Saturday, December 15, 2007

Towards Reconciliation

We in Australia are part of a frighteningly racist society. Cherbourg School Principal Chris Sarra recently spoke at a ‘Towards Reconciliation’ Indigenous Education Conference. When I read the following excerpts from his speech, I was … well, okay, not really shocked. I did already know how racist people are. But I guess I'd hoped for more from fellow teachers.

Chris said (in part):

I had to challenge teachers and students who were colluding and reinforcing this notion that Aboriginal children were to be feared or despised, or at best helpless and pitiable … You see I wanted our children at Cherbourg to act like Aborigines and not like delinquents and not like no hopers. I wanted them to act like Aborigines and this was the space that we created for children and this is what we got.

I did challenge teachers about their restricted beliefs of children in school and I did say to them what I believe: that our children can leave here with a very strong and very positive sense of what it means to be Aboriginal and they can leave here with educational outcomes that are just as good as any other child in any other school in Queensland. I did say to them ‘if you don't believe this, then you will have to go’ and it is true that half the teaching staff got up and left.

Half the teaching staff did not believe that Aboriginal children could either (a) achieve a positive sense of Aboriginal identity or (b) achieve as well academically as any other children. I'm disappointed.

And just in case you agree with them, let's look at the results:

When I was principal at Cherbourg school, I saw the true colours of Aboriginal children … I saw Year 2 literacy improve from a point where no children were at expected reading levels in 1998 to a point where 52% of Year 2 children were at expected reading levels just two years later. I saw Year 7 literacy improve to the extent that all children were at rock bottom in state-wide diagnostic tests in 1999, to a point where 17 out of 21 Year 7 children were within the state average band for literacy in 2004. I saw unexplained absenteeism reduced by 94% within 18 months. I saw real attendance improve—62% in 1999 to 93% in 2004.

The bottom line for teachers?

Teachers in schools need to know just three things if they want to get great things from Aboriginal children: high expectations, high expectations, high expectations.

(Quotes taken from ‘True colours—strong and smart’, Independent Education, vol. 37, no. 3, pp. 8–10.)

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