Bilingual education needs to be extended, not scrapped


Yirrkala School recently celebrated the 40th anniversary of its bilingual education program.

The release of the draft report of the NT government’s review of Indigenous education has generated a lot of alarm in remote Indigenous communities. Yet again Aboriginal people have been singled out for treatment that no one would even contemplate proposing for other social groups – specifically, closing remote education centres and forcing all secondary age children to go away to boarding school, which a former student of mine said reminded her of the sort of thing that went on with the Stolen Generations. Furthermore, author Bruce Wilson proposes scrapping bilingual education, thereby denying Aboriginal children the right to be educated in their first language as well as English. Did someone say “assimilation”?

I’m not going to offer a comprehensive critique of the Wilson review here; I’m just one of many people working on formal responses to the review as part of the consultation process, and some very good responses have already been written by Margaret Clark and Kriol Kantri. Furthermore, I’m far from an expert on bilingual education. So I’m going to mainly confine my remarks to my own experience of working in one of the few remaining bilingual schools and what I’ve learned in the 18 months I’ve been teaching in the NT, in which time I’ve had the good fortune to learn from highly experienced educators who have devoted much of their lives to Indigenous and bilingual education.

Yirrkala School has been a trailblazer for innovative approaches to education, recently celebrating 40 years of offering bilingual education to students. The school’s bilingual program has been built up carefully over decades, with its Literature Production Centre producing countless resources for use in the classroom. The prevalence of bilingual education has undoubtedly assisted the Yolngu of Yirrkala and surrounding areas in maintaining a strong cultural identity, with great efforts being made to document and preserve many aspects of traditional culture, as well as pass it along to the next generation. Leaving aside for just a moment the question of whether bilingual education is the best way for students to learn English, it should be defended as a fundamental right of Indigenous peoples who wish to maintain literacy in their traditional languages.

Now, as to whether English-only education leads to better outcomes for students… Bruce Wilson feels confident enough to make his recommendations “based on the view that Indigenous children learn English in the way that other children learn English…” (p. 7) However, the evidence does not support this, and it is extraordinary for Wilson to make this sweeping claim without referring to the research. Margaret Clark does a fantastic job of explaining why “English only” doesn’t meet remote Indigenous children’s needs so I won’t replicate what she’s said. I will explain briefly how the bilingual process works in our school and why I think it’s essential.

In the bilingual program, students first learn to read and write in a simplified version of their clan languages known as Yolngu Matha (with regular exposure to oral English). This approach reflects the fact that students speak almost no English when they being school; cultural considerations aside, it makes perfect sense to commence their education using a language they understand and use in very context. Students begin formal English literacy instruction in Year 4. Students who have attended school regularly (80 per cent or more, on average) are generally able to make this transition. English instruction in all classes up to Year 10 utilises the Walking Talking Texts program, developed specifically for Indigenous students learning English as an additional language.

Last year two separate groups of evaluators praised our school’s dedicated teachers and sophisticated whole-school approach to bilingual education, particularly the ESL/EALD program in the early years, where an experienced bilingual teacher worked closely with an English teacher to engage students and build a strong foundation for learning. Students approached English in a fun and practical way, such as through cooking, without the pressure of trying to learn words they didn’t understand.


During last year’s bilingual celebrations, participants reflected on the school’s success in training and mentoring bilingual teachers.

One of the evaluator teams was doing a study looking at effective teaching practice in remote Indigenous schools right across northern Australia. They were impressed with our school’s rigorous bilingual program, and by contrast described visiting remote schools as part of their study where Indigenous students, despite being educated in English from day one, were leaving school as young adults unable to string together more than three English words. Their “native” language was Creole.

The problems with an English-only approach were expressed clearly in the 2007 Little Children are Sacred report (perhaps the most misused report in Australian political history; full of very good recommendations, yet used to justify John Howard’s “intervention” into NT Aboriginal communities): “Schools teaching and instructing in English alone… develops a failure syndrome for many children as they return home at the end of the school day often unable to remember what was taught that day – which causes them to become depressed.” (p. 147)

However, even with the bilingual program there is a clear ceiling most students at Yirrkala reach with their English literacy: they generally struggle to get beyond what we call the Level 3 or 4 ESL benchmark, where language moves away from an informal and conversational nature to language of a more abstract, written quality. This means that students can’t access higher-order language and concepts, and locks them out of the basic language required for vocational pathways, let alone the “secret” English language of intellectual knowledge and power. If you have a look at any school curriculum, there is a huge intellectual leap expected of students in Year 8 and 9, and that is clearly a stumbling block for nearly all remote Indigenous students.

What is the importance of bilingual education here? One of the interesting findings my former principal related to me was that, although students only begin formal English instruction in reading and writing in Year 4, by Year 6 their first language written literacy already lags their English. This may offer a clue into why their English language proficiency plateaus – they don’t have an understanding of equivalent higher-level concepts in their own language, meaning absorbing those concepts within their conceptual framework is more difficult. Unsurprisingly, as students get into the middle years we typically start to see a drop off in attendance and engagement, as learning content becomes dramatically more challenging just as first language support falls away. This is not the only factor affecting student retention but it is a very important one.

One of my biggest difficulties as a middle years teacher is conveying complex concepts to students in what is not only a foreign language, but also an alien cultural framework. For example, I’m currently teaching my students a unit on advertising; it is full of concepts such as “audience” and “consumer” which do not readily correspond to Yolngu experiences and traditions. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t teach such things. It does mean we need to look at the best way of doing it meaningfully. Rather than more English-only instruction, what’s actually needed is more first language support. We have Yolngu assistant teachers working in all primary classrooms, but the funding for these positions at the secondary level was cut several years ago (one position was reinstated this year to work across the two middle years classes).

Unfortunately Bruce Wilson puts this issue in the too-hard basket, concluding that “The lack of trained first-language teachers reduces its likely effectiveness and the level of resourcing required for effectiveness means it is not sustainable.” (p. 61) In other words, it’s expensive and difficult and therefore we won’t commit to it. That’s not nearly good enough, given the priority Wilson attaches to improving Indigenous education outcomes. Yirrkala has a strong history of training and mentoring bilingual teachers, often with little institutional support. A renewed emphasis on the importance of bilingual teachers should be a major recommendation of Wilson’s final report.

I must confess I was initially a bit sceptical about the bilingual approach; “common sense” would seem to indicate it makes sense for students to learn in English from day one of their schooling. But as I’ve observed the way students in my school learn and the difficulties they face, it has become apparent that maintaining (and strengthening) bilingual education programs is essential to give students the opportunity to succeed at school, as well as maintain knowledge of their own languages and culture.


Why NT teachers are going on strike

Nhulunbuy Rally

Teachers and community members rally against education cuts.

