Saturday the 4th of August is National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children’s Day. It is an opportunity for all Australians to celebrate our kids, and consider the impact that community, culture and family play in the life of every Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child.
Aboriginal children play an important role in carrying our culture into the future and our communities work hard to raise strong and resilient leaders. We give kids a voice and teach them not to be afraid to use it. We send them off to school to be educated and gain skills that we hope will complement the lessons we have given them and encourage their growth.
But often this is not the school experience for Aboriginal kids. Many struggle in the school environment. This is hardly surprising given that many schools are not culturally friendly and children are expected to operate in an environment that doesn’t understand them. Not only do many of our kids struggle with navigating the school system and trying to find their feet, they often face racism, bias and bullying because of their Aboriginality.
I regularly speak with teachers who are looking to support their Aboriginal students, many of whom are disconnected in the classroom and struggling to find their voice in the school environment. I love that these teachers are reaching out – it shows they care and that someone is looking out for our kids. I am always happy to have a yarn and see if I can help.
Many teachers who contact me for support are looking to bring our resources into their school, not for all students but just for one or two Aboriginal students. The request is made with genuine good intentions but I can hear the frustration of teachers as I explain that is not how our platform works. Sticking the Aboriginal kids on a computer by themselves is not going to help them. It is not going to help them connect in the classroom.
Aboriginal kids need us to create culturally competent and safe school environments. They need schools that celebrate their communities, acknowledge the resilience of their people and provide opportunities for them to connect and feel included. They need classrooms that include genuine Aboriginal perspectives and peers who are gaining a shared knowledge and respect for the journey Aboriginal people have travelled and the confidence to stand in solidarity to challenge the misconceptions that they hear in mainstream society everyday. Like all students, Aboriginal kids need to feel secure in order to flourish. This can’t happen when every day is a struggle to fit in, to navigate a system that is culturally incompatible and where you are on the defence due to misconceptions fuelling negativity from peers.
I remember starting a new school when I was 14. I knew no one and they didn’t know me. During those first few days I was given lots of advice from my new peers intended to help me navigate my new environment. I learnt which teachers were tough and which were fun; I learnt which kids ruled the playground and which were considered uncool; I learnt what food to avoid at the canteen; and I learnt that I should try to be friends with the Aboriginal kids because they were scary and better to have onside than not.
If you had asked me then I don’t think I could have articulated why that advice made me uneasy but I certainly didn’t offer information about my own Aboriginality and I wondered what would happen when it was learnt that I was one of the ‘scary Aboriginals’ I had been warned about. The school had a large Aboriginal population – there were about 40 of us – and we had an amazing Aboriginal Education Assistant, a committed Aboriginal Support Teacher and an active parent committee supporting us. Despite this, there were so many misconceptions amongst the student body about Aboriginal people. There was resentment for the perceived entitlements we received and an underlying fear which I now know permeates society.
I doubt I would have received the same advice had Aboriginal education been approached differently and students were armed with knowledge to start breaking though the misconceptions that contributed to students feeling that such warnings were necessary. It is time that we start to approach Aboriginal education in this way.
When you are considering how to support your Aboriginal students I encourage you to look at the great initiatives designed to support Aboriginal kids but also look beyond our kids at the environment and see how you can help build a culturally competent environment for our kids to thrive in. And as always, if you think I can help, get in touch. I am always up for a yarn.
If you are looking for resources for National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children Day check out the SNAICC website http://aboriginalchildrensday.com.au.
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