in the profession. It investigates how an alternative thinking might better support early career teachers in the workplace.
  • Leadership (by Matthew A. Kraft, William H. Murinell and Shen-Wei Yee, 2016). This looks at how different facets of school organisations affects the high turnover of teachers, among other things. Leadership is one of these that is investigated.
  • Work Engagement (by Cheryl L. Kirkpatrick and Susan Moore Johnson, 2014). This study looked at how positive work engagement had a positive effect on mid-career teachers who had been in the profession between 4-10 years.
  • Increased resources (OECD, Teachers Matter, 2005). The OECD looked at the global issue of recruiting teachers into the profession and retaining those teachers. Providing teachers with adequate resources was demonstrated to increase teacher effectiveness and their likelihood on remaining in the profession.
  • Reduced workloads (OECD, Teachers Matter, 2005). The same OECD report showed that teachers were under an inordinate amount of pressure and stress with demanding workloads. The study provided examples of where workloads were manageable, that teacher retention increased.

From this early investigation into the literature, I have realised that it is important that I continue to contribute to this area of research.

In terms of educational policy development, there has been an oversight on how we go about retaining Indigenous teachers in the profession. By adding their voices to the literature, I will be privileging those teachers, their students, families and communities. I am hoping this will help provide the catalyst to inspire the next generation of young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to enter the teaching profession and make a positive contribution to Australian society.

The image above is Ren Perkins with some of his students from Alice Springs

Ren Perkins is a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland’s School of Education. He is an experienced executive officer with a demonstrated history of working in the education management industry. He is skilled in communication, public speaking, facilitation, Indigenous education, and community engagement. Ren has a strong background in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander educational leadership and policy development. He has had extensive experience in working within the Higher Education sector and has seen the benefits a good education can provide for the most marginalised in our society. He is passionate about the work he does and enjoys working in collaboration with others.

Ren will be presenting on A literature analysis on the role of Indigenous teachers: Indigenous teacher’s voices on why they stay in the profession at the AARE 2019 Conference on 3rd December.

Hundreds of educational researchers are reporting on their latest educational research at the AARE 2019 Conference from 2nd to 5th December. Check out the full program here.

Words matter: how the latest school funding report (Gonski 2.0) gets it so wrong

Much has been said about David Gonski’s second review of school funding in Australia. It is a document made up 46,327 words aimed at advising the Australian Government on how school funding can be used to improve student achievement and school performance.

Within those 46,327 words in the 150-page document, Through Growth to Achievement: Report of the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools, the term ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ‘ is only used 10 times. This is less than 0.1% of the total focus within the entire document.

Deficit discourse

It gets worse. When reference to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander is used in the document, it is predominantly based on ‘deficit discourse’, that is discussion that represents people or groups in terms of deficiency, absence, lack or failure. And it sets up Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander to be considered different to the dominant norm.  For example:

“This holds regardless of a student’s circumstances, whether they are students with disability, students in rural or remote locations, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students,those from non-English speaking backgrounds, low socio-economic backgrounds, gifted and talented students, or any combination of these” (p. x, emphasis added);

“The review Panel heard from a range of stakeholders that there are common fundamentals needed to support all students – those in capital cities and territories, those in rural or remote locations, students with disability, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students,students from non-English speaking backgrounds, students from low socio-economic backgrounds, gifted and talented students, academically advanced or less-advanced students, or any combination of these” (p. 4, emphasis added); and

“The strategy seeks to lift students’ foundational skills in STEM learning areas, improve Australia’s STEM performance in international comparative assessments, reverse the declining number of skilled graduates in STEM-related subjects, and address the under-representation in STEM of girls, of students from low socio-economic status backgrounds, of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, and of students from non-metropolitan areas (p. 37, emphasis added).

By consistently listing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander uniqueness as a deficit, it maintains the dominant norm and perpetuates stereotypes.  The use of “or any combination of these” is also an interesting clause.  It seems a blasé term of reference acting to minimise the varying forms of inequity that peoples face and in turn, dismisses the lack of focus on addressing inequity.