Public school teachers across the Northern Territory will strike this coming Tuesday in opposition to cuts by the Giles CLP government, estimated by the Labor opposition at $47 million next year. The Australian Education Union (AEU) has called a 24-hour strike after 92 per cent of members voted in favour of the union taking industrial action to force a change in policy.

The main thrust of the campaign is to reverse planned staffing cuts. Earlier this year the government decided to decrease staff-student ratios in secondary schools, leading to dozens of teaching positions being lost, and limiting student elective options in senior years.

More recently it was announced that a further 71 support positions such as ESL specialists, school counsellors and IT staff would go. These numbers might sound small but bearing in mind that the teaching workforce in the NT is only about 3000, proportionately they are very large. In typical Orwellian fashion, the government sold this change as “reducing bureaucracy”, as though the staff in question were lazy paper shufflers, rather than acknowledging the vital role support and specialist positions play in making effective classroom teaching possible.

Of greater significance for remote Indigenous schools is changes in the way staff are allocated based on student attendance rather than enrolments. Schools with low attendance will be punished, even though it is precisely the low attendance that means remote schools need more support to get students to school and engage them in learning. An additional concern is a review underway into Indigenous education, which is likely to recommend the closure of all remote Indigenous secondary schools, with students to be sent to boarding school.

Fudging figures

The government has attempted to play down the size of the cuts, saying only 35 positions will be lost due to changes in staffing ratios, plus the 71 support positions. This contradicts education minister Peter Chandler’s earlier admission that more than 180 jobs would go.

The exact number is difficult to determine because the government is being so slippery. However, an audit carried out by teachers in the Arnhem region has found at least 50 teacher and support positions will go. Extrapolating to other remote regions, this means hundreds of positions gone, including many Indigenous assistant teachers – one of the few stable sources of employment for Aboriginal people in remote communities.

Treasurer Dave Tollner told East Arnhem community paper the Arafura Times that union fears about hundreds of job losses were “wild speculation”. He went on: “What is not wild speculation is that we have the worst educational outcomes in the nation, probably in the developed world. It’s not about teachers; it’s about people not attending school. We’ve got to get the numbers on schools up; we’ve got to get people turning up to school, and we’ve got to get parents involved to make sure their kids do turn up to school.”

Just how does Tollner expect schools to improve the current parlous state of affairs with less resources?

Given Tollner’s admission about the terrible state of educational outcomes in the Territory, the proposed cuts are dumbfounding. Data released by COAG (see graphic below) shows that school attendance in the NT, coming off a shockingly low base compared to the rest of the country, has continued to decline since 2007.

COAG School attendance

School attendance paints a bleak picture about the state of education in the NT.

Due to the cuts, displacement procedures have already begun, with excess staff shunted from their schools and forced to look for work elsewhere. The knock-on effect has begun, leading to uncertainty among hundreds of permanent but “unattached” staff (including myself), as well as contract teachers, about where they will be teaching next year, if at all. Among teachers I have spoken with there is anger, but also fear about the future and demoralisation.

To improve educational outcomes in the Territory, what is needed first and foremost is stability and certainty. Instead what we are getting is chaos and insecurity. These cuts exacerbate the already chronic problem of high teacher turnover in remote regions.

Gonski guarantee

A potential bright spot for NT education is the Gonski reforms. Over the past several years federal funding has flowed from national partnerships such as Closing the Gap to address disadvantage. Gonski would roll these agreements into ongoing guaranteed funding based on a new resource allocation model. Due to its high proportion of disadvantaged and Indigenous students, the NT stands to gain more per capita than any other jurisdiction.

A recent federal AEU statement linked the COAG data cited above to the importance of implementing the Gonski recommendations in full: “One of the particularly worrying results is that amongst Indigenous students, no improvements in attendance, and few in student performance were reported over the past five years. Gonski would provide six years of funding certainty for schools to deliver consistent support to Indigenous students to help turn these results around.”

However, the Giles government had already announced in June it would not sign up, baulking at having to put up $100 million to match the Commonwealth’s offer of an extra $200 million over the next six years. As AEU president Angelo Gavrielatos put it, the announcement amounted to a “double whammy”: a refusal to sign up for Gonski and an insistence on carrying through with the cuts.

The latest reports are that Peter Chandler is now in negotiations with the new Abbott government, even though it’s highly unlikely any deal will be substantially different to what was offered by the previous Labor government. And Chandler has refused to back away from the planned cuts, which begs the question of how the NT government can meet its end of the Gonski pact.

Yalmay bark painting

At a recent rally in Darwin, senior Yolngu educator Yalmay Yunupingu presented the government with a bark painting symbolising the importance of education.

Under pressure

It is very clear the Giles government is on the defensive over this issue. Several weeks ago, more than 500 people rallied outside Parliament in Darwin, one of the biggest protests Darwin has seen. The issue is dominating the news cycle in the NT, adding to the pressure on an already weak and divided government, which knifed chief minister Terry Mills last March, less than a year after being elected. Recent federal election voting trends indicate that were an election held now, it could lose many seats, including the four predominantly Indigenous bush seats that went to the CLP last year. The strike this Tuesday will add to that pressure, and will be followed up with regional actions and other forms of protest.

The overarching justification the Giles government has provided for the cuts is the need to balance the budget. This ignores the investment dimension of education, and the central role of education in preparing young people for the challenges of life and ensuring they are able to contribute effectively in the future. By not investing adequately now, we will pay a very heavy price later.

This post is written in my capacity as elected AEU rep for my school, and also as the vice-president of the Arnhem Regional Council of the AEU.

More information and action

Bridging the cultural and language divide in Indigenous Education… Part 2

The Learning on Country program has been a growing focus of our class activity. Here, Djami Marika, managing director of Dhimurru rangers, talks to students about snakes.

The Learning on Country program has been a growing focus of our class activity. Here, Djami Marika, managing director of Dhimurru rangers, talks to students about snakes.

In Part 2 of my entry, I want to focus on how I’ve tried to tackle the daunting challenges I set out in Part 1.

Reflection is one of the most important parts of successful teaching, and I was able to use the recent break to look back on my earlier writing and think about how much I’d learned this year. With three-quarters of the year down, I’m also in a pretty good position to critique my teaching performance this year. I don’t have time to work this into a beautifully flowing essay, so I’m falling for everyone’s favourite fallback: subheadings.

TRIBES – building relationships and trust

The year began ambitiously, as it always does. I decided to make implementing what I’d learned during TRIBES training the big focus in my classroom initially. (in case you didn’t know, TRIBES is a behaviour management program used by educators all over the world). Our school has a history of using TRIBES effectively. I’m pragmatic when it comes to behaviour management systems, my only insistence being that (a) every school must have one; and (b) it needs to be implemented across the school, so that a common language is employed and students know what to expect.

