IN 1984, I was a seventeen year-old Aboriginal youth just finishing school. I had a Tertiary Entrance score that told me I was average and that I only had the capacity to do some type of agricultural course if I was serious about entertaining the notion of study beyond high school. Fortunately for me, what is now the Queensland University of Technology was running a program designed to encourage more Aboriginal people into teaching. I enrolled and my mentor there Gary MacLennan taught me a great deal, most importantly to see myself positively regardless of how others with limited expectations perceived me. What started off as a lucky break saw me, many years later, graduating with a PhD in psychology and on a continuing journey to challenge other educators to believe in the learning capacity of indigenous Australians. For part of this journey I took on the role of Cherbourg State School's first Aboriginal principal.
Cherbourg State School is an Aboriginal Community School about 300 kilometres north-west of Brisbane. Cherbourg itself was formerly a mission or reserve where Aboriginal people from as far north as Cooktown and as far west as Quilpie were rounded up and dumped to be taught to be less Aboriginal.
On my arrival in August 1998, I discovered a school in chaos. It was a school in which Aboriginal children thought they were reinforcing their sense of being Aboriginal by aspiring downwards.
As part of my doctoral research, I facilitated 30 discussions about "mainstream" Australia's perception of Aboriginal people. At each forum I would say, "What are some words that mainstream Australia uses to describe Aboriginal people? Remember, I am not looking for your personal perceptions of Aboriginal people. I want to know how mainstream Australia sees Aboriginal people." Members of the forum would suggest words and I would note these on a whiteboard. Throughout the entire process I counted the frequency of use of each word.
At every forum, the participants reported that mainstream Australia perceived Aboriginal people as alcoholics, drunks or heavy drinkers. It was also widely held that Aboriginal people were privileged or that, in some way, they "got it good". Aboriginal people were regarded as "welfare dependent", "dole bludgers" and "lazy people who wouldn't work". On every occasion, many considered that mainstream Australia used pejorative terms such as "coon", "nigger", "boong", "black cunts" and "black bastards" in relation to Aboriginal people. These were the names my brothers and I were called at school.
Whilst I acknowledge the discomfort of some when confronted by these terms, I ask you to imagine how it would feel to live your life hearing these terms, and experiencing the attitudes that come with them, aimed directly at you.
What my research uncovered was a vicious, negative attitude towards Aborigines. This is the world into which the young Aborigine is thrown. He or she does not invent it. It is real. It is the poisoned chalice that mainstream Australia hands young Aborigines, whether they know it consciously or not.
IN OUR SCHOOL there was collusion with this perception. White teachers and Aboriginal children both subscribed to and reinforced this negative and inaccurate perception of what it means to be Aboriginal. Within the school two status quos existed. In the white status quo, the teachers blamed the community for the students' failure and their own performance was largely left unchallenged. In the black status quo, there was a recognition that the students were failing but the community could always blame the school and the teachers.
Many of the white teachers on staff had been there for years. They were like those who'd say, "My life has been transformed as a result of working on an Aboriginal community." That was a very nice, romantic view for them to take. Meanwhile, nothing in the lives of the children they were responsible for teaching was being transformed: The children were failing miserably. Extremely poor student behaviour and poor attendance was tolerated. The school grounds were a mess, littered and vandalised. The retention of children at high school was abysmal. (Research by a former principal of Murgon State High School found that of 4,260 students who went on to high school, most attended for only nine months.) As a result, some parents were bypassing the local school and sending their children to nearby Murgon, where they encountered similar watered-down expectations.
As principal, I made it clear that I would not tolerate failure. As an Aboriginal person, I made it clear I would not tolerate failure. When I questioned the staff about the extent of the school's failure they would suggest it was because of the social and cultural complexities of the children, and that the parents and children didn't value education.
They blamed the children and/or the community for the failure. At no stage did the staff scrutinise their own performance and ask, "What is it that we are doing that is contributing to such dramatic underachievement?"
