Applying life's lessons

LAST WINTER I was lying in the red dirt in the middle of the Sandover Highway two hundred kilometres northeast of Alice Springs. I was trying to get the jack under my Hilux campervan after a blowout. I remembered the quizzical expression on my gym instructor’s face some months before. I had just told her I wanted to come to the Gym for the Ageing so I could crawl under my truck. Her eyes flickered down to the birth date on my application form as she tried to calculate my seventy-eight years. 

Now all those leg and arm-strengthening exercises were being tested. This was the fourteenth year I had driven north in the winter to volunteer in remote Aboriginal communities. But this year I was on a mission to solve some educational issues and was about to visit a community that had a possible answer.

Since retiring, I have volunteered in the Pacific and Indonesia on short assignments with Australian Business Volunteers teaching governance. I have been a welcomed guest helping to empower participants with a course on the responsibilities of a board director. In return I have acquired insights into country and culture. During the winter months I have volunteered in Aboriginal communities, mainly to teach video in art and women’s centres and to rangers. Here I am initially regarded with suspicion as one of a passing parade of ‘white fellas’ telling them what to do.

It has taken me many years and return visits to remote communities in Western Australia and the Northern Territory to begin to understand some of the different and complex issues in each community. I have questioned why the white fellas are in all the powerful positions when it appears many have little qualifications, apart from their knowledge of English. Why aren’t they trained in capacity building and cultural awareness, which is compulsory for overseas aid workers? 

In Aboriginal communities I have had to build up trust and mutual respect with the local people to get over being pigeon-holed as yet another fly-in white fella come to tell them what to do. I have never forgotten, or been allowed to forget, that as a white fella I carry generations of historical racial baggage that will be held against me if I step out of line. Little by little I have felt more confident about discussing policy issues with the local women. But even as we become comfortable with one another, they can put me in my place – usually gently with humour, but at times of stress the years of hurt are thrown in my face.

Five years ago, my seven-year-old grandson flew from Brisbane to join me in Alice Springs, before I headed a thousand kilometres up the Stuart Highway and off to the west to Wadeye to teach video to the rangers. Lewin and I had been tourists in Uluru and I had taken him to the local Mutujulu community were I had previously worked. On his last day we decided to join the tourists and visit the School of the Air in Alice Springs.

This is an iconic tourist attraction and hosts hundreds of visitors a year in a centre decorated with children’s artworks, souvenirs and postcards. Many visitors from overseas marvel at the service that the Northern Territory Education Department provides for isolated children. Alice Springs is the pioneer and in 2011 it was to celebrate its sixtieth anniversary. 

We were shown a promotional video explaining the school’s development from the 1930s, when it pioneered correspondence courses – as School in a Mailbox – to isolated children on remote properties. 

It became School of the Air by sharing the Alice Springs Royal Flying Doctor Service’s two-way HF radio service into isolated homesteads in central Australia in 1951. The broadcasts supported the correspondence courses and enabled children to talk to their teacher about their work, the brainchild of Adelaide Miethke, who was on the Council of the Flying Doctor Service of South Australia. She wanted to break the children’s social isolation.

In 1978, the Alice Springs School of the Air moved to its own purpose-built radio studio building. In 2005, IDL (Interactive Distance Learning) provided audio and visual access for students via two-way satellite systems. Each student site has a satellite dish and associated computer equipment, allowing students to see and hear their teachers in real time, as well as to speak and be heard by other students in the class. Students can work simultaneously on their computers, sharing learning materials with the teacher and other students. The Northern Territory has developed a software program known as REACT (Remote Educational and Conferencing Tool) specifically for distance education. 

There are now sixteen Schools of the Air in five states. The equipment and teaching varies with each state education department. 

At the visitors’ centre we watched, in two studios, teachers giving lessons to students from preschool to Year 6. The students can see the teachers demonstrating their lessons and the teachers can see and hear the individual pupils in their remote homesteads and monitor their work. The school sends out regular packages of lessons, books, CDs and DVDs that these studio sessions support.

