We’re still not ready: The disconnect between tertiary Aboriginal Education courses and the secondary classroom

While national and state curricula attempt to ensure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, histories, and experiences are embedded into classrooms, and government policy prioritises that school outcomes for Indigenous students match or better that of their non-Indigenous peers, the implementation is left almost wholly in the hands of teachers.

At a particular point in any degree, certain phrases start to become a commonplace ‘in-joke’ of sorts within the cohort. For Secondary Education students, this comes in the form of Standard 1 in the Professional Standards for Teachers: ‘know your students and how they learn’. We’ve continually heard this mantra in many iterations across a multitude of Education units. Of course, its importance is not unfounded. A wholly inclusive learning environment can only be created when students feel that all facets of their identities are understood. The teachers that leave the most impact on their students are indeed the ones who go above and beyond to show that they care. 

In the case of Aboriginal education, however, things start to unravel a little. While national and state curricula attempt to ensure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, histories, and experiences are embedded into classrooms, and government policy pushes for school outcomes for Indigenous students that match or better that of their non-Indigenous peers, the implementation is left almost wholly in the hands of teachers. As pre-service teachers, we want to ensure our classrooms are culturally responsive and nourishing spaces which meaningfully incorporate all facets of all our students’ identities. So for our Indigenous students, our concern as non-Indigenous educators looking to embed Indigenous ways of knowing, being, and learning into our classrooms relates to the how – how do we incorporate such knowledges authentically, and non-tokenistically into our teaching? How do we include such knowledges into syllabi that, at points, excludes them? How do we ensure students engage with these knowledges respectfully? 

From the outset of study, we’ve had many a lecture within core Education units focused on sociology, psychology, and ethics exploring the systemic disparities in educational opportunities and outcomes of First Nations students. For those of us training to teach English or History, there have also been a few assessments which have asked us to incorporate Indigenous texts into our unit programming. But it has only been this year — our fourth year — that we’ve had a unit (EDSE4052) that focuses exclusively on Aboriginal Education. 

This feels a little too late. At this point, we’ve already completed our first practicum and have an understanding of the drawbacks in implementing Aboriginal knowledges in a real school setting. Accordingly, the unit itself feels superficial, recycling knowledge around the “diversity and importance of Aboriginal histories, cultures and identities” rather than focusing on how to implement Indigenous ways of learning into the classroom. As we have another placement this semester, the unit is also slightly condensed, running across a timeframe of nine weeks rather than the usual thirteen. This does not leave much scope to really go into depth with meaningfully adapting Indigenous knowledges into personal teaching pedagogy. 

Of course, even if we attempt to embed such learning into our pedagogy, there are several cultural challenges that emerge within specific subject areas. In English, for example, teachers face the challenge of selecting texts that are culturally sensitive and engaging for students. Teachers need to be wary of metaphors and symbols that oversimplify and romanticise atrocities against Indigenous peoples. I still recall a time when a student asked me in response to the song “This Land is Mine” by Paul Kelly and Kevin Carmody, “Isn’t it racist for the Aboriginal man to claim that it is ‘his long black land’ when it is now the property of the white guy?”. The awkward moment caught me off guard, and I mumbled an unsatisfactory answer. Coming from very sanitised university classroom settings where there is little to no protest, preservice teachers are often not prepared for confrontation. I later kicked myself for not coming up with a better response.

Comparatively, the History curriculum has somewhat less freedom in choice, as Indigenous histories are only really studied within Australian History units, and most prominently in the mandatory Stage 5 ‘Rights and Freedoms’ topic. On my last placement, I observed a Year 10 History class going over the Freedom Rides in Australia. The class teacher told me after that while students enjoy learning about US Civil Rights, Aboriginal history tends to be met with groans of “why are we doing this again? We do this every year!” Perhaps it’s a reflection of the need to rework History content taught in school but also of the very colonial and Western vantage point from which the discipline is constructed.

So what can university courses, as the most hands-on intensive teacher training program, do for the next batch of nervous pre-service teachers? The most obvious solution is to be more candid about the confrontations and roadblocks that teachers may face when incorporating Aboriginal knowledges and texts into a real classroom setting. Simulating real classroom environments within university tutorials is a start. We’ve heard a lot about reaching out to local Aboriginal community members and the AECG to enrich our students’ learning in school. Bridging that gap in university by inviting Aboriginal Elders, community representatives, and LALC members into lectures and tutorials can give students the opportunity to learn from those with authentic, firsthand experiences. Allowing preservice teachers, like high school students, to have a chance to ask the difficult questions to a representative of the Indigenous community, will demonstrate to us how best to tackle uncomfortable situations ourselves. 

We need educators to talk to educators. As preservice teachers, we breathe a sigh of relief when we have the opportunity to listen to current teachers speak about the dynamics of the school system. Most of the time, this occurs in our Curriculum units, where teachers representing a certain discipline area are invited to the university. This must happen more intentionally for Aboriginal Education courses. Learning must feel relevant. The current realities of staffroom bureaucracy, constant policy changes, and administrative overloads need to be clearly communicated now so we can start thinking about how we manage them in the future. Concrete points of support should also be shared. A phone number, an email address, or a specific professional development link can go a long way when we have been told countless times to just ‘seek support online and from the community’ more generally. 

These strategies are a few among many options. A teacher’s contribution to raising the next generation of active and informed Australians is uncontested. This starts from acknowledging the Aboriginal students in the classroom, and informing non-Indigenous students that their histories, cultures, languages, and texts are equally as important as the next. However, it is only when teachers feel cared for that they can create inclusive learning environments that considers all students and how they learn.

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