TRIBES allowed me to establish some ground rules, and more importantly, build trust.

TRIBES allowed me to establish some ground rules, and more importantly, build trust.

The end goal of TRIBES is to build an environment of trust – in the classroom, between staff, and across the school. I think I’ve done a pretty good job in my class. Initially, I did TRIBES activities every day, and emphasised that the classroom should be a safe, welcoming place. That went hand-in-hand with building a strong learning routine and high expectations of the students. In the early days I got students to produce personal profiles, telling me about their interests as well as cultural information such as their clan, skin name and homeland. As time went on, we were able to construct a gurrutu chart, which shows how everyone is related to everyone else (because I’ve been adopted, I fit into this structure too – hence I’m an uncle, brother, poison cousin etc to everu one of my students). Building strong personal relationships established trust and laid the foundation for further learning.

Embracing the cultural experience

That leads into my next point, which was coming to terms with the foreign cultural environment I’m living and working in. Last year when I went through the various stages of culture shock: honeymoon, frustration, and depression, I wondered if I would ever get to that elusive final step of acceptance. Whilst at times it’s maddening, I’ve been able to come to terms with certain facts of life here. I can see the positive and negative parts of remote community life, I know most things are out of my control, and I try to focus on things I can influence.

Part of adapting has been just picking up lots of little cultural nuances over time, like realising that people often communicate non-verbally, indicating assent or disagreement through a simple raising of the eyebrows or a pout of the lips. I used to just think students were ignoring me!

On a larger scale, I’ve tried to engage with the history and culture by taking every opportunity to listen and learn from elders and historians of this remarkable land. Yirrkala has an amazing history, from the bark petitions and the land rights battle of the 1960s and ‘70s, to the struggle for bilingual education in the 1970s and ’80s, and the emphasis on training Aboriginal educators in the 1990s. I read and learned about the incredible contributions of people like Dr Marika and Dr Yunupingu, those rare individuals who truly “walked in both worlds” and tried to visualise a future for their people which allowed them to preserve as much of their culture as possible, while coming to terms with the inexorable encroachment of Westernisation.

The fishtrap metaphor: we have to work together.

The fishtrap metaphor: we have to work together.

The work of those Yolngu intellectuals allowed me to realise that my task is not so gargantuan, that I am standing on the shoulders of giants. In particular, the rich storytelling culture of the Yolngu gave me some powerful metaphors to help understand my task. During a PD day at the beginning of the year, we talked about the symbolic importance of the Yambirrpa, a traditional fishtrap. The fishtrap metaphor depicts all the adults in the community as rocks, keeping the children (the fish) safe and stopping them from being sucked out to sea (trouble!). In the activity, each staff member was given a rock and asked to write down their personal strengths, before placing their rock in the circle. The metaphor emphasise that all staff being unique qualities, but will only be effective through the collective effort of all. In this setting that extends far beyond the school – there are so many pieces involved, many elders and agencies we have to work closely with.

By necessity, the process of consultation is slow and often maddeningly inefficient. From what I’ve seen and heard, too many ngapaki (whitefella) teachers short circuit the process and do their own thing – this can help in the short term but does no one any favours in the longer term .There are no short cuts to building capacity, success and sustainability in remote communities. It’s about the big picture and the long-term view, and, crucially, working closely with elders and agencies and people in the community. As the year’s gone on, I’ve relied more and more on Yolngu expertise, and when the opportunity has presented itself, I’ve stood back and relinquished the reins, something many teachers find hard to do, but which is essential in this context.

Learning journey

As if the cultural journey wasn’t enough, the professional growth required has been phenomenal: coming to grips with a whole new approach to teaching, which essentially required me to put aside everything I knew about teaching, and rebuild myself from scratch. My training was in an urban high school – I’ve had to become much more like an early years teacher, integrating subject material and creating a highly structured, scaffolded learning environment (actually, being here has taught me that I should have been doing this anyway!).

Goes with the Territory: planning outside during a blackout.

Goes with the Territory: planning outside during a blackout.

Collecting ESL assessment data, carrying out SENA maths testing, using the data to design small group and individual learning plans, programming with a new curriculum, applying a rigorous and complex ESL sequence, integrating SOSE and Science into a 10-week English text cycle… The challenges have been immense. And every time I feel like I’m getting on top of something, the principal will throw another obstacle in my way! Not complaining… This is the reality of what needs to be done. The latest challenge is setting English and Maths targets for each student to reach by the end of the year. It’s only now, in Term 4, that I feel like I’m starting to get on top of things. But I’ve got a clear plan for this term and next year will be easier. Most importantly, I’ve grown incredibly in my understanding of how students, especially in an ESL context, learn best, and the skills I’ve gained will serve me well for the rest of my career.

We use Curriculum Journeys talk about where we are headed.

We use Curriculum Journeys to talk about where we are headed.

The school leadership’s emphasis on professional development has been invaluable. We have a one-hour “Learning Together” PD session every week, in addition to staff meetings. In Week 3, every teacher presents their Curriculum Journey, explaining where they’re going with their class. And late in the term there is a “flood walk”, where teachers visit every classroom and learn about what others are doing. Each teacher receives written feedback from their peers. It’s a fantastic experience which our regional director called exemplary when he took part during the recent school review. I’ve gotten a lot of ideas from seeing what other teachers are doing, particularly when it comes to creating a visually stimulating classroom.

Relevant and accessible curriculum

The biggest day-to-day problems at our school are attendance and engagement. There is a circular causation loop at work here – lack of consistent attendance among many students makes it hard to engage them successfully, because they’re well below age level. Conversely, our difficulty in designing a relevant and inclusive curriculum alienates students. The longer this cycle goes on, the worse the problem gets, until students stop attending all together, because they see no point in attending school.

One of the decisions I made early on is that I was not going to worry overly about who was coming to school – it’s not something I can do a lot about, as I don’t have the time to be visiting students’ houses every day. My energies go into making sure the students who do come find the classroom welcoming and sufficiently stimulating that they want to keep coming.

With students in Years 8 and 9 who can barely read English, it is easy to get frustrated at their lack of basic literacy. But we still have to find a starting point to engage students. I’ve approached this at a micro and macro level.

Firstly, I use the assessment data I’ve collected on students to work out exactly what they can do. Work is designed from there. What that means is that most students are working to achieve Year 3 and 4 standards – but at least those are achievable. As my principal has explained, too often teachers teach to where students should be up to, and having missed so many intervening stages, there’s no way kids can access those skills and content – it’s too far outside Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development.

