Teacher Tuesday – Russell, Australia

15 Apr

Australia has had a chequered history as far as its aboriginal policies are concerned and the children today are part of the journey back to restoring the dignity and economic worth. Their parents did not have it that easy, as Russell, a teacher in an aboriginal school acknowledges. He tackles the political influences upfront, knowing that only a proper understanding of his students, their histories and circumstances will make him a better teacher. Russell is an aboriginal too, and came to formal teaching rather late. For years he worked as a life guard, a swimming instructor – having turned down university in his youth. He studied to be a teacher later – and is the first graduate in his family. Russell does not mince his words when he says that the awful learning experiences of the previous generation of aboriginals do cause problems in current classrooms too – for example he says if one announces a test, it is likely to lead to lower attendance on that day. Some children are afraid to bring their problems to their teachers because this is not what they are used to – another example – if they eat their lunch on the way to school, they’d rather not share the problem with the teacher, or let the teacher inform the parents.

As usual, when I read of Russell’s challenges I think of the classes I have taught in or observed both in England and in India. The range in his class is large – and I can empathise with this completely. Many schools in rural India run with just one or two teachers, and have five year groups to deal with. Classes are multi level as well as being multi grade. Russell teaches year 6 at age 12. He has the training, and the resources to scale and scaffold both learning and assessments. Even the homework he assigns is calibrated according to the capacity of the students – both academic and personal circumstances. Often this is what gets left out of Indian classrooms. Despite acknowledging the range as a problem teaching continues as if one size fits all. The line of best fit is not always the best fit for each student – everyone finds themselves struggling to reach this golden middle. Russell’s efforts in creating a classroom where every child gives 100% of their input is what is commendable. Then, the output can be according to their ability  and is assigned so.

There are so many parts to Russell’s story that stand out as beacons of hope for educators, that I am tempted to list the top three. Here we go:


The teacher training and incentive system: Russell was able to start teacher training mid career via correspondence, was able to obtain a scholarship to become a full time teacher trainee and then obtain a full time teaching post via the government. There is a transfer points system, so a teaching job in the remote areas gets you 8 points a year compared to just 1 point a year in the more desirable (for most) coastal areas. While this does mean that many teachers work in these high incentive areas only for a few short years, at least it does take teachers to the tougher areas. The standard advantages of being a part of a government school system of course apply to all these teachers.
Flexibility in Curriculum: Often aboriginal children do not want to study till they are in their late teens, as Russell notes. Even in younger years they tend to get restless in class. Schooling is compulsory till the age of seventeen, and if a student wants to leave before then they have to have a job or apprenticeship in hand. The syllabus has changed to incorporate vocational training so that they have a blend of academic school (2 days a week), technical school (2 days a week) and work experience (1day a week) which helps them along a path to better livelihood.
Flexibility and Teacher Autonomy: Russell decides that creative lessons will be done after lunch, he has the resources to arrange for a didgeridoo player to work with rap to help his students through traditional and new music. Russell can decide on his learning materials, and the customisation required for each student. In his own words, regarding English…

“The syllabus didn’t suit their needs. It was too regimented. Thee boys were more creative not just mind wise. I got them to learn English through drama and role plays. They got up and acted it out as they didn’t like to be still. The new syllabus has better cultural references in it I’m pleased to say. It has compulsory Aboriginal perspectives in it. You don’t have to write in words, you can write in paintings now, for example. I’ve had my students pull a story apart about the drought of the basin – a big river system here – and I got them to paint it with Indigenous symbols rather than write it.”

Rusell and other teachers have a lot of work ahead of them, indigenous and aboriginal people still lag in educational attainments. The work is hard, and often seems to be full of failures along the way. There are challenges. But as Russell himself says – “Be willing to learn on the run.”

That I would say is the best advice ever for teachers – be willing to learn on the run.

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