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Why do I feel I’m failing Indigenous students?

The appointment of Tony Abbott as the Indigenous Envoy, who claimed his key focus would be on Indigenous education, adds yet another barrier of Indigenous people asserting their rights. Anything and everything that deals with Indigenous people; Australia loves moon-walking back into the past, rather than taking steps forward.

As an educator and a teacher in the classroom, I do feel trapped in an educational system that has actively sort to disadvantage and discriminate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Wave after wave of educational policies which mandated Aboriginal children to be taken away from their families, placed in missions to be Christianised, be segregated into Aboriginal only schools, be treated as experiments when integrated with orphaned white children. Instructed with skills to only become labourers or maids (if they were lucky), denied access to public schools if a single white parent complained (even then the complaint would be a simple ‘I do not want that Aboriginal child at the school’). Further segregated based on blood quantum and present-day assimilated to be white and less black.

We are still regarded as a child race incapable of satisfactory handling of our own affairs. Because of these policies, the system has caused an educational crisis among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. This is narrowly seen through the gaps in literacy and numeracy, attendance and year 10 and 12 completion. However, the crisis goes far beyond these indicators. Whilst there has been a push for making institutions and curriculum more culturally appropriate and safe, I still feel as though Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders educational success is still not valued or respected. Why is it that we are still having conversations to urge principals, teachers and educators to ensure that their schools or institutions are culturally appropriate and whether they have created a safe space for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

Why is it that we are still having conversations to urge principals, teachers and educators to ensure that their schools or institutions are culturally appropriate and whether they have created a safe space for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

We also need to be careful of how we interpret and integrate culturally appropriate content as ‘culture’ and ‘Indigeneity’ is still largely constructed by non-Indigenous people. To be Aboriginal to be Torres Strait Islander or to have culture, are still defined and determined by non-Indigenous people. I have tirelessly heard that Aboriginal people culture is dot paintings, boomerangs and bush tucker. White constructs and whitewashing still and continues to be permeated throughout white Australian society. Non-Indigenous educators need to be mindful when they integrate one ‘cultural’ appropriate text or one Indigenous perspective into the curriculum. The operative word being ‘one’.

That ‘one’ text or ‘one’ perspective will not make that Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander kid feel comfortable or respected, it is not as easy to just tick that box and move along. Just because they are able to portray and connect themselves with that one character or one practice does not mean they will feel any more valued. So, no you have not done your job. A student will feel valued and respected when the school itself, as well as policies regarding education, is built on Indigenous ways of doing and being. Indigenous knowledge needs to be reflected and integrated as the normal narrative and dialogue. It needs to be in everything we read, see, speak, do and act.

I feel as though I am failing my Indigenous students because here I am having to teach Darwin’s evolutionary theory in Year 10 Biology when it was his very theories that were used to prove that Aboriginal people would eventually die out based on the survival of the fittest ‘insert white Caucasian man’. Why is that that Indigenous students are still taught that the ‘discovery’ of Australia occurred 230 years ago. Why are we still using deficit language, why is ‘discovery’ or ‘arrival’ not replaced with ‘invaded’. Dated history textbooks still circulate around schools, illustrating Aboriginal people as being ‘hunter gatherers and had no establishment of agriculture, economics, politics, law and order.

How are our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students supposed to feel valued and respected when non-Indigenous people still have no idea and choose not to know.

History textbooks still illustrate that Australians are white and that Australian history is still a white narrative. Why is it ok that Indigenous students continue to research and write about Captain Cook?  Why are Indigenous students being told to connect and empathise more with World War I or II than Frontier Wars? Why do we still need to validate that Indigenous Knowledge is as credible as Western Science? Why do we need non-Indigenous scientists to prove Indigenous Knowledges are correct? Proof by white academics does not make it credible, we make it credible, we as First Nation people who have survived for over 60,000 with our knowledges of understanding, observing, testing and perfecting. Inquiry and creativity are engraved in our DNA, it is our genetic makeup.

I grow tired of hearing of educators saying, ‘dot paintings and bush tucker’, I grow tired of hearing ‘I did not know’ after reading Bruce Pascoe’s ‘Dark Emu’ or any article, newspaper, story, discussion they encounter. I grow tired of this ‘cult of forgetfulness’ and I grow tired of white ignorance. I feel as though I am failing my Indigenous students because here I am teaching in a system that perpetuates white ignorance. To teach in a system that still fears or shy’s away from truth-telling. A system that still produces Australian citizens to think and behave ignorantly and to have no idea of the racist and discriminatory policy periods that followed after the invasion.

How are our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students supposed to feel valued and respected when non-Indigenous people still have no idea and choose not to know. I feel as though I am failing my Indigenous students because by facilitating their educational success, I cannot shield them from the ongoing racism, bias and discrimination that our educational system is built upon.

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