Michelle Kerrin: The toxicity of low expectations limits Indigenous students
January 24, 2018
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Michelle Kerrin is a proud Arrernte and Luritja woman from the Northern Territory. She recently completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Melbourne with a major in Australian Indigenous Studies and is currently working at the Melbourne Indigenous Transition School.
As the government continues to talk about Closing the Gap, it is up to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities to instil extra support and create pathways for young Indigenous people.
After working in these spaces, I can tell you it is not always easy. Often it involves entering an environment that has historically denied a place for our young people. It can be heartbreaking, daunting and tiring but as our children continue to succeed in the western education system, we see people continue to grow both on country and in community. Culture, language, lore, community and education remain critical to the growth of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
If you have been the token Indigenous student in your class, or if you have simply entered white education spaces, you may understand the complexities of having to negotiate your Indigenous identity in order to achieve the narrative of success.
Through the maintenance of overwhelming whiteness within institutions, young people begin to believe that working hard and achieving success are exclusive characteristics to that of white people, and as a result, the Indigenous identity is attributed to a language of “less than”.
Indigenous students are continually bombarded with ideologies and stereotypes that they are failures and are positioned in a narrative of negativity and deficiency. The toxicity of low expectations placed on Indigenous students is not only harmful towards attendance rates and academic scores, but continues to limit Indigenous children from reaching their full potential both in and out of the classroom.
Schools that rely on a benchmark such as a “norm” or “average” too often define Indigenous students’ potential as “limited”. Young mob are compared to non-Indigenous students and are scaled according to a system that does not always recognise the complexities of Indigenous knowledges and ways of learning.
Without recognition of the ongoing effects of colonisation and whiteness, the majority of Indigenous children will continue to be seen as “less than average”. In this vein, we cannot expect our children to enter spaces that are not culturally safe, that do not have enough resources – including resources for bilingual education – or if these environments simply do not make Indigenous students feel valued.
For the past year I have worked in educational spaces such as the Melbourne Indigenous Transition School (MITS). This school has been demonstrative of the ways in which young Indigenous people can be supported in white systems, by providing young mob with the opportunity to undertake a year of transition study on a scholarship before entering mainstream schools in Victoria.
We know that this is not the single answer to the problems within Indigenous education, however the success of the students is clearly reflective of the support in place within the program. Mob are validated as powerful and resilient young people in a space where they are so inherently undermined.
As young mob continue to experience the effects of colonisation and intergenerational trauma, it is important that Indigenous students are seen as worthy in the educative environment and to themselves. Strong community relations, including building ties with elders, engaging with culture and language at school, and listening and valuing the voices in community, remains critical to student success – whatever that may entail in our communities.