To me this was the key. Clearly, we had very little control or influence over the external forces of the children's social and cultural environment. However, we did have control over what happened in the school environment. If the staff developed and embraced a culture and society of dismal failure, then this was what we were destined to achieve. In Education Queensland we have Principles of Effective Learning and Teaching. One of them is: "Effective learning and teaching shapes and responds to the social and cultural context of the learner." In schools, educators must shape and respond to a child's social and cultural context, not blame it. What frustrated and angered me most about this tendency to externalise and blame was that for a teacher in an Aboriginal community school, regardless of student outcomes, life went on. However, children and adults with limited or no education continue to suffer throughout their lives.
The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (1998) found that, of all those young Aboriginal people who died in some form of incarceration, most were illiterate and had very limited education. For some young Aboriginal people with extremely limited literacy skills, life doesn't go on at all. It is not my intention to overstate the importance of having a sound education, but I certainly do not want to understate it either.
THE SHOCKING REALITY for me was that I was running a school in which Aboriginal children were being nurtured in a school environment in which they would be rendered illiterate, powerless and herded down a track in which the only rite of passage was through a detention centre or teenage pregnancy.
In my first few weeks at Cherbourg School, I remember walking around visiting classrooms and dropping into the Grade 7 room. The children were playing up and were being led by one of the school's renowned "tough guys". He was very big compared with the other children in the school. He was also very sharp and had the sort of charisma that ensured other children followed him. His size and charisma enabled him to control most of the others in the classroom, including the teacher. This boy was extremely smart, but not the type of "smart" that schools value. I called him over to me for a chat. He glanced around at all the other children, put on a wry smile, puffed his chest out, and came over to see me. His face and demeanour changed instantly when I said: "I want to hear you read to me."
I insisted on hearing him read as vigorously as he protested. Eventually he grabbed a book, The Three Little Pigs, and "read" the story to me. He wasn't reading but rather just reciting it from memory in a way one would expect a four-year-old to do. His occasional glances over to his classmates clearly revealed his embarrassment about the whole situation. I then said: "OK, let's read another one, and this time I will pick the book."
In response he got up and shouted, "I'm not going to fucking read anymore!" In a rage he got up, opened a nearby fridge and kicked the inside of the door, smashing it. He then walked out of the classroom and disappeared from school for the rest of the week.
Whilst this child had the capacity to be a positive young man, it was never going to be realised or embraced in the school environment we provided.
Our school reflected an unhealthy partnership. It appeared "unbroken" but it had to smashed completely and rebuilt. There was an urgent need for quality teachers who would be firmer and less tolerant of poor behaviour and poor performance. There was also a need for more Aboriginal community people with a positive outlook on staff to work in partnership as co-educators with the new teachers I recruited to the school.
THINGS HAD TO change. Our efforts here were crystallised in the development of a new school vision and motto. I set out to challenge children, and to some extent parents, about how they saw themselves as Aboriginal people and how that related to what was happening in the school. This was a challenge that had to be met and the men had to step up with me to meet it.
We spoke with lots of people in the community. A consensus emerged that we expected the children to be both successful in life and to retain a positive sense of being Aboriginal. Today, the aim at Cherbourg State School is "academic outcomes that are comparable with other schools around Queensland and to nurture a strong and positive sense of what it means to be Aboriginal in today's society".
The school was not to be a place where one did nice things and someone patted you on the head. It was to be a place where you got power, where you learnt how to play and win the game of life. Cherbourg School was to be a place where you learnt the things that mainstream Australia wanted you to know, and where you also learnt and were able to recognise the things they didn't want you to know.
When we talked about developing a positive sense of identity, this for us meant being strong. When we talked about achieving academic outcomes, this for us meant being smart.
So we developed a new motto – "Strong and smart". Today, everywhere you go in our school you will see that all of the behaviour of all of the pupils and of the staff is related to being strong and smart.
With a new vision and a new motto, we then had to establish a team that believed we could achieve the changes we desired. Those who didn't believe that this was possible were encouraged to move on. In 1999, I sat with the staff that I had inherited and said to them: "What I believe, and what the elders in this community believe, is that our children can leave this school with academic outcomes that are just as good as those of any other child in the state, and that they can leave with a very strong and very positive sense of what it means to be Aboriginal ... If you don't believe that then you have to go."
Half of the teaching staff applied for transfers.
