Indigenous education expert Professor Chris Sarra talks to The Point’s Karla Grant about the challenges of working in remote communities, lifting educational standards, and the future for indigenous students ahead of the new SBS programme Testing Teachers.
NITV Staff Writer

18 Apr 2017 - 6:01 PM  UPDATED 19 Apr 2017 - 4:38 PM

You’re the youngest of 10 children, what was it like for you growing up in the QLD town of Bundaberg, and what were some of your experiences going to school as an Indigenous child?

“Being part of such a big family was a wonderful thing but in the 70s, Joh Bjelke-Peterson was the premier – it was a time when racism was okay to exist, but in many ways I had a very strong Aboriginal mother, a very proud Italian father. We were all kind of taught how to deal with racism in such a way that we weren’t victims to it and it was a pretty special thing to grow up in and around because we could have easily have become victims to racism because it was so prominent at the time.”

You’ve certainly come a long way and went on to gain a diploma of teaching and both a bachelor’s degree and master’s in education. What was it that led you to becoming a teacher and having this love and passion for education?

“In some ways I stumbled into teaching and it just happened that when I finished high school I was given a special opportunity and I was given special entry into teachers college because at that time there were some very good white people around like Clarry, and Gary MacLennan and Stewart Power, people who were working at the Brisbane college of education. They wanted to get more Aboriginal teachers into secondary schools so I was fortunate enough to finish high school at a time when they were looking to get more people in and whilst I didn’t have the right entry score they still let me in under special provisions.”

In 1998 you became the first Aboriginal principal of Cherbourg State School in south-east Queensland, where the kids are predominantly Aboriginal, a school that had poor attendance rates, low academic achievement. Can you tell us about the issues that you faced when you first took over as principal and what measures did you put in place to turn things around through the strong and smart approach?

“It’s a wonderful thing to reflect on that time in my life. As an educator it was really special and it’s made special by knowing what happens subsequently, you know. Really when I think of my time at Cherbourg and it sounds easy to reflect on, but the truth is; we worked hard and it wasn’t just me, it was me working in partnership with some teachers who are working their guts out with Aboriginal community members who were working their guts out, with Aboriginal elders and local people who stood up when I challenged. When I went to Cherbourg it was very, it was a special time but I went in with some kind of personal sentiment about just knowing how devastating and how toxic these low expectations can be, and having transcended those in an individual sense I was looking in front of me and seeing a team I’d inherited colluding with this negative stereotypical view of Aboriginal children and Aboriginal community school.”

I believe it was Tom Calma when he was social justice commissioner said that a strength based approach rather than punitive measures has more of an impact and is more beneficial. What do you say to that?

“It’s clear from my time at Cherbourg and those 11 or 12 years that we’ve worked with the institute that the only way forward is a strengths based approach and that as educators, and as blackfullas, in the communities we’ve got to be determined to reflect on and embrace and nurture the strength that exist rather than let ourselves get side tracked or surrender to the complexities that exist. This is the very thing that we did at Cherbourg rather than flop around helpless, like we were victims as educators. We said no, there are some strengths here and we should amplify that and celebrate those sorts of things and we should reward those types of behaviours of kids being strong and kids being smart and before anybody gets excited out there about extrinsic rewards and things like that, I need to make it clear that it wasn’t just extrinsic rewards that we were giving to kids. We were reminding kids 5 or 6 times a day about the intrinsic reward; that coming to school helps us to get stronger and smarter and to get stronger and smarter we become more educated. We become more powerful and it’s not the kind of power that white people would give us, it’s the power that comes from inside of us and when it comes from inside of us and no one has given it to us, then nobody can take it away from us either.”

In testing teachers we’re introduced to Tennant Creek, a place where alcohol consumption in the town is two times the national average. Most students have experienced or witnessed domestic violence. The school has 230 students enrolled, 85% who are Indigenous, and on most days there are 40% no shows and school attendance is well below the national average. So when you look at those factors how difficult is it to get kids to school and turn things around for the better?

