The Research Files Episode 70: Cultural residents in the classroom

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Thanks for downloading this episode of The Research Files from Teacher magazine. I’m Dominique Russell.

How effectively do you think you’re delivering Indigenous content in the curriculum? Would you say you have enough knowledge and confidence in this area? A program established by the University of New South Wales’ Matraville Education Partnership is looking to address these two areas of teacher practice. The Cultural Residents Project aims to support classroom teachers with improving their knowledge and confidence in teaching Indigenous content by giving them the opportunity to co-teach with a First Nations cultural educator.

I’m joined in this episode by Aunty Maxine Ryan, who is working across four different primary schools in Sydney’s eastern suburbs as a Cultural Resident, and Dr Rose Amazan, the lead research investigator working on the project.

In this episode, Aunty Maxine and Rose share how the project works, and crucially, give some really helpful ideas on how teachers across the country can improve how they deliver Indigenous content in the curriculum, even when they’re not lucky enough to have access to a Cultural Resident. There’s a lot to get to in this episode, so let’s jump straight in by hearing an Acknowledgement of Country and introduction from Aunty Maxine.

Aunty Maxine Ryan: I’ll do an Acknowledgement [of Country] and welcome and introduce myself as Aunty Maxine from the La Perouse Aboriginal community of Botany Bay. And I belong to the Dharawal people. But I am going to acknowledge the Bidjigal and Gadigal clans in the Eora Nation around Sydney, and acknowledge my Elders and the land wherever you are. Because the theme this year [of NAIDOC week] is healing. Healing, looking after our beautiful land.

And it’s not only important to look after the land, it’s important to look after the sea, too, as we all survive, we all survive from the land and the sea. Whether we be an animal or whether we be human. So we must look after it to keep surviving. You know, my people have survived for thousands of years and we will keep surviving.

And Australia is a multicultural country, so we all must value everything and live the way we live and with our cultures. So I’m quite passionate about Aboriginal culture and I’m quite passionate about the land and looking after the land and teaching the children that, you know, it’s important to look after the land and the sea. So I’ll let Rose introduce herself now.

Rose Amazan: My name is Rose Amazan and I’ve been so blessed in a lot of ways to work with Aunty Maxine and to be able to be part of this very important work and I want to thank you again Aunty Maxine for your beautiful acknowledgement. I myself do acknowledge the land that I’m sitting on currently and I thank the Elders and the custodians of the land who protected it and took care of it for me to stand on it at the moment. So, thank you.

Now in terms of answering the question as part of my role in this project, I am the lead research investigator on the project and so what that means is that, you know, I collaborate with community, the AECG (the Aboriginal Education Consultative Group) which Aunty Maxine is a part of. We also have Katherine Thompson [Program Manager, UNSW Matraville Education Partnership] who is part of the team as well. We work with other staff members to really bring this project to the point at which it is. And so I think my involvement in there is really – I wouldn’t consider myself lead even though that’s my title, I consider myself as a partnership working on this, not only with Aunty Maxine, but everyone else that’s involved because it does take a whole collaboration for this to really happen and be successful.

Dominique Russell: Aunty Maxine’s co-teaching role involves spending two days a week across several terms with classroom teachers to plan, teach and evaluate the Indigenous content taught. Here, she explains how she supports teachers to effectively and authentically teach primary school students about quite difficult topics, like the stolen generation.

AMR: Well in the past couple of years I have come onto the program and we started off just a small group of schools, but now it’s expanded as the word’s got out. And I’m there in the school to help the teachers feel comfortable about teaching Aboriginal culture. Because there is some soft parts there that they’re not comfortable in teaching. So if I’m there supporting that teacher in, you know, the right words to say, how to say it, it helps them.

And the children do enjoy me being in the classroom. And as I keep saying, every day when I’m in that classroom, I’m there to teach them Aboriginal culture, but I’m learning too, because I’m learning their culture. So, you know, and children, their stories are just as important as my stories. And acknowledge that, because that way, the children get more involved in this project and the listening of my culture and how we did survive, how Aboriginal people did survive.

And the true stories that are out today. Because when I was going to school, this wasn’t there. You didn’t learn Aboriginal culture, you didn’t learn anything about Aboriginal people. It was all about the settlement and things like that. So now we, you know, we’re learning about Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islander people and our culture and our stories.

You know, as I keep saying, the non-Aboriginal children, they’re just fascinated in listening to the stories and listening to my stories and listening to other Elders from the community, their stories. How we survived and how we lived on a mission. See, I lived on a mission, so I grew up out La Perouse and it was run by white people. And, you know, you weren’t allowed to learn your culture, you had to learn their culture. And you had to go to church, we all had to be Christian.

It was, you know, go to school and come straight back home. My dad, when he was allowed to work – because Aboriginal people back then, they weren’t allowed to work and they weren’t allowed to leave the mission – but when my dad was allowed to go to work, but he had to wear a tag, he had to sign in and sign off every time he went to work, walked to work and walked home. Because if he didn’t, if the police came along, they’d just pick them up and take them.

So these are stories that are still there. I’m here, I’m still living; I’m still living these stories. And telling these stories, which were never told years ago. And when you’re in schools, you got to look at the children too when you’re doing this project, is their level. Because the stolen generation is a very soft topic. And that’s where some of the teachers find it hard to teach that section.