In the homesteads, parents or ‘govies’ – governesses, many of them are retired teachers or students in their gap year before going to university – supervise the children’s work and there are weekly instructional sessions for these home tutors. Once a fortnight, in the Alice Springs studio, there is school ‘assembly’ for the one hundred enrolled students. The teachers gather in the studio and recognise birthdays and celebrate good work. 

There appeared to be no Aboriginal presence in the visitors’ centre, in the students’ work, or on the staff and yet it was serving children living in one of the most culturally rich areas of Australia. I asked what classes School of the Air provided for Indigenous students. I was told that there were a few children in a remote community in Corella Creek, a thousand kilometres north-east on the Barkly Tableland, where the children spoke English and took some classes, but all the other primary Aboriginal students were catered for in schools. Historically, Aboriginal children were not included in any education system, and only an exceptional station family would consider educating the children of their workers.  

ALL MY WORKING life I have been involved in various aspects of educational television. In the early ’60s I was in the United States working at an educational television station and visited MPATI (Midwest Programs in Airborne Television Instruction) at Purdue. This was before domestic satellites. Each day, a plane flew round five states beaming down instructional television to remote schools. Later, in Britain, I taught teachers in training colleges to use television to cope with the baby boomer students and produced a pilot program with Exeter University, a trial for The Open University. 

In the ’80s I was a member of the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal and we were taken out to Kintore, a remote community in the central desert, to hear evidence from the surrounding communities on what the domestic satellite could do for them – education and health were key issues. We granted a commercial television licence to the Aboriginal company Imparja because it promised to train and employ Aboriginal staff and make programs – to become the training ground for a generation of filmmakers. In the ’90s at Griffith University we produced one of the first educational programs broadcast by ABC Open Learning. 

I was concerned that School of the Air, a technically sophisticated resource, appeared to be trapped in a ’60s culture. It was only being used for a hundred isolated white children who were in the state school system and a few Aboriginal children in a remote community who spoke English. It did not appear to acknowledge or reference Indigenous culture or languages that are integral to the land where the white students were living.

I knew there was a shortage of teachers in the Northern Territory, so I decided to concentrate my volunteering in remote schools to find out more. I discovered that there are hundreds of Aboriginal children who go to school, but who cannot speak English. In fact I later learned that in 2014 fifty-eight per cent, more than six thousand primary school children, spoke a language other than English at home. Most of their teachers have no training in Teaching English as a Second or Other Language (TESOL) and there are no dedicated English as a Second Language (ESL) or English as Additional Language (EAL) teachers in remote community schools. To add to the problem, the children do not speak English in the playground or in the community, unlike ESL students in the cities, where there are dedicated teachers. 

In 2008 the NT Government decided on a quick fix – English had to be taught in all schools in the first four hours of the day. But the central problem of no trained teachers in TESOL was not addressed.

This policy failed. It totally sidelined the Indigenous Assistant Teachers: their bilingual and two-way learning cultural classes were abandoned and they were relegated to classroom discipline, making lunches and playground duty. After persistent lobbying the policy was quietly removed in 2012 but not before damage had been done to the role of Indigenous Assistant Teachers and school attendance. The Territory Education Department has now reinstated bilingual learning and has a policy framework for Learning English as an Additional Language, but does not provide training or resources to implement it. 

THE NT EDUCATION Department recruits teachers from interstate for its eighty-three very remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander schools. Its website asks ‘Have you got what it takes?’ and outlines all the financial benefits – additional loadings, airfares, study leave and a free house. But there is little about the educational issues. This year it has cut the five-day orientation course in Darwin for teachers taking up positions in remote schools and I am told there is no introduction to cultural awareness; no instruction of how to teach with Indigenous Assistant Teachers; no requirement to have the basics for TESOL; no understanding of the tension between preserving the first language and culture and learning English, and no prerequisite to learn even a few words of the local language of the community they are posted to.

