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 Seeing is believing: Education gaps holding back Indigenous teachers and students 

Indigenous students and teachers continue to be disadvantaged by the education system, an Aboriginal educator says.

Lecturer Cally Jetta, who specialises in First Nations teaching, says she has seen a lack of support in schools.

“One thing I’ve noticed being in the education system for the past 14-15 years is that there’s always a whole succession of white leaders and co-ordinators moving through positions and the Aboriginal assistant remains there year after year,” says Jetta, who is senior lecturer (First Nations Studies) at the University off Southern Queensland.

“It’s paramount that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students are able to see their own people in positions of leadership in schools and to be able to aspire to that.”


 Seeing is believing: Education gaps holding back Indigenous teachers and students 

Cally Jetta: Picture: Chelsea Philip

There is a shortage of Indigenous teachers and also an imbalance between the number of Indigenous students and teachers, the 2016 Australian Census shows. About 2 per cent of educators were Indigenous, while more than 6 per cent of students were.

The lack of Indigenous teachers in schools and universities has put more pressure on the few who are present in these institutions.

Jetta said,

For many Aboriginal teachers they’d be the only Aboriginal person in the school. Sometimes 300, 400 people or more and it could feel very hard to feel that your perspective or voice is heard.

Government and educational institutions need to make changes in order to support Indigenous students and educators in being treated as equal to non-Indigenous individuals, she said. “Schools could serve their Aboriginal students a lot better by actually investing in their Aboriginal education liaison officers.”

Currently, although many schools employ a liaison officer, they are often not offered adequate support to boost their professional development and performance management.

“They are often a very wasted and unutilised resource,” she says.

Jetta believes it would be better to use their skills and expertise to contribute to resolving the issue and closing the gap.

Trauma-informed practices would be an important addition to schools, she said. The impact of the Stolen Generations, where so many Indigenous people were disconnected from their community, remains strong.

Tina Tai, a primary school teacher at Rowellyn park, says there are still large gaps in the way Indigenous history and culture has been taught.

“For the past 14 years we have been teaching primary school kids about Indigenous Australians’ Dreamtime stories and traditions, however there is very little focus on the trauma and difficult experiences they’ve had to go through,” Tai said.

At the end of 2019, after a meeting of all of Australian education ministers, the Education Council released the Mparntwe Education Declaration.

The goal was to “ensure that learning is built on and includes local, regional and national cultural knowledge and experience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and work in partnership with local communities”.


 Seeing is believing: Education gaps holding back Indigenous teachers and students 

Tina Tai. Picture supplied

Implementing Aboriginal perspectives across the curriculum can bring in significant change by employing Indigenous people because they are the most capable of sharing their Indigenous knowledge, history and culture.

Most Aboriginal students have parents and grandparents who had shocking experiences with the mainstream education system, and this can take a huge toll on both mental and physical health.

Jetta, whose husband is Indigenous and who has three sons, says she has seen the struggles her family has to go through on a daily basis for being Indigenous.

She said,

They speak three languages and can survive on Country and none of that knowledge and skills are valued and so they are always seen as disadvantaged, of needing to catch up and of being less than – and that’s the rhetoric that Aboriginal kids hear at school constantly.

Jetta wants more empathy and understanding around how the education system disadvantaged and excluded Aboriginal people.

Schools should place more focus on building a relationship of trust between parents and teachers, as a crucial step in supporting Indigenous students in their learning and make it feel less like having to “walk between two worlds”, Ms Jetta said.

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