Growing up in Bundaberg as the youngest of ten children, Chris was subjected to the low expectations of Aboriginal students during his schooling. He recalled an incident when his year 11 teacher handed back a test and joked to the whole class: “Sarra got 75 per cent, must have been an easy test!”
After qualifying as a teacher, Chris became the first Aboriginal principal at Cherbourg State School in South East Queensland in 1998. It was during this time he developed his ‘Stronger Smarter’ philosophy; encouraging students to be both strong in their cultural identity and smart by attending school and making the most of their educational opportunities.
"The schools we create must be places that Aboriginal children and parents can connect with. They must be places in which it is OK to dream great things. They must be places that say to children, 'I believe in you" he explained to The Australian.
The program was successful in raising expectations for students at the school and translated to dramatically improved educational outcomes. The school attendance rates rose from 50% to 95% and literacy levels climbed from amongst the lowest in Queensland to the state average. The level of staff and community satisfaction with the school also increased which saw enrollments jump from 144 in 1998 to 265 in 2002.
The program itself provoked discussions about the changes that schools and teachers could make to improve outcomes rather than focusing efforts solely on the students themselves or their parents.
In 2004, Chris was selected as Suncorp Queenslander of the Year and received the Chancellor’s Alumnus Award from Queensland University of Technology for his outstanding work. He was also acknowledged as the 2006 NAIDOC Scholar of the Year and was Queensland’s nominee for the Australian of the Year.
Chris left Cherbourg State School in 2005 to focus on establishing the Indigenous Education Leadership Institute which later became the Stronger Smarter Institute.
The Institute continues to promote the Stronger Smarter approach to Indigenous education and has partnered with over 38,000 Indigenous students at 500 schools across Australia to date.
During this time Chris also completed his PhD in Psychology at Murdoch University. His PhD thesis Strong and smart – towards a pedagogy for emancipation: education for First Peoples was developed into a book and published in 2011.
He also released his memoir Good Morning, Mr Sarra soon after, which details how his personal experiences in education and his pride in his culture challenged him to seek better outcomes for his Indigenous students.
A keen NRL fan, Chris accepted a position with the Australian Rugby League Commission in 2012. This year he will join the University of Canberra as a Professor of Education teaching and researching on school leadership, Indigenous education and educational equity.
As a leader, scholar, teacher and principal, Professor Sarra advocates that a strong and positive sense of culture and identity should go hand in hand with achieving a good education.
Watch Chris's speech: