Understanding Culture Based on Trust, Respect and Integrity
[Edith Wright; Manager Aboriginal Education, Kimberley District, WA]
Experience has shown that there is no single intervention strategy which will significantly reduce the performance gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students in the short term. However, research in "What Works" indicates that there are key principles which will support the improvement of outcomes for Indigenous students. These are –
- Engaging with the community
- Developing positive relationships with students and parents
- Respecting, valuing and acknowledging the capacity for Indigenous staff to build on the school's ability to meet the needs of its Indigenous students
- Building cultural competence within the staff members
- Providing a relevant curriculum and school environment.
Most importantly the first step in the process requires principals and teachers to believe that their Aboriginal students can, and will, achieve appropriate performance levels alongside their non – Indigenous peers. Having a belief in high expectations of Indigenous students is paramount to their success at school and in later life.
A second step involves an appreciation that improving the educational outcomes of Aboriginal students will require a range of strategies using a holistic approach based on trust, integrity, respect and an understanding of culture.
It is abundantly clear that Principals play a vital role in establishing this relationship. Through strong leadership they need to model these qualities, and in consultation with their communities establish firm and sustainable directions for their schools.
[Bill Mann; Director Schools; Kimberley District, WA]
Whilst an understanding of Culture may have some broader aspects it is also recognized that for the purposes of the development of strong leadership in a school with significant Aboriginal and Islander enrolments, understanding of culture may need to be addressed from a more localized perspective.
Dare to Lead's "Surviving to Thriving" makes the points that -
- Principals must learn the local community protocols. Indigenous staff is vital in providing information about cultural business, the impact of funerals and other local cultural issues.
- Principals need to appreciate that Indigenous staff also face pressures from within their own community.
- Professional learning in cultural awareness is important in minimizing the potential for giving offence.
- Principals need to take the time to listen and learn about the intricacies of the remote community in which they find themselves.
How can you do this?
- Know the key family groups of the community. Develop strong relationships with key elders within the community
- Make an effort to say and learn a few words in the local language
- Do not "rush" to be accepted by the community, or be offended if at times a response to your greeting is not immediately forthcoming or what you expected
- Attend local ceremonies when invited, talk with the Indigenous staff about your involvement and what is expected of you at such events
- Find out as much as you can about the local areas of significance to the community. Understand the local area, significant sites and 'no go' zones
- Recognise the difference between Traditional and Western Law
- Do not assume ANYTHING
- Listen and learn. Sometimes it is OK to not respond and don't always be the first to "jump in" when in conversations.
Family structures and links are critically important to the Aboriginal and Islander cultures. It will be to a Principal's great advantage to become familiar with the community's family structures and understand why at times things happen the way they do.
If Principals can demonstrate with sincerity and respect their interest in language, ceremonies, local sites and local tradition their students and parents will in turn engage in the directions and objectives of the school. It is not sufficient states Bill Mann to say "we are an inclusive school – everyone is always welcome here." Often Principals and teachers will need to meet with community in a place where the community is comfortable to meet.
As in most if not all schools, the issue is one of sincerity and integrity. Anything less or superficial will be seen as just that and ...Aboriginal parents will vote with their feet and sit the Principal or the teacher out. [Edith Wright].
Not withstanding the importance of developing an understanding of Aboriginal culture, it is equally important for Principals and teachers to keep a clear perspective of their 'sphere of influence'. They are tempted to take on challenges that are not their core business and their emotional energy becomes engulfed in matters over which they have indirect control. Aboriginal education is challenging enough and the Principal and teachers need to direct their emotional energy on matters over which they have direct control in order to bring about and sustain positive change. [Edith Wright]
- For the initiation and validation of school based programs, it is imperative that Principals [and teachers] believe that Aboriginal children are capable of academic success.
- Principals must learn the local community protocols and understand how vital Indigenous staff is in the provision for local cultural issues.
- Principals need to appreciate that Indigenous staff also face pressures from within their own communities.
- There are a number of ways Principals may promote their cultural understandings, which include attending local ceremonies when invited; getting to understand the local area, significant sites and 'no go zones'; and listening and learning.
- Family structures and links are critically important to the Aboriginal and Islander cultures.
- Very importantly, Principals should never assume anything.