Indigenous voice in education

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.

Into this silence the children said – we are not the problem we are the solution

“…And in the naked light I saw ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking, people hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices ever shared, no one dared disturb the sound of silence…”

(Excerpt from Sound of Silence, Simon and Garfunkel, 1965)

There is a silence echoing within government chambers,  as the need to address the disparities in Indigenous education is not spoken about. Indigenous education policy seems to be at a standstill. 

It has been almost a year with no review or evaluation of national strategies for educating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Strategy, the agreement between Australia’s education ministers, was made in 2015 and was supposed to “guide the education of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people from birth through to further education and employment pathways”. But it now seems redundant. It has been a year with no superseding policy and no action plan.

To me the silence is unforgivable. There are around 300,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children under the age of fifteen in this country today, and by 2031 around half of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders will be under 25 years old. I am advocating for them.

Talking without speaking, hearing without listening

The government promised a “refresh” of the National Indigenous Reform Agreement, more commonly referred to as Closing the Gap.  However, a set of draft targets was released in December of 2018, ten months ago, suggesting what could be enacted.  That’s all we got.

And when we look at these draft education specific targets, they are simply a reimagining of the goals as set out in previous iterations of policy.  That is, the focus again falls on Numeracy and Literacy, Year 12 qualifications, attendance and so forth: same focus, similar goals, similar written words.

Then there was the review of the Melbourne Declaration on educational goals for young Australians.  The goals were set in 2008 within the first iteration and they also have not been met. Previous signatories and former education ministers have publicly lamented this lack of progress. 

The truth is the priority areas (or whatever they are called now) have not changed since 1975, The Report to the Schools Commission by the Aboriginal Consultative Group in June 1975 highlighted, way back then, the lack of progress in Indigenous education.  The fact that the priority areas remain stagnant and merely rephrased is something I wrote about in 2016.

The chasm

You could think all this failure and stagnation around educating First Nations people would inspire action and innovation to truly begin addressing the inequities.  Dominant voices within government espouse to wanting to “try something new, to change the way we work as governments – to work in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians”.

 And yet, never has there been so large a gaping chasm between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the Australian Government than present times. Our voices and the Uluru Statement from the Heart have been silenced, denied and rejected.

Still waiting

To add insult, according to the commitments made within the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Strategy in 2015, was the promise that: “This strategy will be reviewed in 2018, which is a significant year in measuring progress against COAG’s Closing the gap targets. An evaluation will consider the effectiveness of the strategy as a framework.”

Well 2018 has long gone and we are still waiting to see the review.

The evaluation of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Action Plan 2010-2014  was completed in November 2014 by ACIL Allen Consulting ,with the Strategy being endorsed and released late 2015. 

How much longer do we have to wait?

All we get is silence. 

We can wish

It is hard not to be cynical and postulate sarcastic laments. But we can wish.

Perhaps the delay is because, as Prime Minister Scott Morrison asserts in his Prime Minister’s foreword in the Closing the Gap Report 2019, “the main area of change needs to be in how governments approach implementation of policies and delivery of services.  Stronger accountability can be achieved through co-designed action plans that link targets to policy action, funding decisions, and regular evaluations”. 

Perhaps the government has been compiling an actual Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Advisory Group made up of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander educators whose ‘business’ is education and know how targets can be achieved. 

Perhaps the government has finally listened and recognized that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth bubble, those under the age of 15, makes up over a third of the total Indigenous population.  This inevitably means that a large number of the population will be of school age.  Surely this must have some influence on the urgency of addressing the inequities and ‘closing the gap’.

The reality is that if a new iteration of the policy is not released soon, any momentum will be lost as was suggested in the Evaluation of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Action Plan 2010-2014.  Without the policy, and making schools and systems accountable as well as governments, our kids and their educational attainment, their dreams of a future become silenced. 

Imagine

More recently, Indigenous and non-Indigenous students alike released the Imagination Declaration asking ministers “to imagine what’s possible…[and that,] it’s time to think differently”.

If you haven’t read it, you should. Be inspired.

As the children said, “We are not the problem, we are the solution … We urge you to give us the freedom to write a new story.’

But here we sit and wait for any response from government.  We wait for government to provide the next policy. And one last wish that if do we get one there will be no fudging to backdate it to include 2019, as the year is almost over.

