Teaching in Aboriginal communities
May 23, 2008 · Print This Article
Alice talks of a time she once completed a lesson plan on probability and “it’s probable to assume that there is little that can be done to retrieve text book arithmetic from the perils of classroom boredom”. But instead Alice weighed herself down with bags of colourful smarties – tools to be used in the probability exercise “how many smarties can you fit in your mouth”.
“While half the students probably fell into a diabetic coma or became hyper I think it is safe to say that they will never forget the basics of probability.”
Always looking for a creative alternative, Alice a first-year-out teacher was one of the first students to put her hand up to do volunteer teaching rounds in indigenous communities around Australia. But like the probability lesson Alice soon discovered that while things look attractive from the outset – the sometimes chaotic reality of the activity can be a lot to digest.
Selected from a panel of students Alice and a classmate saved and took to the top end of Australia to work in a remote Aboriginal community in Arnhem Land. Convoyed into the camp by 4WD the conditions of the community were immediately apparent to the Alice, a well travelled student had never seen anything like it.
“I won’t lie and say that it wasn’t intimidating and I was not prepared for the shock, but when I think about it nothing could have prepared me and that’s why I was there it was an unbelievably segregated community and the cultural and economic gaps were enormous.”
But Alice from the outset wanted to make a difference and launched herself into her role as a teacher’s assistant at the one and only local school. “As a teacher I wanted to know about Australia’s history and how history was being played out today.”
What Alice, the self confessed idealist was presented with was an education system and culture so flawed that even the most creative, spirited individual could not help feeling disheartened by.
“Oh there were so many challenges – the first where to start?”
Teachers did not work cohesively but it was understandable in a hopeless situation with no support. It was not uncommon for the teachers and members of the community to be bitter and combined with a sense of guilt and obligation to the community these seemed to be the only traits that united them.
While Alice admits that the problems were far reaching, small rewards in the classroom were enough to inspire and encourage her.
“It is a very traditional chalk and talk approach.”
Alice introduced lots of role playing, music and interactive activities. By default a student that was known to the teacher as ‘difficult’ took the lead role and excelled, was “a completely different child” and beamed.
Alice identifies the problems in indigenous education as being deep rooted and not widely understood.
“There were 20 students enrolled in our class but our daily average attendance was eight.”
“I made the most of my time there – I talked with all the locals and understand the situation better than I could imagine. But something drastic needs to be done, anyone who considers going should go and not just for the short term. Amazing and motivated people are really what is required if any sort of change at all will be achieved.”
And like the eager maths class, who ran-a-muck and got their hands and all surrounding surfaced covered in coloured dye – Alice will never forget the lessons of Arnhem Land.