The overworked principals are required to provide any orientation they regard as necessary. A common complaint from teachers is, ‘I had no idea what it would mean to be faced with a class of children who cannot speak English.’ The education department offers an online TESOL course, but it is not compulsory, and I have met very few teachers who have done it. 

The result: many young, ill-equipped teachers launch into teaching literacy and numeracy as if they were teaching English speakers. Committed to following the new national curriculum, they are not trained to teach spoken English and do not understand that children must learn to speak English by practising over and over again before they can read and write. Although bilingual education can now again be used in the schools, the teachers have little idea of how to use the language and cultural expertise of their assistants. In the 1980s, bilingual education was showing improved English literacy results in the upper classes when a student’s first language was supported in the early years and English was gradually introduced. But since then, teachers say there has been continuous chopping and changing between different English literacy programs and none with trained ESL support. Teachers are now teaching literacy and numeracy for Year 3 NAPLAN as if English was the students’ first language and the results are poor. 

In a remote school storeroom full of discarded resources, I found Language Power, consisting of three books designed ‘to achieve more effective language and literacy programs in Aboriginal Schools’, for ‘Aboriginal and non Aboriginal teachers in team teaching situations’. They were dated 1988. This was a time when the Territory Education Department recognised two-way learning (also known as both-way learning) and assistant teachers as authorities in their local language and culture; provided a place for their knowledge in the curriculum and understood that they are an important link between the community and the school. The booklets are full of useful ways of crossing the language and cultural divide using community references. A struggling teacher exclaimed, ‘Why didn’t they give us these booklets in our orientation?’

The federal funding for preschools and childcare provides a great opportunity to support bilingual and two-way learning, so that children come to school speaking English as well as their own language. 

Sadly, the NT Government does not appear to recognise that there is a major spoken English language problem in its remote communities. The emphasis is all on literacy and numeracy.

In one remote community where I volunteered, the government had outsourced the running of the crèche to a Perth organisation that operates suburban kindergartens. This organisation has no experience in remote communities where the children do not speak English. Unsurprisingly, they were having great trouble finding and keeping qualified staff. Last year they recruited a director from Britain who had never been to Australia, let alone a remote community. The one Aboriginal trainee teacher left.

The Gonski Education Report highlighted areas of inequality and disadvantage. The Northern Territory tops three of these – Indigenous, 40.6 per cent  (6.6 per cent in Queensland); remote area, 45.5 per cent (WA 6.9 per cent); LOTE (Language Other Than English), 29.2 per cent  (WA 15.2 per cent) – and the NT Government did not sign up for the Gonski funding and has slashed $16.5 million from the education budget for year 2013–14.

I REALISED THAT teaching English as a Second Language was far more important than teaching either video or governance. The communities want their children to be able to speak English as well as retain their own language and culture. They know that to get anywhere in this country you have to be able to speak English; they don’t want them to feel shame every time they have to approach a whitefella; they understand that the children who go away to school and learn how to live in the English-speaking towns have more confidence. But they want them to be able to learn in their community so they do not lose their language and culture. So three years ago I took myself off to a TESOL course in Sydney. I was twice the age of most of the students who planned to teach English overseas. I also did an immersion course in Spanish and learned just what it was like to walk into a classroom and not speak the language. 

The next year I offered my new skills to a school where I had taught video. The principal was concerned that her inexperienced teachers would be unable to cope with another teacher’s presence and said that her need was coaching for the Indigenous Assistant Teachers (IATs). She suggested I make contact with the tutor at Batchelor Institute for Indigenous Tertiary Education responsible for the Vocational Education Training certificate courses in Education Support and Early Childhood that her IATs were doing. The tutor was enthusiastic and for the past couple of years I have accompanied her to communities where she runs workshops for IATs. I have stayed on to coach them in what are essentially correspondence courses written for students with English as a first language. The IATs were enrolled without an assessment of their English and there were no prerequisite English classes for them. It is not surprising that they are struggling and desperately need resident coaches and release from their classes.

