Raise the bar and students will reach for it

Annual Conference 2017

Professor Chris Sarra addresses delegates at Annual Conference in July

Teachers may achieve better learning outcomes from Aboriginal students if they set their expectations higher, prominent Aboriginal educationalist Professor Chris Sarra told Conference.

“As an educator, you can collude with mediocrity or you can nurture greatness,” Professor Sarra, founder and Chairman of the Stronger Smarter Institute, told delegates. “Setting expectations higher for Aboriginal students can make a real and powerful difference to their education and to their expectations of themselves.”

Taking an analogy from State of Origin football, he related a conversation he had with former Queensland coach Mal Meninga, who said setting high expectations was one reason why his team had been so successful.

“[Meninga said] ‘I used to tell my boys that when they go on the field they just need to give me 110 per cent if you can and that’s all I care about. If you can just do that then the scoreboard will just take care of itself’,” Professor Sarra said.

This approach is “the perfect analogy for the challenges we face” in Aboriginal education. While NAPLAN is just the scoreboard, “what we should be focused on is giving 110 per cent at the most sacred place in our schools and that is where teachers stare children in the face” — in the classroom.

In everyday ways, teachers can work harder to change whatever negative perceptions they have of Aboriginal students and not collude with low-expectation stereotypes.

This means applying the same expectations to Aboriginal students that teachers would for other students. It may also mean having “robust” conversations with parents about their children's school attendance, or not letting them get away with swearing at teachers or disrupting the classroom.

At Cherbourg State School in Queensland, Professor Sarra was appointed as the first Murri principal where he made a notable difference to educational outcomes and attendance rates of Aboriginal students by raising expectations and communicating that to students.

“We found some keys to success and we wanted to share that around,” he said. “As educators, we either pursue a stronger, smarter Aboriginal student identity or we collude with the negative stereotypes.

“We as teachers in classrooms, we as principals, we as union members or Federation, [should know] our day-to-day actions and beliefs and behaviours will either collude with this perception or set about smashing it to bits.”

“I have actively rejected that kind of negative Aboriginal stereotype and I got kids at Cherbourg to reject absolutely the negative stereotypical view,” he said.

Chris Sarra is Professor of Education at the University of Canberra, teaching and researching school leadership, Indigenous education and educational equity.

In a separate address to deliver the Aboriginal Education Report, Federation Aboriginal Education Coordinator Charline Emzin-Boyd said there are now 1289 Aboriginal members of Federation.

There are now more than 57,000 Aboriginal students in NSW schools and 26 Aboriginal teachers attended this year’s Annual Conference.