ONCE I KNEW who the new teachers were, I rang them to welcome them to the school and to signal the challenge that lay before them. I told them this was not insurmountable as long as we gave our best, stuck together and believed in what we were doing. Some teachers said: "I am a little bit worried because I have never really met any Aboriginal people."
My response was, "I don't care! I am not looking for experts on Aboriginal culture. I have plenty of experts surrounding me here. What I need are expert teachers who are prepared to work hard and deliver effective learning and teaching. I do, however, expect you to get outside of the school and find out more about where these children are coming from ... so that your teaching is more responsive to their social and cultural context."
Occasionally, I would meet with just the Aboriginal staff. These meetings were designed to hold each other accountable and to provide a forum where honesty and absolute frankness were the norm. Throughout these forums, I worked in the spirit of the Mahatma Gandhi motto: "You have to be the change that you want to see in the world". Thus, I told the Aboriginal staff that if we wanted the children to be strong and smart then we too had to be strong and smart. We owed that to each other as Aboriginal brothers and sisters, and we owed that to our children.
We had to focus on getting the children to share the vision. We celebrated being Aboriginal every day, not just during NAIDOC week. On parade we sang out "Strong and smart". We talked every day about what it meant to be Aboriginal and what that meant to us as students in the school and members of the Cherbourg community. For a school song that we could own, I reworked the lyrics of a bawdy old football song that I once sang at a time when I played Rugby League in Bundaberg. This song emphasises our identity and the children sing it loudly and with great pride and enthusiasm:
Jingle Bells Jingle Bells
Cherbourg School is here.
We're young and black and deadly,
Come and hear us cheer.
Bring on every challenge,
And put us to the test.
We're from Cherbourg State School,
And you know we're the best.
OUR EXPLICIT EFFORTS to embrace our aboriginality and our blackness were a truly positive process and did not involve rejecting other people's whiteness. What is truly significant about such simple yet complex strategies is that they gave me enough leverage to challenge and influence the way our children were thinking and behaving. Put simply – if children were screaming to me from the bottom of their guts that they were strong and smart, and young, black and deadly, I could challenge them by saying things like: "It has to be more than words coming out of your mouth ... the things that come out of your mouth have to match the way that you behave ... so you can't say to me that you are 'strong and smart' and then go missing from school ... You can't tell me that you are 'young and black and deadly', and then play up and give the teacher a hard time."
I challenged the children to improve their behaviour and their attendance at school and they did. With a program designed to reward improved attendance at school, unexplained absenteeism dropped by 94 per cent within eighteen months. This influenced real attendance at school. In term four of 2005, real attendance had improved dramatically to 93 per cent.
Improved attendance influenced student performance. The Year 2 diagnostic tests for reading saw the school shift within two years from having all the children well below expected reading levels to less than half identified as below expected reading levels. Year 7 student performance levels also improved dramatically. In 1999, all Year 7 children were significantly below the state average band for literacy. In 2004, seventeen of 21 students were within the state average band for aspects of literacy.
AS THE LEADER of the school, I felt it was important to help our children understand better the social and cultural environment in which they were. This was crucial to help them understand the contradictions that existed for many children, although not all, between the strong and smart sense of being Aboriginal that existed within the school compared with that sense of being Aboriginal that existed outside the school gate. We did this by developing and implementing a local Aboriginal Studies program.
This program addressed the broad range of issues related to Aboriginal people and Aboriginal communities in its discussion of significant local sites, family connections and important Aboriginal identities from Cherbourg and throughout Australia. I insisted it take on the hard issues as well and stare in the face the unpalatable issues of domestic violence, alcoholism and child abuse. Our children had to understand that, while such ugly issues were prominent in indigenous communities, including Cherbourg, they were unquestionably the legacy of historical and sociological processes and not the legacy of being Aboriginal.
The Aboriginal Studies program was a key element in developing a strong and positive sense of what it meant to be Aboriginal. I wanted transformation and I wanted to facilitate the process of identity creation from inside. When one's identity is brought out from the inside, then nothing can take it away. Whilst I look back with satisfaction on the efforts of the school team, it should be noted that we didn't go there and give the children a strong and smart, young, black and deadly Aboriginal identity. It existed all along. In fact, it exists in every Aboriginal child. All we did was believe it was there and do whatever it took to bring that identity and feeling of pride out so we could see it, and more importantly, so the children could see it for themselves.
