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.


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

  1. Wow! You’ve written about this so well, Jarvis. Such an amazing experience. Please keep blogging about this, I’m really interested to learn more about your experiences and all the issues facing indigenous communities.

  2. Interesting to read – it sounds like there are many challenges Jarv, but also reason for optimism. Good on you for taking all of this on and trying to look for ways to improve the teaching and communication there.

  3. Hi Jarvis, I’m glad you are starting to settle in. I really enjoyed reading your reflections, it sounds like a wonderful challenge. My brother-in-law Nick Hedstrom left Nhulunbuy a couple of years ago after 5 years working with the communities for DOCS. Your story is so much like his.
    I will look forward to your next installment.
    Although BGHS misses you. I’m so glad that the communities in NT will get to experience your amazing teaching.

  4. Great to read that you are a “missionary” Jarv. Your experiences will make differences in so many ways…perhaps you are the true learner! Love your perspective on the Intervention and look forward to reading more.

  5. Fantastic, Jarvis – it is SOO refreshing hearing about you (and Clare!) in a remote community, and continuing to think and reflect on your work, and, hopefully, offering a respectful challenge to the status quo in education in remote communities.
    So often it seems that we have not completed the colonization of Aboriginal people, and are still trying to perfect it!
    My wife and I have recently returned from a visit in the US and Canada to Native American and First Nations people, and found only one common feature in the half dozen communities we visited: they are ALL attempting to regenerate their languages. They feel strongly that their future lies in that regeneration, to restore many aspects of their cultural lives, to assist in placing them in a good space to face the future! Australian Aboriginal people have said in the past “don’t cut out our tongues”, when different governments cut out their language programs. (Just how those language programs are run is a completely different question, that sure needs a Copernicus revolution!).
    An addition to our SWIRL program over the past few years has been what I call the “5 pics approach”, where young people are given a camera, and asked to take five photographs around their school, community, home – whatever! They need to take four pics of stuff they really like, and one pic of something they would like to see changed. Suddenly, every kid in the class has defined their own personalised educational program for a term- or longer. And, just like SWIRL books in the old days, they get to make a small booklet out of all this in their own language and English! They would need the teacher to assist in all the identifying culturally appropriate change processes, letter writing, maybe fundraising to implement the identified change needs, etc.etc – every child doing something different (maybe small groups who have identified the same projects?), and hooked up with community people to do it all in their own language! (There is overwhelming research evidence that kids learn best in their own language till at least puberty! This research has been summarily ignored in Australia!).
    The last statistic I can find about Australian Indigenous languages is that in 1999, there were 59 languages down to their final speaker. If these were orange bellied parrots, there wold be a justifiable international outcry.
    I look forward to your next installment – best wishes,

    • Thanks for the feedback Lawry… Really appreciate it. More to come…I love the 5 photos idea! Will give it a try. I didn’t mention in my post that Yirrkala is one of the few remaining bilingual schools – I might do an entire post around that as there is some public debate at the moment in light of the parliamentary report. Did you see the July issue of National Geographic? It has a fanatastic, but also very worrying, feature on the endangered languages. Northern Australia is a hot spot with dozens of endangered languages. Here’s the link to online content:

  6. Well, I just read this when I know you’re back in Sydney not exactly loving it! I was thrown back to memories of teaching literacy and ESL in the NSW prison system, where again, relationship building, patience and very low expectations – punctuated by rare wonderful surprises – was/is the norm. I look forward to much more from you and congrats on taking up the challenge in such a humble and enthusiastic way Jarvis

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