At the macro level, I’ve tried hard to design learning programs that are relevant, interesting and enable us to integrate cross-curricular strands. Our central focus each term, using the Walking Talking Text (WTT) process, is an English text. All the other content flows from that. The school had a few hard years under poor administration and older programs were run down or lost. So I’ve pretty much been building from scratch – and let me tell you, drawing on content from 4 or 5 different curriculum areas, whilst also planning across multiple year levels to take into account students’ great learning variance, using a new curriculum, is not easy! But at least once it’s done it will make the next teacher’s job easier, and secondary staff are working on creating scope and sequence and programs from Years 7-10.

In Term 1, we studied Tim Winton’s Blueback, a lovely novella about a boy and his relationship to the sea. What I was looking for was to make some connections with students’ real world experiences, but it felt a bit flat, because I wasn’t confident in the WTT process and the literary qualities of the text made the language and themes somewhat inaccessible for students. I tried to incorporate discussion of fish stocks and sustainability, but without Yolngu support these concepts were difficult for students to grasp.

Learning on Country: a highlight of the year was a cultural trip to the nearby island homeland of  Dhambaliya (Bremer Island).

Learning on Country: a highlight of the year was a cultural trip to the nearby island homeland of Dhambaliya (Bremer Island).

In Terms 2 and 3, I aimed to find texts that drew more on students’ interest and experience. After discussions with my principal and senior teacher, I chose factual texts on snakes and wetlands. I hadn’t had this in mind at the time, but these choices were rather serendipitous, allowing our class to link up with the local Aboriginal rangers, who had begun working more closely with the senior students as part of the Learning on Country program. LoC seeks to provide vocational pathways for students by combining scientific concepts about conservation and land management with traditional knowledge of country. Dhimurru rangers visited the school to talk to my class about snakes, and in Term 3 we visited a local wetlands site to discuss human impacts on the environment. By embedding these rich activities in a strong cultural context, we were able to address some of the curriculum outcomes for science and geography.

These initial activities in turn led to a 3-night cultural camp with Dhimurru to take part in an important ceremony on nearby Bremer Island (Dhambaliya), a Rirratjingu clan homeland and location of a number of sacred sites. Those three days were by far the best experience I’ve had since coming to Arnhem Land. We’re following up the camp with a range of activities in the classroom this term, including writing about our experiences in first language (Yolngu Dharuk), and developing students’ geography and maths skills by working with maps. I’m able to do things I wasn’t earlier in the year, because I now have Yolngu support that wasn’t there before, in the form of a team teacher and also from Dhimurru

Our term 4 will text will consider similarities and differences between the experiences of American slaves and Indigenous Australians.

Our term 4 will text will consider similarities and differences between the experiences of American slaves and Indigenous Australians.

I know there’s a long way to go, and my successes have been very modest. Hopefully I’ll get to work with some of the same students.  I’m proud of the fact that my class has consistently had among the best attendance in the school throughout the year, and that we’ve got a few previously disengaged students coming to school regularly. I’ve learned a lot and there are some good foundations in place for next year. In the meantime, I’m really enjoying our Term 4 focus, which is on the history of slavery in the United States. The big focus is on “rights”, and talking about the similarities and differences between the experiences of slaves in the US and Yolngu and other Indigenous Australians.

Bridging the cultural divide in Indigenous education

Last year Arnhem Land experienced a solar eclipse. A big challenge in remote education is ensuring traditional knowledge and culture are not eclipsed.

Last year Arnhem Land experienced a solar eclipse. A big challenge in Indigenous education is ensuring traditional knowledge and culture are not eclipsed.

Preface: This post was written almost in its entirety in December last year and February this year, at the beginning of the school year. I never posted it because I felt it was too pessimistic – Donald Thomson’s grim prognosis, which I’ve quoted below, rang too true. Looking back, I can see why I felt that way: most of it was written when I was deep in the throes of culture shock-induced depression about my inability to make a positive difference for my students. On top of that there was the mango madness of the “buildup”, which takes its toll on just about everyone who lives in the tropical north, especially transplanted southerners. I’ve left the post almost entirely unchanged, because it still has much of value in it (even though I now disagree with some of the things I wrote), and it provides a nice overview of my reflections on the challenges facing me. In Part 2 (hopefully later this week), I’ll talk about what I’ve learned over the subsequent eight months, and reflect on my successes (and failures!).

The Christmas school holidays gave me plenty of time to think about my experience teaching in Arnhem Land in the second half of 2012, and reflect on the many – and daunting – challenges associated with remote Indigenous education. The more I thought about it, the more all the little issues came back to one big one: the difficulty of creating an environment in which Yolngu (in my case) and other Aboriginal children can gain a successful level of Western (or Ngapaki*) schooling, whilst also maintaining a strong grounding in their own culture. I’ve been wrestling with this question ever since I arrived here, because at the moment it seems to me that many students are getting the worst of both worlds: they are steadily losing their own culture, but at the same time they are lost when it comes to making sense of mainstream Australia.

* The terms Ngapaki and Balanda are used to describe any non-Yolngu person.

My school is one of the few bilingual Indigenous schools left. The theory is that students should spend their first five years at school learning to speak, read and write in their first language, Yolngu Matha. (This is not in fact the first language for most students, but rather a common language understood by all Yolngu. Children first learn to speak in their respective parents’ clan languages, which are similar to Yolngu Matha.) By high school, they should be fluent in their own language (and culture), and receive the rest of their schooling in English, emerging confident and literate in both languages and cultures.

The bilingual model is controversial; it has been criticised by those who believe it disadvantages students by delaying the age at which formal instruction in English begins. On occasion, the NT Government has tried to impose English-only teaching, but the community has successfully resisted for many years. Numerous studies have shown that bilingual education does not disadvantage students; there may in fact be an advantage in learning in two languages. Nonetheless, the view of many teachers I have spoken to is that the bilingual model is not working. Very poor attendance and graduation rates in the secondary school would seem to bear that out.

However, my view is the problem is not one of language but of relevance and cultural appropriateness. Each day we are required to plough on with a curriculum that students seem to have little interest in, because it has very little relevance to their lives. (This problem is exacerbated by the introduction of the mandatory national curriculum, which is highly prescriptive and even further removed from the local experience of students.) Teaching the mainstream, it is easy to forget that a syllabus is not a value-free document; embedded in it are countless moral and philosophical assumptions, underpinned by a weltanschauung (worldview). Knowledge is not a set of facts that can be plucked from the air like apples from a tree; discrete particles of knowledge make sense only when they are incorporated into our existing knowledge base, based on an understanding of how the piece fits into the whole.

Reconciling the old and the new ways of life is a major challenge for Yolngu

A student uses a camera as part of a digital media skills workshop. Reconciling the old and the new ways of life is a major challenge for Yolngu.