This is the most beautiful thing about the teaching and learning relationship. Nothing matters beyond the confines of the teacher-student relationship as long as the teacher believes in the child. Regardless of the child's social and cultural environment, if the teacher believes the child will learn, then the child will learn and be receptive to the teacher's belief in them. After seven years at the school and watching some children confronted by disastrous events, I am certain of this.
My experience at the school has also affirmed the need to confront the useless, yet sometimes powerful forces of libertarian leftovers who speak in weasel and romantic words, professing to care, but tolerating – even expecting – failure.
My views here are somewhat conservative, not controversial. I, and the Aboriginal people who supported me at Cherbourg, seek to recover and preserve what is the best of our indigenous past. I am deeply opposed to the brand of libertarianism that promises much with its talk of rights and democracy, yet delivers nothing to the youth who are sniffing petrol and stealing cars – who need to learn the boundaries. Such rhetoric is pedalled by those who blow in and blow out and then retreat to their own cosy confines to write such interludes into flashy CVs.
As principal of Cherbourg, I was there alongside my colleagues, totally and absolutely for the children, day in and day out. When they hurt, we at the school hurt. When they lashed out, we had to help them contain their anger. When they chose to be stronger and smarter, we helped them to understand what this meant.
There are questions for all of us here. As educators, our job statements say things like "provide leadership and direction ... to challenge children to be the best that they can be ... to deliver quality educational outcomes for all students". There are no brackets afterwards saying "unless they are black".
It is absurd for us as educators to sit inside the "comfort zones" of our schools and say things like "Aboriginal parents don't value education". There is nothing to be comfortable about in indigenous education. We would never accept existing student performance levels in white communities, so why should they be accepted in Aboriginal communities? If some educators are frustrated that indigenous parents are reluctant to engage in positive educational relationships then we must stop and realise the importance of our part in these relationships.
We must also realise that we are actually being paid to be in these relationships, and we are accountable for the delivery of positive outcomes. If we are not prepared to contemplate this, then we should not be considered educators. I resent the harm that such people do to our great profession.
Of course, there are questions, too, for us as Aboriginal people. Some of these questions are basic. Do I spend my money on alcohol or do I spend it on food for my children? Do I spend my time drinking or do I spend it at home making sure my children are tucked in bed, safe and protected from any unscrupulous predators?
While it seems absurd that the answers to such questions might seem so obvious, we must understand that the colonial forces that shaped them have tampered with the lives of Aboriginal people so much that some are not even aware of the questions. If the answers seem difficult and at times beyond some Aboriginal people, then we should let ourselves be inspired by our children. I have seen children who have been confronted by extremely nasty situations, yet they come to school the next day. They refuse to lie down or become victims. Instead they work harder at being stronger and smarter ... it is that clear.
Within three years, the team at Cherbourg State School, including the Aboriginal people who stood beside me, transformed the school into an institution in which children were hungry to learn and take pride in themselves and their school. They learned to respect their elders and value the positive and sophisticated aspects of what it truly means to be Aboriginal. Now they act like Aborigines, not delinquents.
I have sometimes been criticised for explicitly motivating children by reflecting on their Aboriginal identity. It is in Australia's interest, I believe, to have young Aboriginal people with a strong and positive perception of what their Aboriginal identity means to them. All schools should play a part in getting Aboriginal children to reflect positively on their identity so that being Aboriginal is seen as something truly great. The reality, if we do nothing, is that the society we live in will imply that they are inferior, and the greatest tragedy is that many indigenous youth will believe this.
I am reminded of the intense frustration, anger and aggression I saw manifested during the Redfern riots in Sydney in 2004. Aboriginal people in this country know that such highly charged emotion exists in many places. It is a reminder that indigenous youth have a journey to make, and that they must be armed for that journey, not with rocks and sticks and petrol bombs, but with intellectual, psychological and spiritual integrity.