School has been such a big part of my life, it’s almost strange not to be working in one at this time. My early years were mixed (starting school in Canberra, home schooled while travelling around Australia, moving to Queensland, then homeschooling while living outside of Darwin).
By the time I hit year 7, I had set a goal of going to university. I knew moving around wasn’t great for my education. Both my parents left school in year 10, and I heard a local private school had scholarships available for low-income families like mine.
With the school’s support, I was the first in my family to finish high school, to complete a bachelor’s degree, to complete a master’s. Now I’m the first to start a PhD. Although I was an at-risk student (pregnant in year 12) that’s not the focus of my life or story. I had my eldest son 10 days before graduation and my hard work never stopped. My Atar of 95 got me into the course I wanted, a goal I’d set years before it actually became reality.
There have been hard times, harder than I like to admit. I am focused on the good of this world, for our future generations. My Mum had an extremely tough time, and her mother before her. Our family has been touched by all the factors commonly referred to as “Indigenous disadvantage”, especially trauma.
That again is not the focus of my story. I have devoted myself to education because our people deserve better. Our kids deserve culturally relevant schooling, and they deserve true opportunities to show their excellence. Our youth are amazing, and if I can play a small part in improving their lives and futures, I’ll be happy with that.
Feel-good stories of “success” like mine may hide the fact that Australia is startling short on Indigenous educators. Indigenous teachers form about 1% of the teaching community, while Indigenous students make up 5% of the student population. It has been clear for a number of years that programs aimed at increasing the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander educators are badly needed. It’s an absolute need as all Australians are lacking knowledge about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, me included. We can start with teachers in schools.
One program that I’ve been involved in is the More Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Teachers Initiative (Matsiti). Now in its final year of a four-year program, we have tried to increase the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people entering and – importantly – remaining in teaching positions in Australian schools. I’m a researcher working with successful Indigenous educators, writing and sharing their inspirational stories. I coined the #OurMobTeach hashtag which is now used for Indigenous education stories and our Matsiti social media campaign.
Having more Indigenous teachers is a key factor in fostering student engagement and improving educational outcomes for Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. Matsiti is fantastic, because the partnerships and co-investment agreements with school authorities, universities and other agencies it holds have led to a wide-reaching impact and coordinated approach toward the goal of more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teachers working in our Australian schools.
Matsiti grants are improving Indigenous education initiatives across universities. For example, Matsiti is supporting the creation of a national association of Australian Indigenous Lecturers in Initial Teacher Education (AILITEs). This association has been formed to increase the professional capacity of Indigenous academics in education by facilitating networking opportunities and providing peer support. It’s so important, because Indigenous academics face significant, and often specific, challenges related to our work.
As a lecturer and teacher I have faced such challenges. I started my career as a teacher trained in secondary drama and film, television and new media studies working as a creative arts primary school teacher in Brisbane. However, I decided to leave teaching to support Indigenous students, taking a role as an Indigenous support officer after seeing in my teaching role how Indigenous students were missing out on important cultural education and support.
I was only a support officer for half a year before the school required me to take on an additional teaching load. They offered me social studies to teach, because it had Indigenous content. This is just one of the many challenges as an Indigenous educator – the expectation that because you are Indigenous, you will teach the “Indigenous stuff” even if we are trained and talented in other areas. That being said, I completely fell in love with my work with Murri girls in schools and have never looked back!
I have since lectured in several universities in Queensland, New South Wales and the ACT, where I am completing my PhD at the Australian National University. The cultural concerns I faced in schools are rampant within universities.
As part of my week hosting @IndigenousX, I’ve been discussing higher education. This Wednesday evening our #MatsitiChat Twitter forum runs again from 7:30pm. I hope that this chat will gain traction and coverage outside the Indigenous community and raise awareness of the program and why we need more Indigenous teachers.
Currently I’m in the last few months of fieldwork, looking at the experiences of Aboriginal girls in Australian urban boarding schools incorporating a Māori girls’ school as a comparison. I’m passionate about Indigenous research, and am developing a method with my participants which I’ve termed “photoyarn”. Students are yarning their stories in individual yarns and yarning circles, using their own photographs to explore their ideas. I’m hopeful my PhD will share the voices of Indigenous boarders which are sorely lacking in literature, research and policy.