The Yolngu and the Western worldviews are in philosophical conflict; their explanations for natural and social phenomena radically different. Thus an understandable response from some has been to see the two as irreconcilable. The anthropologist Donald Thomson, the first white person to live among and understand the Yolngu, wanted to create reserves that sealed Indigenous people away from the influence of missionaries and other whites, explaining that,

“Culturally the highly specialized and complex organisation of the Aborigines is unstable when it comes into contact with civilization. It begins to crumble, and chaos follows in every case. The Aboriginal is unable to grasp the philosophy of our life; he sees, and is attracted only by the ‘flashy’ and superficial, the less important, the material things – tobacco, clothes, alcohol, and objects of material wealth. He will sacrifice everything to gain possession of these, and when he gets them he loses his own interest in his own culture, he loses his grip, he can get neither backward nor forward, and he dies, ultimately, in a dreadful state of spiritual and cultural agnosticism, adrift in a no man’s land between the world of the white man and the black.”  (Thomson, pp. 191-93)

These words were written in the 1940s. In some ways they were remarkably prescient; in others, overly pessimistic. If Thomson were alive today, I think he would be pleasantly surprised at the resilience the Yolngu people have shown. Where so many others have lost their traditional culture, the Yolngu have remained relatively strong. Part of the explanation might be that the Methodist missionaries of North East Arnhem Land, whilst introducing Christianity, did not seek to wholly suppress Yolngu values and culture, but rather to marry two belief systems (McMillan, p. 288).

Finding a way to bridge the divide is the great challenge of today: how to preserve as much of the traditional knowledge as possible, whilst also equipping Yolngu to deal with the outside world. This is a practical necessity, as Richard Trudgen points out, summing up the view of many elders he spoke to while researching his book about the loss of pride, identity and purpose afflicting many Yolngu:

“It would have been good if Balanda [white people] had never come and we still lived according to the old ways… But Balanda are here now taking over our lands, resources jobs, everything. We must know their ways so we can survive.” (Trudgen, p. 123)

McMillan expands on the theme:

“A certain level of educational success is necessary for Yolngu to practise the kind of self-determination that will bring pride and meaning back to many people’s lives. Too many jobs have been taken over by white people, too many decisions are made by white people without reference to the wishes and interests of the traditional owners of the land. The ability of future generations to maintain their culture and their place in the modern world is being severely compromised by low attendance rates at bush primary schools and inadequate opportunities to pursue secondary education in a culturally appropriate environment [my emphasis]. Sure, the kids would prefer to be out hunting, fishing and kicking a footy around, but a Balanda education is essential if the communities are to overcome the burden of having to employ Balanda town clerks and accountants, electricians, plumbers and builders, medicos and teachers, shop-keepers and entrepreneurs.” (McMillan, p. 288)

Keeping the traditions alive: an elder tells the story of a sacred place.

Keeping the traditions alive: an elder tells stories about a sacred place.

So how do we begin to turn things around? I want to focus on the words culturally appropriate environment in the above passage. The message that has been stressed again and again by my principal and by experienced staff and community members since I arrived is that our teaching needs to start from where our students are at, rather than where a syllabus document says they should be. This means two things. First of all, respecting the knowledge that students have acquired through their traditional culture, rather than seeing them as empty vessels and their culture as a barrier to education. I’ve already spent a day and a half of this term involved in cultural awareness training, learning about things like gurrutu, the complex kinship system which explains how all Yolngu are related to one another. In turn, I’m using the knowledge I’m gaining here to construct a gurrutu matrix for students in my class, to understand how they’re related to one another (and also to me – I’m part of the equation because like many all Ngapaki who live here for a little while, I’ve been “adopted” into a family). I’m also spending time getting students to talk and write about themselves: their clan and totem, their skin name, their homeland, and so on. By doing this, I am hoping to show students that I respect their culture and beliefs; this will establish trust and allow them to be more receptive to the ideas I want to convey to them.

Secondly, we have to take the time to establish exactly where students are on the learning continuum, and teach accordingly. NAPLAN and other data shows that many Indigenous students in Year 9 have literacy levels equivalent to an average Year 3 student. In my experience, that’s quite accurate. The problem is, as my principal has pointed out, there’s a strong tendency to teach where students should be up to i.e. at age level. Thus many students who fall behind are never able to catch up, because they miss all the intermediate steps between where they are and where they should be. I’m not saying we should ignore the curriculum. But must go through the learning continuum, which means working our way back to where students are. After all, no one would try to teach a child to swim or ride a bike before he can walk. So why are we pressured to make students do things they’re not ready for? That only builds an environment in which failure is guaranteed.

The task ahead of educators in this context is daunting, because the logical conclusion to the problems I’ve outlined is that Ngapaki educators who want to make a difference need to become at least reasonably literate in Yolngu language and culture – a hugely difficult undertaking with such a transient workforce in remote communities. But that’s the challenge I’ve set myself.

I take heart from a discussion I had late last year with a very senior elder and teacher, a bicultural and bilingual lady who “walks in both worlds”. She believes it’s possible to bridge the gap between the two worlds. But it doesn’t start by devaluing one culture, by teaching students that their culture is inferior. To be strong in one, they have to be strong in both. In my next post, I’ll talk more about how I’ve tried to do this with my students this year.


A. McMillan, An Intruder’s Guide to East Arnhem Land, Niblock Publishing, 2007.

D. Thomson, Donald Thomson in Arnhem Land, The Miegunyah Press, 2004.

R. Trudgen, Djambatj Mala – Why Warriors Lay Down and Die, Aboriginal Resource & Development Services Inc, 2000.

From the desert to the sea


My roundabout path to teaching in remote Arnhem Land

One of the first questions people ask me when they find out what I do is what motivated me to teach in a remote Aboriginal community.

The story begins in 2007, when I took part in a digital literacy volunteer project in central Australia, which saw prospective teachers spend a month in remote communities working with young people to develop their literacy skills. As I recall, not being a particularly adventurous person, and far more comfortable in urban settings, I was dragged along somewhat reluctantly by my girlfriend, who had been part of the program the year before. It was a month-long commitment to volunteer in a community called Papunya, two and a half hours west of Alice Springs. I wasn’t so sure about the educational value of such a project – how could we have an impact in only a month? – but I was interested in seeing a very different part of Australia, having never been to the Northern Territory before, or even ventured more than a few hundred kilometres inland anywhere in Australia, and at the time it seemed preferable to spending a month freezing in Canberra ahead of the final semester of my teaching diploma. I guess I also hoped it would help me gain more practical experience before I began my professional career.