Coaching has also taken me into Catholic schools. As a non Catholic I am impressed with the degree of support for the schools from their community. Clearly the church provides important cohesion between the community and the school and a meeting point for both. The Aboriginal teachers are respected; coaching time is scheduled into their timetable, as is team teaching meetings. The Aboriginal teachers conduct classes in Religious Education ‘in language’ and the two schools I visited both had Aboriginal deputy principals.

These schools also have links with the wider Catholic community. Classes of students from city schools visit regularly; teachers get leave from their schools in other states to teach remotely and one teacher had done her prac teaching in the school. 

As in the public schools, the teachers are not required to have ESL training or to sit in on the religious language classes to experience what it is like to be taught in another language. But the Catholic Education Office in Darwin appeared to be receptive to some basic ESL ideas which could be incorporated into their professional development.

OVER THE PAST five years I have regularly visited School of the Air to keep in touch with what they are doing. I am impressed with the technology and appreciative of the dedication of the teachers to their isolated white students. In addition to teaching them from the studio, they organise their learning packages and mark their work, visit each of their students once a term and mount sporting and other activities for the whole school in Alice Springs three times a year. A couple of years ago I asked about the use of school facilities after hours and was told that there had been one or two approaches to hire the bandwidth, but nothing had come of it.

The school has increased its number of Aboriginal students to 32 out of 134. It now teaches Aboriginal students in Years 7, 8 and 9. They continue to go to their one-teacher remote primary schools and take School of the Air classes. But there is very little support in the classroom. In the school I visited, a television was set up in what was the teacher’s office and the students were left to struggle with the lesson coming from the Alice Springs studio. There was no ‘govie’ equivalent as it was assumed that the students’ English was good enough. This was not so. It appeared to be an added function that the overworked teacher and two assistant teachers had to deal with. The older students were not coping

Last year I talked about the ESL problems to remote school principals and teachers, academics, tutors, the union and the Department of Education in Alice Springs. 

I floated the idea of recruiting volunteer coaches from baby boomer teachers who were now beginning to retire. A great idea, but no accommodation. A campervan stationed in Alice Springs that volunteers could use. No money. I suggested that School of the Air could be used after school hours for teachers’ professional development to learn to teach ESL. A different area. Remote state schools in Central Australia use REACT, the conferencing facility for professional learning for teachers and assistant teachers. REACT often has a problem with bandwidth. It is a state school and remote Catholic schools cannot access it. However, I noted that the children of Catholic teachers can use School of the Air and have a satellite dish outside their houses adjoining the school.

This year teachers were telling me that the situation in the state schools was the worst it had ever been. They could see no resolution to the ESL problem, there were funding cuts and larger students-to-staff ratios. The department had cut the position of its tutor to support the Batchelor tutor; assistant teachers were taking on unsupervised teaching roles in split classes, and there was no time for team teaching meetings.

One of the assistant teachers did a research project for her diploma. She talked to past and present teachers. In a letter she has circulated she states: ‘Many [teachers] do not have any idea how to teach Indigenous children who do not speak English as a first language… I think it is very important that the Education Department sends teachers who have training in English as a Second Language… We need teachers who are qualified to teach ESL to a wide range of students and who have English as a second language. The teachers who work out in the Homelands schools work with Aboriginal assistant teachers who are also ESL speakers. Most of the new teachers had no experience working in this way. The teachers need some professional development to help them understand how to work as a team with IATs. 

Additionally many Aboriginal children suffer from hearing problems. Teachers need to have an understanding of how to address these problems in class.’ 

THERE CLEARLY IS a crisis. In 1961 Fidel Castro solved the literacy problem in Cuba. He sent university students out to the country to teach the illiterate farmers to read and write. They had the advantage of speaking the same language, but they solved the literacy problem in Cuba. In 2012 a Cuban teacher came to Wilcannia to teach the Aboriginal adults to read and write English using the Cuban method.

The Khan Academy is a US based, global, online classroom offering free resources and teaching for Maths. It would be simple to teach phonetics using the internet. With my video and a friend’s speech training skills, we are looking at this.