Representation

Another mention of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples within the report includes an explicit mention of the need to increase Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teacher representation.  As I see it, this limits the expectations of Indigenous peoples. They are seen as teachers not also as principals or educational leaders.

In the same way the document lacks promotion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples within educational decision-making, even though this is advocated within numerous current policies.  Instead, the reasoning given for increasing representation is that “it promotes student creativity, motivation, deeper learning and problem-solving skills” (p. 73).

The reasoning seems very lack lustre when considering that an entire chapter within the document is focused on “Creating, supporting and valuing a profession of expert educators” (Chapter 3 pp. 56-81). This chapter draws on the work of Professors Jo Lampert and Bruce Burnett and their project, National Exceptional Teaching in Disadvantaged Schools programwhich seeks to address disadvantage by seeking exceptional pre-service teachers to fill ‘hard to place’ schools’ staffing issues. Little mention is made of the clientele of these schools or the reason for the schools being deemed ‘hard to place’ except for a mention of low socio-economic status schools.

Missed opportunities for positive acknowledgement

Yet, aspects of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander educational research is used to emphasise the importance of classroom teachers and their role in education as well as the involvement of parents and community within the classroom setting.  For example, the Families as First teachers programis mentioned to illustrate the important role of parents supporting cognitive development. This program grew from a project within Kuranda to build parents capacity to assist their children in early childhood.

The omission of recognition of this being an Indigenous-led project now adapted within schools nationally, further silences the achievements and success of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Further to this, the notion of mentoring is also discussed.  While Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students are not explicitly mentioned, the Promising Practices in Supporting Success for Indigenous Students report (OECD, 2017) was used as the substantiating evidence for mentoring.

The needs based funding loading specifically for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students is omitted from the actual report but needs based funding is championed as “levelling the playing field” (p.6).

The Review Panel was established “to examine evidence and make recommendations on how school funding should be used to improve school performance and student outcomes”, so these omissions are interesting.

One mention only of Cross-Curriculum Priorities

There are three cross curriculum priorities of the Australian National Curriculum. These are: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures, Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia, and Sustainability. The cross curriculum priorities are part of the national curriculum, which is made up of three dimensions: specific disciplinary knowledge (such as English, science, maths), general capabilities (such as creative thinking, social and emotional skills) and the three cross curriculum priorities (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures, Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia and Sustainability).

Mention of the cross curriculum priorities is limited to one occasion within the report. And on that one occasion, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures is omitted.  That is, when describing the Australian Curriculum, the report states,

“The Australian Curriculum can be depicted as a cube of three dimensions: disciplinary knowledge, skills and understanding in learning areas such as English, mathematics and science; general capabilities such as personal and social capability; and cross-curriculum priorities such as Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia” (p. 38).

Why the omission?

I believe the omission of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures may have been intentional. Previous reviews and reports commissioned by the Liberal Government by the likes of Kevin Donnelly have argued (paywalled) that the inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures within the curriculum is “hostile towards the institutions, beliefs and grand narrative associated with Western civilisation that makes this nation unique”.

So is the omission purposeful; to align with the Liberal agenda of shifting focus? At least the inclusion of Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia as the lone cross-curriculum priority is interesting. Considering the Liberal’s stance on climate change it is probably not surprising that Sustainability, the other cross-curriculum priority is also omitted.

In its defence, the report does acknowledge the numerous reviews undertaken addressing rural and remote education and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education and that it “has sought to complement them, rather than go over the same ground. [Stating that,] our specific focus has been on improving school education outcomes for all students across Australia” (p. 14).

However if the review panel’s focus was on improving student outcomes and school performance, how can the needs of specific groups that are identified within governmental data sets as struggling to meet national minimum standards be so readily dismissed and silenced?

 

 

Melitta Hogarth is a Kamilaroi woman who is also the Indigenous Education Lecturer at the University of Southern Queensland within the College for Indigenous Studies, Education and Research.  Prior to entering academia, Melitta taught for almost 20 years in all three sectors of the Queensland education system specifically in Secondary education.  Melitta’s interests are in education, equity and social justice.  She recently completed her PhD titled “Addressing the rights of Indigenous peoples in education: A critical analysis of Indigenous education policy”.