I remember just looking out the window for hours on the flight out to Alice and marvelling at the landscapes. They seemed so barren and yet the patterns and colours were changing constantly. As we got further from the coast the landscape became drier and drier; thus I was surprised as we got closer to Alice that spots of green started to appear. What was this mysterious desert oasis we had arrived at? On the bus into town I marvelled at the exoticness of the place, the wide open spaces. 

Looking around Alice over the next couple of days I was struck by the contradictions of the place: such a lovely little community in many ways, and yet such a segregated and violent place. Whitefellas railed against Aboriginal public drunkenness, and yet I visited watering holes where hundreds of respectable citizens drank themselves into a frenzy.

Getting to know everyone on the first night at the infamous Melankas hotel and backpackers lodge (since demolished), I was a bit dubious about what I’d signed up for. Most of the people I’d be working with were much younger teaching students who seemed more interested in getting pissed than working with Aboriginal kids. (I was one of those slightly arrogant and aloof “mature age” students who had some “real world” experience.) But over the next few weeks I would form close bonds with all these people.

As we drove out to Papunya I didn’t know what to expect. We stayed in unused teacher housing, which was pretty basic but comfortable enough. The community was so small you could walk around it in about 10 minutes. It consisted of a shop, the school, a health clinic, a church and a few dozen houses, many of them uninhabitable. We arrived for the last few days of the school term. I was attached to an early primary class with an inspiring Steiner-trained teacher, who got her class engaged with lots of singing and games. That was a great introduction for me, allowing me to meet some of the kids we would be working with over the holidays and also get an idea about the realities of teaching in a remote community. 

Once the holidays started our program began and we worked hard to get the kids interested. They were very keen to check out our equipment and play with the cameras. Getting them to write things down and develop stories was much harder. Most of the stories were very literal and factual; my big triumph came towards the end when I got a group of kids to get “in character” and develop a bit of a narrative. As I recall, it involved a group of boys pretending to be enforcers shaking people down for money, so it was perhaps not an ideal script, but whatever works, right? 

Over the next few weeks I spent a lot more time kicking the footy and playing basketball than I did working with kids on the computers, but in a short time I was able to build great relationships with all the kids I worked with. As teachers we try to teach all kids but it’s those special relationships you form with a few kids that really stick in your memory. From Papunya I especially remember a little boy named Tristan, who I sat next to in his class and helped with his work. He would copy me in cute ways, like taking his jumper off when I took mine off. He went out to an outstation for most of the time I was there so I didn’t get to see him again. He would be in about Year 7 now and from time to time I think about how he might be going.

There was another gorgeous little kid named Kristof with striking green eyes. He would never be seen walking around without clutching his small football. Towards the end of our stay I let Kristof and his friend have a look around the house we were staying in – an empty teacher’s house, spartan but without doubt infinitely superior to the place the boys lived in. They wandered around, inspecting the place like a pair of curious little sniffer dogs. It was very cute, watching them look in the cupboards and the fridge. After a minute, they just sat down at the table and found some paper and pencils and started drawing. They were so happy and so safe in that moment and yet all the statistics tell us that their life prospects are bleak indeed. To this day, thinking of those beautiful and innocent boys melts my heart and reminds me how important it is to strive to ensure that they, along with every other child, have the opportunity to gain an education and life their lives to the full.

Image“In the gaunt splendour of that world, man finds himself delivered over to a glacial freedom that has no human meaning.”

I already believed in Aboriginal rights and the importance of preserving Indigenous culture, but it was only in Papunya that I began to appreciate the special relationship Indigenous people have with the land. My most profound experience was when I went for a walk one day by myself to the neighbouring Honey Ant Hill, a place of spiritual significance. It wasn’t a long way but it was quite a steep climb. As I walked, I revelled in the quietness. When the wind stopped, I couldn’t hear a sound. I began to imagine myself as someone living on this land. There were very few trees – where would I find shade? What about food and water? Whenever anyone disparages Aboriginal people, I wonder to myself how any of us would go surviving in a hostile environment such as this for a few days, let alone maintaining a society for thousands of years, and the challenge of educating members of the community about the many things they would need to know to survive.

As I climbed to the top of the hill, a huge eagle rose up in front of me and soared far into the sky above. In the distance the magnificent Mountt Edward dominated the landscape. The words of the Russian revolutionary writer Victor Serge in his novel The Case of Comrade Tulayev came to mind: “In the gaunt splendour of that world, man finds himself delivered over to a glacial freedom that has no human meaning.” In Serge’s case it was a character describing Siberia, and yet that line applied just as well to this mysterious place in the desert where I found myself. I’m not a religious person but this was a very spiritual moment for me.

My sense of curiosity and wonder deepened further as learned more about Papunya’s remarkable art movement, particularly the story of Geoffrey Bardon and the western desert art movement, which I learned about through a film at a museum during a trip into Alice one weekend. Having experienced some of the landscapes, I gained a greater understanding of the messages the artists were trying to communicate through their paintings.

Image My experiences helped set me on the road to where I am now

Too often it seems Aboriginal voices and perspectives are ignored in the mainstream, and nowhere is this clearer than with the Northern Territory “intervention”, which was announced during our time in Papunya. For days, our group discussed and debated what was happening, pored over any newspaper we could get hold of and tried to make sense of what was happening. One day some people from the government (including people in military uniforms!) turned up to explain what the intervention was about. We had all seen many of the problems first hand now, but my gut instinct was that imposing solutions in a top-down way and frightening communities was not the way to help.

One of the things that makes me optimistic about humanity is that if you throw a random bunch of people together, most of the time they’re able to get along and solve problems. Our group were all quite different people but I quickly came to realise that was a strength: we all had different areas of expertise and skills to offer, and the communal way of living over the next month made life just like living in a big share house. Cooking and cleaning were shared tasks. We had no TV so we would just sit and talk at night and play card games. Life was simple, and that was fine with me. I haven’t kept in close touch with any of the people I volunteered with, but in a few weeks we shared an intense experience and I’m sure if I get the chance to catch up with anyone else from my group we’ll have a lot of reminisce about.

Even though we were ostensibly going out to the desert communities to educate Indigenous kids, I suspect I learnt far more than they did. I know that my experiences shaped me in important ways as a person, highlighting the centrality of education and cross-cultural understanding to social progress, and helped set me on the road to where I am now, which is teaching in Yirrkala, an Aboriginal community in north-east Arnhem Land. I’m still with my girlfriend Clare – we are now married with two kids, and a third on the way, and hoping they will benefit from being exposed to Yolngu culture from a young age.

A major aim of the program I took part in was to get graduates to come and teach in the Territory, and to stay for longer (many teachers in remote areas don’t even last a year). In my case it took five years to get back to the NT, but I’ve been here for more than a year and hope to be here for a while yet. What I’ve described above was really just the prologue – my real story is now unfolding a little more each day. 

