Turning theory into classroom reality

Kim Richards

Sara Johnston (second from left) with students from Rutherford Public School. Sara says forging strong relationships with students is vital to achieving success.

Federation has a long history and tradition of supporting the rights of Aboriginal students and their communities.

In 1980, building on many earlier decisions, Federation developed its first comprehensive policy on Aboriginal education.

Federation later established the Statement of Principles, intended to lead the way forward and demonstrate a commitment to Aboriginal education for the future.

These principles are described in terms of the right of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to high-quality schooling and the rights and responsibilities of parents as the first educators of their children.

But what do these principles look like in a classroom? What do they mean to a newly trained teacher who finds themselves teaching Aboriginal students for the first time?

Sara Johnston, Aboriginal Education Leader at Rutherford Public School, and Russell Honnery, acting Aboriginal Education and Engagement Officer, Tamworth Directorate, Aboriginal Executive Member for Federation and Aboriginal Councillor, translates each of these principles into the context of their classroom practice.

Value students

1.1: Provide a climate that welcomes and values all Aboriginal students and has high expectations for their educational outcomes.

“At the beginning of every year, we design a class set of guidelines, linking to school rules,” says Russell. “All students have input and we discuss how we are going to act towards each other. Any consequences are designed by the teacher and agreed to by the students.” Russell’s class designs a poster, displaying the guidelines, so everyone can see it, every day.

Sara has a similar all-in approach. “There are no special rules in my classroom,” she says. “If the children are asked to sit on the floor or to complete work, then every child does it. Obviously, considerations are given where they are genuinely needed, such as disability, but there are no children playing on a computer and not doing work just because they want to.”

Sara starts every day with a child, Aboriginal or not, declaring an acknowledgement to Country. “We usually take it in turns by going down the roll,” she explains. Russell agrees with this approach, and says his class always considers ways to embrace diversity both within the classroom and out in the playground.

“It’s important to embrace different cultures, communities, and abilities; to ask all children to listen to differing points of view, and to consider how we can assist each other when we need help,” says Russell.

Build relationships

1.2: Establish effective teaching/learning relationships between the educator and the Aboriginal learner.

Sara uses the “yarning circle” in her pedagogy. “I spend the first two weeks of the year getting to know the kids and calling every parent to introduce myself,” she says.

Russell agrees. “My advice to new teachers is to always get to know your students and their parents or caregivers. We all come from different places, and it is extremely important to build relationships with your students and their families that foster goals, hard work, fun, trust and empathy.”

Sara explains a simple routine that assists in doing this. “Every morning, we sit on the floor and I greet the kids, and talk about how I'm feeling after the weekend and the day ahead.”

Encourage engagement

1.3: Encourage all Aboriginal students to attend school regularly, be actively engaged and to participate in a meaningful and confident manner.

“Acknowledge them when you see them,” Russell says. “Always say ‘hello’ directly to them; it welcomes them. Russell says a simple technique is to acknowledge the last time you saw them, and express that you have missed them if it’s been some time.

“This often helps start conversations. Students respond to you if you show them that they were missed, are now welcome and always remembered,” he says.

“But most of all,” Sara says, “expect that they come to school, don’t ask them to.”

Sara believes effective teachers have strong behaviour management skills, and understand that adults, not children, make decisions. “Children choose behaviour and adults choose consequences,” she says. “Teachers should deliver firm but fair consequences, and children respond to this.”

Sara also believes in a consistent approach to classroom management: “I respect all students equally and follow through with consequences — especially talking to their parents.”

Hold high expectations

1.4: Expect all Aboriginal children to attain a high standard of literacy and numeracy.

Both Sara and Russell agree the best approach is whole class lessons, where tasks are differentiated.

“Children should not be withdrawn for catch-up work,” says Sara. “They never catch up that way!”

Russell agrees. “We need to make sure all students’ needs are met in the classroom and that students are not removed from class. Even if they are on other programs, they should be at a classroom working station, still part of the class and lesson.”