Teaching adults to speak, read and write English is not all that difficult. In the short term there could be a team of ESL teachers trained to teach spoken English, in a culturally respectful way, visiting communities as the dentists and doctors do. 

But School of the Air is the obvious answer. It could broadcast classes in spoken English by a trained ESL teacher to remote communities and the Interactive Distance Learning system would enable students to talk to the teacher and get immediate feedback. The teachers could act as ‘govies’ and at the same time see how to teach spoken English and be instructed how to continue it in the classroom. 

With each visit I could see how the wonderful teaching facilities of School of the Air could be extended after school hours and used at weekends and in the holidays to help solve a number of education problems. The preschool teacher shortage: it could provide relevant spoken English language classes for the communities and support the Families as First Teacher Program to assist the children to come to school bilingual. ESL teacher shortage: professional development TESOL courses to all remote Indigenous schools. The lack of cultural awareness courses: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teachers could provide these classes, both for teachers’ professional development and also during the school term for all the School of the Air students. The shortage of VET coaches: English classes for IATs. The reduction in VET workshops: classes by the Batchelor tutors.

SO I DECIDED to drive to Corella Creek, the remote Aboriginal school that takes School of the Air. It is five hundred kilometres from Tennant Creek, the nearest town. It was on my way there that I had to change my heavy wheel. I did it with the help of a handy bladder that lifts the wheel on to the hub, a job I could never do without it, despite my gym exercises. 

The community has about ten houses. Their families came from Brunette Downs Station and speak Aboriginal English. Now they live in their own community and provide a jackaroo service to stations. There is no store, but there is a clinic that nurses attend once a week. 

Six years ago the community agitated for the school to be re-opened. There are about twenty-six children signed up for School of the Air, two qualified teachers and two IATs and last year it became a School of the Air annex, the first of its kind. This means the students visit Alice Springs twice a year and take part in the games and activities with all the other children. Importantly, they get special classes from Alice Springs to prepare them for the main School of the Air class. 

I saw the special Year 3 maths class, which provides additional coaching to the four Corella Creek students who work round a table watching and responding to the big screen. It was later followed by the normal School of the Air Year 3 maths class. The Corella Creek students then sat at their individual computer screens, like all the other isolated Year 3 students. They responded to the lesson through the chat box, spoke up when asked and were part of ‘the largest classroom in the world’

These are very tentative first steps to include Aboriginal students. The children have to be able to speak English but at least School of the Air is providing specific support for students who have special needs and they are learning and sharing sports days in Alice Springs on an equal footing with their white contemporaries.

Could this be a model for the one-teacher Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander schools? Would future tourists visiting the School of the Air studios in Alice Springs be able to see local children’s drawings and stories about their remote culture, life and language? Would they see Aboriginal teachers teaching in the studios?

Could Alice Springs School of the Air be the game changer to break down the educational bureaucratic barriers? To provide a facility for all students and teachers in all remote places of learning to learn from each other. 

School of the Air had the vision to break down the tyranny of distance for the white settlers in the ’50s. The domestic satellite launched in the ’80s made that vision much more sophisticated for remote white Australia, but the hope that it raised in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to service their educational and cultural needs has not been met.

What prevents the Alice Springs School of the Air being used to its full potential for assisting all remote children? Is it policy denial that there are children with unique needs, with different languages and culture, exacerbated by the tyranny of distance? Is it the bureaucratic silos between governments and within the education departments? The fiercely defended funding empires within the education departments? Or is it racism? 

Sixty-three years on, a sophisticated technical facility, built to provide teaching expertise to remote students, is not being used to its full potential and arguably where it is most needed.

Last year the NT Education Department set up a review of its Indigenous education. Its terms of reference included reviewing the independent sectors’ successes but there was no mention of School of the Air. The draft report published in 2014 acknowledged that distance education was relevant to the delivery of education to Aboriginal students but it was beyond the terms of reference. Although it went on to mention distance education, in relation to its secondary recommendations, there was no recognition that it could be used for Aboriginal primary, early childhood or teacher development.

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