The Super Soul Revue: an almost perfect night out in Sydney


First act on stage: The Sugarman 3

Review of the Daptone Records Super Soul Revue

Day One, Sydney Festival, January 5, 2013

Everyone loves a free event, and a free musical event in the Domain on a beautiful summer night in Sydney is always going to be popular. So I was pleasantly surprised on arrival at the Domain at about 6pm last night that the venue was not too crowded, perhaps because people were timing their arrival a bit later after a very warm day.

As a huge Dap-Kings and Daptone Records fan and a funk and soul enthusiast, I was excited about a rare opportunity to experience the genre live in Sydney. The Super Soul Revue program was well thought-out in terms of progression, beginning with the mellow grooves of The Sugarman 3 and Menahan Street Band, who both delivered downtempo sets with occasional flourishes of horns and guitar, and some lovely touches of organ, an instrument you rarely hear these days. Their smooth sounds provided a magical accompaniment to an equally enchanted Sydney twilight, floating across the city, fresh and crisp like the cooling south-easterly breeze. 

Menahan then provided musical accompaniment to the soaring vocals of Charles Bradley, who was first recorded at 62 and sounds like James Brown with a strong dose of Al Green thrown in. I hadn’t heard of Bradley until yesterday but he was the talk of the town on radio, and last night I could see why, as he threw himself into every song. As Daptone co-founder Neal Sugarman explained on radio yesterday, Bradley is one of those performers who is able to make every member of the audience feel like he is singing directly to them. This guy has incredible energy and fantastic stage presence. Charles summed up the unifying ethos of funk (and the evening as a whole) beautifully during his set when he said it doesn’t matter what country you come from, because we’re all from the planet Earth. I’m really looking forward to listening to more of his music!

As the venue filled, the chilled-out vibe remained. People wandered about freely, enjoying the food stands and taking it all in. For many, the evening was as much about catching up with friends and enjoying a night out as it was about a musical experience. As the night progressed, I could see many faces reflecting the fact that they didn’t quite understand the language of funk and soul. This was no impediment to the enjoyment of the dedicated soul brothers and sisters, who filled the (far too small!) designated dance area around the stage, and began to strut their stuff as darkness fell.

(It was very annoying that, at this point, the security decided to start, in a very arbitrary fashion, restricting access to the front area. Note to the Sydney Festival: next time you organise an event like this, at which many people will want to dance and get close to the stage, perhaps allocating more than 10 per cent of the space to standing room would be a good idea. Symphony in the Domain, this isn’t.)

The funkier end of the evening began with The Budos Band, and the serious dancing began. When it comes to funk music that means really moving your hips and getting as low to the ground as possible. When the funksters really get moving, marveling at the spectacle is almost as fun as getting your own groove on, and there was some superb action on display, although unfortunately the scope for individual flamboyance melted away as the dance floor filled in the final hour. The Budos Band were the highlight of my night, laying down some serious percussive, instrumental funk with a strong psychedelic edge.


Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings

Everything was primed for a brilliant final hour with the headline act: Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. Unfortunately the moment was lost, primarily due to some terrible sound issues. I’m not sure exactly what went wrong, but Jones’ voice kept cutting out, many instruments were drowned out and there was a major problem with echo from the speakers positioned further out into the audience. Most around me didn’t seem to mind, but I must confess my interest waned and, aware that our kids would be up at the crack of dawn, we decided to make an early dash for the train station. A disappointing end to an otherwise fantastic evening was offset somewhat by the fact that I was lucky enough to see a cracking set by Jones and the Dap-Kings back in about 2006 during their Naturally tour.

Technical issues aside, this was a terrific night, striking the right note in terms of musical selection and also exposing thousands of people to genres deserving of more popular appreciation. Well done to the Sydney Festival organisers for putting it together, and making it a free event for thousands of Sydneysiders to enjoy.


Reflections on my first few months living in a remote Indigenous community

I’ve been living in Yirrkala, an Aboriginal community in North East Arnhem Land in the Northern Territoy for about 10 weeks now. I’ve been meaning to write a blog post about my experiences for weeks, but it’s been pretty overwhelming getting adjusted to life here. I’ve taken a lot of photos and kept notes about various things, but I’ve been on such a steep learning curve I haven’t wanted to write publicly until I could make better sense of it all. Also because there is so much misrepresentation and simplification of what goes on in Indigenous communities, I feel a responsibility to report things in a way that is fair to the people living here. It would be all too easy to paint a very bleak picture, or conversely to naively celebrate many of the fantastic aspects of life up here, but the reality of course is somewhere in between. Anyway, this is my first attempt to give some sense of my life and work here thus far. If it’s a bit meandering, that just reflects the reality up here, and me trying to come to grasp how everything first together. I’m also aware that what I’m writing here really is the tip of the iceberg, and when time permits I hope to write about specific areas in more detail.

Back in July, the call asking me to come and start work up here in three weeks came as a complete surprise. I had lodged a CV at the school nearly two years ago, and gone through the central recruitment process with the NT Department of Education late last year, but after turning down a job offer in another community earlier in year, hadn’t really thought about it again. The opportunity was exciting because my wife and I had talked about doing this for many years, since we’d volunteered for a month in a central Australian community in 2007. We visited Darwin in 2009 and Yirrkala in 2010 and liked what we saw, but a number of things prevented us from coming up here, not least of which was that we had two young kids and I loved my teaching job in Sydney, where I was fortunate enough to possess the coveted status of “permanent employee” (i.e. job for life, if you can last that long!). My principal in Sydney was very obliging in granting me leave at short notice, and we were on our way.

First impressions were not great: we were accommodated temporarily in very sparse housing whose bedding consisted of a couple of old mattresses. Under the terms of my six month contract, relocation expenses weren’t included, apart from one plane fare and some excess baggage, so we brought only the essentials: clothes, a few toys for the kids, some books… and my precious coffee machine and bean grinder. We were initially without a car, which made things hard, as the community has only a very basic, incredibly expensive shop. In the nearby mining town of Nhulunbuy, there are many amenities: Woolies, swimming pool, library, parks, etc – but it’s about a 20 minute drive. We were lucky to have a friend here who gave us the use of her car on weekends, and after a couple of weeks we moved to our present, much-nicer digs, with freshly painted rooms and a great big garden, and lovely neighbours on either side with young kids. Best of all, the house is across the road from the school – a pleasant change from two hours I spent commuting each day in Sydney.