“Even in the most extraordinary, even in the most complex community and school contexts, the formula remains pretty simple as I said before. But the work is always hard and I’ve never pretended otherwise. I’ve been to Tennant Creek and I’ve visited the school that we’ve seen but I don’t pretend for a moment to have a full appreciation for the extent of the complexities, but as an educator I’m just determined to look for the strengths that exist in communities so what I want to see is teachers who would be determined to make a difference and you kind of see that but I’m not seeing any sense of connectedness to the community or the family, so it disappoints me in an school that I just see a teacher that stands in the classroom and waits for children to turn up. And then has a wry smile on their face when there are no children who turn up.

If I’m a teacher in a classroom in any context and any children turn up then I take that personally and I think I’ve failed. If I’m a principal of a school and I’ve got kids who are not turning up to my school or our school, then I’ve failed. I think the only way that we can have a chance at addressing some of those challenges is to stop being victims to the complexities of that circumstance and put a mirror up and say ok let’s think about the things that we control, let’s think about the things that we’re accountable for, let’s think about the things that we get paid to do here, and lets set about influencing those things.

If I’m a teacher in any community where alcoholism exists and other complexities - I've got no chance of changing those complexities. I only control my relationship with my students and knowing that, in that relationship I want it to be so special, so positive. I want to know if you’re my student, I want to know where you’re coming from; I want to know about the baggage that you’ve carried to school. I want to know if you’re getting a good night’s sleep at night and if not how can I work with you so that I can help you to be the best student that you can be? That’s going to take some work and it’s going to take some time because I need to get out of the classroom and I need to find my way into your life so I can understand what’s going on for you. So if I’m in a remote community I’m not going to do that locked in my classroom or locked in a compound at the end of the day. I’ve got a better chance – and I’m not saying that to all those teachers out there that you need to go out and get into the kids houses and all that sort of thing, that’s not appropriate but I would learn some stuff if I went and watched you play football or play netball on the weekend, and you would learn some stuff about me too if you heard me cheering for you at the netball game on the weekend or if I’m asking you about how many fish you caught, or if I show that I’m genuinely interested in what your life is about you might start to get a sense that hmm maybe I do care about you, and maybe I do want you to learn and be the best that you can be.”

And as we see in testing teachers, young graduates, they all want to make a difference, you know they’re all getting out there very positive and enthusiastic but how do we equip them to tackle the problems that they face, or the issues that they encounter when they’re in the classroom?

“Some of the issues they encounter are extremely complex, you know right across all the schools that we’ve seen on the series. And part, some of those challenges have to be addressed over time and by school leadership and in part they have to be addressed by the teacher. Again I come back to this point. We have to be mindful of the things that we control and as a school teacher I may not have control over the whole school culture, but I can control the culture of my classroom and the relationships with children that exist within it. But I’ve got to understand, and I’ve got to understand this very well. That those relationships will not be the best that they can if I only perceive them to exist behind the walls of that classroom. I need to get out there and connect with students beyond the classroom so I can find out more about where they’re coming from.”

Do you think more cultural awareness training would help when they are training to become teachers?

“Sometimes as educators I think we’re a bit naive when we just assume that if we get cross cultural training it’s just going to be the solution but the truth is what it comes down to which is getting to know the children and what baggage they carry, and getting to know the community. Because simply there is no cross-cultural training that I can learn that’ll equip me to teach in Tennant Creek for instance where this young teacher is.”

Because every community is different?

“Every community is so different and the place where I learn about the complexities and the cultural nuances and the things that are going to excite kids, and make them better learners in Tennant Creek is in Tennant Creek and in the community. That’s why I need to understand that. It’s not quite right to think that cross-cultural training is the answer. The ultimate answer is to be in a relationship, a high expectations relationship with children and with their community.

Dr Chris Sarra of Stronger Smarter will be appearing on The Point Education Special – Wednesday 19th April at 9:30pm on NITV straight after Testing Teachers.

Testing Teachers features six teachers and three public schools, all with one aim: to make a difference in young lives. The documentary starts 19 April at 8.30pm on SBS and will be available on SBS On Demand after broadcast.