The children, teachers and schools wait for an end to this silence.

Melitta Hogarth is a Kamilaroi woman who is Senior Lecturer in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education at University of Melbourne.  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”.

The trickery used to marginalise and silence Indigenous voice in education

Indigenous education policy, reviews and reports have consistently sought for the inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in all levels of decision-making. However, actions and evidence suggest otherwise: the silencing and marginalisation of Indigenous peoples continues. My research focuses on the various mechanisms put in place that counter the goodwill intentions shared by policy makers and politicians, specifically in Indigenous education policy. I believe there is trickery at play. There is allusion to the involvement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples but it is not really happening.

The good intentions of politicians

Quite often the will and want to work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is foregrounded in political speeches and/or reports from Prime Ministers. Here, we find assertions from people in positions of political authority who say they want to address the gap between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-Indigenous Australians. For example, International human rights charters such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples advocate for the inclusion of Indigenous voices. The political elite continually refer to these rights and say they espouse such desires.

What is really happening politically

In the lead up to the 2016 election, the National Congress of Australia’s First Nations Peoples released the Redfern Statement: An urgent call for a more just approach to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs. Here, the Congress highlighted the lack of Indigenous representation at a national level where decision-making and policy about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is made. By 2017 and with the release of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, the call for Indigenous voices to be heard was made. However, the instant dismissal of the Uluru Statement of the Heart acted to silence Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and contradicted the sentiments shared by politicians and Prime Ministers elsewhere within the public arena.

The good intentions of education policy

Within the Australian Curriculum and more specifically, its cross curriculum priority, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures, there is opportunity for these cultural gaps to be redressed. There is space to allow for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to be engaged in and with the teaching and learning offered in schools.

It requires schools, principals and educators to build partnerships with local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities. This is not a new innovation. Since the initial reports regarding Indigenous education, there has been a call to embed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures into teaching and learning.

What is really happening in education

However, policy and therefore, policy makers ignore the premises of a partnership where relationships need to be nurtured to be maintained; where trust needs to be built. This can’t happen when the schooling systems engaged in educating many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children usually work on three-year cycles, whereby teachers and principals transition in and out of community.

Further assumptions are located within the current Indigenous education policy, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Strategy 2015, where the lack of Indigenous representation within the Australian teaching workforce is also ignored. Indigenous people have no power or real influence on what is and is not taught in schools or more importantly, what is deemed necessary and what is not. In what has already been described in many papers as a content heavy curriculum and ignored in recent reviews and reports, the inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures can easily be seen as ‘bolted on’ and ignored.

My experience as an Aboriginal teacher

I was a classroom teacher for almost 20 years with my final years being within schools with high Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student populations. As the only Aboriginal teacher within these schooling environments, my colleagues and the principals often called on me to be the mediator between the schools and the communities.

I was torn. My role as classroom teacher was seen by the school as a means to communicate with communities about the school’s expectations and yet, the community saw my role and position as a means to speak into the school space. The tug of war minimised my own voice. The schools and the principals failed to see what was happening and did not attempt to build relationships with the communities because they simply relied on me to be the go-between for them. This essentially, widened the gap between the school and the community. In turn, this made Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice within the planning and decision making almost an impossibility. Due to the actions (or should that be inaction?), the school had silenced the community.

Let’s flip the system

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to indeed have a voice in the decision making that effects them, there is a need to flip the system and to transform the ways in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are viewed by wider Australia. That is, Australia needs to acknowledge the biases and assumptions held within colonial Australia and allow for truth telling and conciliation of the past. This begins through education.

As Indigenous peoples we need to be more assertive. We need to harness the international human rights charters and use them to privilege our voices. We need to speak into policymaking on Indigenous Affairs and call out politicians for their empty rhetoric. We need to have more of a say in what is taught within schools. Our children are dependent on it. Our future is dependent on it.

 

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”. She can be found on Twitter  @melitta_hogarth

Melitta is presenting on her research at the 2018 AARE Conference.  On Monday 3rd December at 4pm she is presenting on ‘Musings of an aboriginal researcher’ and is chairing a Symposium on Wednesday 5th December on ‘Education research that engages with multiple voices: Flipping the Australian education system’.

The image featured on this post is from Adobe Stock