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. 


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.