Russell says teachers should hold high standards for everyone, but especially for those students that are never targeted as above or below standards. He explains that the highest and lowest achievers are always targeted through school programs such as Gifted and Talented, or Learning Support, so those who sit in the middle need consideration, too.

Act in the spirit of equality

1.5: Provide a curriculum that allows Aboriginal students to share in the same educational opportunities experienced by other Australian students and which allows them to be strong in their own culture and language; supports all students to understand and acknowledge the value of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures to Australian society; supports and builds on the reconciliation process between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians.

Sara is resolute that there should be no withdrawal programs and that inclusive education lies at the very heart of upholding these principles.

“I believe in the integration of Aboriginal perspectives in every lesson, including literacy and numeracy,” says Sara.

“I also explicitly teach Aboriginal students to be strong in our culture, but smart to live in the 21st century.”

Russell says it’s imperative that teachers include culturally appropriate links, both locally and nationally, in all subjects and lessons.

Involve the community

1.6 and 1.7: Increase the number of Aboriginal people employed within the workplace and engage community members and increase their involvement in the workplace.

Both Sara and Russell agree that increasing the number of Aboriginal people employed within the school, as well as engaging Aboriginal community members and increasing their involvement, has significant and far-reaching positive effects.

Sara holds regular Aboriginal Education team meetings. “I text parents to remind them, as well as send notes home and put it in the newsletter.”

She uses the team to help with school programs such as MGoals. “They come and help with setting up chairs, and cooking. They are involved in Sista Speak and Bro Speak. Some parents create murals and get involved in NAIDOC activities for the school.”

Russell also holds regular Aboriginal Education team meetings. “I invite all staff, Junior AECG if appropriate, and I make sure everyone is heard.”

“All Aboriginal school staff are invited to local AECG meetings, along with parents and community members.”

Keep in contact

2.1 and 2.2: Provide a climate that welcomes Aboriginal parents and caregivers as valuable members of the school community and values their input. Support parents and caregivers of Aboriginal students in their responsibilities to ensure that their children attend school regularly.

“Always contact parents and caregivers on a regular basis,” says Russell. “Let them know what’s happening in the class – and do it when something good happens, not just the bad.”

Russell says it’s important to let parents and caregivers know when students receive awards but also to “work with parents, not against them” when students are struggling.

Sara says she texts parents about everything, “I always think from the perspective of a mother: ‘Would I want to know if Isaac did this?’ and the answer is always ‘yes’.”

“I always text when their child has done something great. I send photos home, reminders about homework and school events, or when their child is receiving an award, and, yes, when they misbehave,” says Sara.

“As they say, ‘it takes a village’ — and even if I don’t agree with their particular parenting strategy I know that no one loves their child more, or knows their child better, than they do, and I use their knowledge to guide me.

“Generally speaking, I believe education – and not just for Aboriginal students – should always be inclusive and include perspectives of all cultures, particularly those cultures represented in the class,” Sara says.

“My strongest advice to new teachers is to use the Quality Teaching Framework in your classroom to ensure lessons are engaging, exhibit high expectations and ensure the children are happy.

“For Aboriginal education, the most important thing is forging partnerships with the parents. Use text messaging, text when the kids are good, send photos of fabulous work, send reminders about school events or invite them to assemblies. That way, when you text due to undesirable behaviours, you will have the complete support of parents.”

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MGoals is a safe and secure environment for students to map and evolve their educational goals and easily find information about their heritage and culture that they identify with most. MGoals is a place to share community stories and culture to help enhance the knowledge and understanding of all Australians about Aboriginal Australia.


A program for young men and women, especially school students, to inspire and motivate about the importance of education and to raise awareness about the diverse career paths available, focusing specifically on self-esteem, identity, hygiene, sexual health, careers, culture, leadership, positive lifestyle choices and economic independence.he program explores different career options and hearing positive stories from successful men and women in their community as well as offering team activities. It helps build the relationship between the school and the community: the facilitators in the school will have face-to-face contact with parents to discuss the program and ask for their involvement in the program, encouraging them to be a part of the school community.