We arrived just the day before work started, and I didn’t really know what to expect. Much of what was discussed on the professional development day for staff went over my head, but I was impressed with the vision of the principal, who stressed teamwork, good communication and community involvement. To reinforce the last point, he invited some senior women from the community to come in and talk about what they wanted the school to provide for students. Some in the community were expressing a concern that the school was not adequately preparing them for life after school. They expressed a desire for students to have basic skills such as confidence in speaking and the ability to drive a vehicle, as well as a deeper understanding of complex matters like Yonlgu culture and the mechanics of government and politics in Australia. Ultimately, the aim was to produce students who were “rolpa” – self-motivated.

As I later learned, the school is in something of a rebuilding phase. The new principal and the staff have been working hard to get attendance up from some very low numbers last year. A range of strategies have been put in place to promote attendance and engagement, such as a football program for boys and a program to reintegrate behaviourally-challenged and disengaged students into the classroom. I’m told that attendance has improved a lot since this time last year.

Fishing at Crocodile Creek with my adopted family

Many aspects of the teaching methodology in place here impress me. Rather than artificial barriers between subjects, the mode of pedagogy stressed making links between all areas of the curriculum. This is culturally essential, as Yolngu have a worldview in which everything is connected, in contrast to the prevailing Western/rationalist approaches which tend to compartmentalise things. At the centre of this unified approach is the text being studied, which should enable students to build up their language proficiency, but also branch out into examinations of relevant science, maths and SOSE content. Art and music are also to be incorporated under overarching themes. The framework for this is the Walking Talking Texts model developed by Fran Murray, which is designed for ESL learners, and involves following a carefully planned sequence. I wasn’t familiar with this model so struggled to implement it in my first term, but I’m planning to have a good crack at it in term 4. I’ve chosen Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream” speech as my text – one of the key criteria is that the teacher chooses a text he or she is enthusiastic about. I get chills just thinking about this speech, let alone listening to it. I’m also hoping the themes of justice and fighting for rights will resonate with some of the experiences of young people here.

When offered the job I was told my primary focus would be teaching the Year 10 class. But a regular teacher was sick for my first couple of weeks, so I took her Year 7 class. This was quite fortunate, as she was a strong teacher who had established good routines and expectations with her students. Her class also had the best attendance in the school. I wondered what to make of that on my second day when, 10 minutes after the first bell, not a single student had turned up. Numbers steadily built each day from there, with a high of about 14, and an average of about eight or nine. Used to the frantic rush of taking four or five classes a day in Sydney, adjusting to the much slower pace of life, and learning, has been difficult. Progress is very incremental. The students are mostly reluctant learners and unwilling to take risks. These are cultural factors which can’t be wished away, as frustrating as they are. For example, if a student is not sure how to do something, he will usually not attempt it all rather than do it incorrectly. This makes it difficult to get students to do even simple independent writing tasks, because they are afraid of spelling words incorrectly or getting words out of sequence. Compounding the problem is the extreme range of ability levels. Some students read and write fairly close to their age level, and are certainly not much worse off than many of the students I have taught in Sydney. Others have made it to Year 7 virtually completely unable to read or write in English. Usually this is because of extensive absences from school over many years.

The basic timetable each day is usually at least 2.5 hours of English and Maths in the morning. It is a long morning but this is also the time when the most quality learning happens, so recess is pushed back as far as possible. After recess, there is more variety, with sport, art, music and so on. As I discovered the abilities and learning needs of the students, I adapted the work I was preparing to make it more accessible. The Year 7 class was quite enthusiastic about learning, with some exceptions. They would read and often discuss their opinions of texts and issues, although the boys were much more outspoken than the girls. Later on, when I started taking the Year 10 class, I found it almost impossible to get them to talk about the text. This is a big problem in education here: once students get to about Year 8, their interest in school tends to decline precipitously. Come to think of it, this is a big problem in most low socio-economic communities. The big challenge is how to turn that around so that students are staying in school and completing their Year 12 qualification, or at least leaving school with some skills that will help them find employment. But a complicating factor here is that students see few Yolngu who have successful careers. As a friend told me, many of the people in the community with drinking problems are actually highly educated people who found that a qualification was no guarantee of success or guard against racism. As I learned reading Richard Trudgen’s essential book Why Warriors Lay Down and Die, over the past 20 or 30 years Yolngu have been progressively supplanted from many jobs by Napaki (whitefellas), even in jobs they used to do very competently. The historical reality gives the lie to claims by many politicians and conservative media outlets such as The Australian that the period of “self-determination” (1972-2007) was a colossal failure for Indigenous people. The problem was that, despite the label, the past few decades have not provided much in the way of opportunities for genuine self-management. As Yolngu elder Banduk Marika pointed out in response to the Intervention announced by the Howard Government in 2007:

“[T]here was never any true self-determination. Money to support our community projects and initiatives such as land management, the homeland movement and indigenous enterprises was always very hard to come by. And there were never any real jobs made available in our communities, even though many people worked hard for years on training money. Education, too, was limited and poorly delivered. The same thing happened with housing and health. We became more and more overcrowded and sickness increased, along with drinking and fighting.”

Rather than addressing this problem, the Intervention actually saw more Indigenous people removed from their jobs, particularly with cuts to the CDEP program. This had a terrible impact on the self-esteem of many in the community, and is one reason why there are still strong calls by many Indigenous people for the Intervention, which was recently extended by the Gillard government until at least 2022, to be wound back.

Walking with students down to the local beach as part of a photography skills workshop

I don’t feel like I achieved much success in my teaching in my first term, but I’ve also realised the measures of success will probably be quite different here from what I’m used to. My first term was primarily about relationship building, about earning the trust of students; fair enough too when they see so many white faces come and go. I don’t think I can expect too many conventional classroom experiences here, of simple content delivery from teacher to student. It’s all about patience, consistency, perseverance, care and cultural awareness. I’ve felt incredible frustration many times, but I’ve also developed real affection for these kids, especially the younger ones, who are so cheeky, funny and spirited. I really hope I can make a difference here, because that’s what we’re about as educators. I guess that makes me a missionary (for those not in the know, they say everyone who comes to a remote community is either a misfit, a missionary or a mercenary).

On a more personal note, the lifestyle transition from big city to small town has been quite profound. It makes a difference being able to walk to work, to know everyone in your street, to have the neighbours’ kids drop over any time to play, and to be able to zip down to the local beach every afternoon. The stress of city living has melted away and as I’ve told friends and family, I feel like I have no worries at all here. I have more time to spend with family and reflect and write. Speaking of family, we’ve already been exposed to so many wonderful things we could not have experienced in the city, such as: camping in idyllic locations; watching the local footy competition; learning about the local culture and taking part in traditional activities such as looking for bush honey. I’m sure the next few months will bring more excitement and learning on my part – and hopefully a few successes in the classroom too.