But then I always say to the teachers, is look at the age, too. Because, you know, it’s very sad if you say something to, you know, the younger children under Year 3, that babies were taken away and children were taken away – they were taken to hospital and never come home – you know, they would cry.

So it’s a very soft topic and the stories are still real out there, because some people say, you know, Aboriginal people should get over it, that happened years ago. You know, they’re dead and gone. But they’re not dead and gone. People are still living today who were stolen. You know, my husband was one of the Stolen Generation, his whole family was taken. You know, and these are stories that have to be told into the schools and some of the teachers, they’re really passionate about it too, and want to learn about the culture. And do it in a way that, you know, it reflects on, you know, Aboriginal people, and it’s our stories.

So this program helps Aboriginal people – not just myself but all the Elders and all the Aboriginal people that have been involved in this program – this helps us heal, helps us heal to talk about what really did happen to us and how it has affected our communities. Not just my communities, communities all round. Well it’s affected, you know, Indigenous people worldwide. But it’s becoming more and more of that subject that the word is getting out there. The healing is helping.

… Another important part about the project is the university, they approached us. They approached us and they didn’t tell us what we should do, they were there to support us in how we could do it. They were there to say, ‘how can we best get Aboriginal voices out there?’ It wasn’t, ‘this is what you need to do in your community, this is what you need to do in your school’. They approached us in that very nice, calm way. And that’s what all the Aboriginal people talk about when, you know, when we’re talking about the program, is how the university approached us. And that’s what we like, because we get sick of health workers and that, they come into your community and that and they go, ‘this is what you need, I’ll give you that, I’ll throw this at you, and then I’ll get the tick’. That’s what happens, organisations and a lot of people, they just come to get the tick, and then you don’t see them again.

Coming up, Aunty Maxine and Rose share how teachers across the country can improve their confidence and knowledge in teaching Indigenous content in the curriculum. But first, here’s a quick message from our sponsor.

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DR: By working to help teachers build their confidence in teaching Indigenous content, The Cultural Residents Program looks to change teacher practice and aims to one day have a Cultural Resident in every primary school. But in the meantime, how can teachers who don’t have the opportunity to co-teach with a First Nation’s Cultural Resident, work towards improving their practice in this space? Aunty Maxine and Rose point to some practical strategies and resources.

AMR: … We’re there to support them [classroom teachers]. We’re there to guide them the right way – who to connect with. As we keep saying to them, every community has got an Aboriginal organisation in it. Whether it be a health one, whether it be the land council, whether it be a preschool, whether it be another school down the road. If that school hasn’t got Aboriginal people, connect with the school down the road that has got Aboriginal people.

Connect with your community, and then that way, you know, there’s a school that I don’t work in now, but they were never connected to the community, but now they are. I was there for two terms and now they’re connected to the La Perouse community and they’re still using the community. They’re still using me. So that’s what I really like, and I haven’t been into that school for 12 months now, but they’re still learning.

Even I’m still learning. Everybody learns every day. So with this project, you know, we get more and more into these schools and help these schools, you know, whether it be someone to work in that little community and work around, you know, five schools who, you know, hasn’t got many Aboriginal people. Or hasn’t got many Aboriginal children in there or got no Aboriginal children in their school. Because there’s still a lot of schools out there, they haven’t got Aboriginal kids, but they still want to learn, they still fly the flag.

RA: Yeah, I think Aunty Maxine is absolutely right. I know many teachers don’t have this program, or they don’t have an AEO (an Aboriginal Education Officer) in their schools, as Aunty Maxine said, reach out to the community.

They have the AECG; they have groups that are completely open to the community and to teachers; they have the land council, like Aunty Maxine said. So there are ways that teachers can still connect to the community without a Cultural Resident in house. So as Aunty Maxine said, go out into the community, go to the various events, go to the footy games sometimes. Go meet people, go mingle. Because sometimes when people start seeing your faces and see you there, you’ll be surprised how much of a difference that makes. Not only to the community but to the parents and to the kids, when they see you in different events, they’re like ‘Oh, Miss, what are you doing here?’ So they sort of connect with you at a different level, so I think that is a very good point.

And as Aunty Maxine said, we are continuously learning as teachers. And so part of our growth, part of our critical awareness in this space, is to do that learning, do that legwork that is required for you to authentically and genuinely engage in this area.

And I know a lot of the time teachers are time poor and there are certain syllabus content that we need to get through and tick the boxes, but if we really want to be authentically engaging in Aboriginal content, history and culture, it requires more than picking up a resource online and just trying to teach it. And so that’s what Aunty Maxine brings. Aunty Maxine brings so many things at so many different levels. She brings the connection to the community, you know, how do teachers start connecting to the community? By having Aunty Maxine, they can go to her and say ‘Aunty Maxine, I want to do this, what do you think?’ and if Aunty Maxine can help, she helps, if she can’t, she reaches out to someone who can actually help.

But if you don’t have an Aunty Maxine at your school, it’s okay too. You need to start working. And part of what we’re doing as well, part of this research – and we’re working with World Vision that actually have a national campaign happening at the moment (Know Your Country) – is to try to get funding whereby we have an Aunty Maxine at every primary school where we can have that authentic engagement with Aboriginal history and culture.

So yeah, it’s really important. And as Aunty Maxine mentioned before, research has shown a lot of teachers don’t have self-confidence around the issue and so even though teachers I think overall have a social justice mind, thinking about being in education. Many people didn’t get into education because they want to make money, you know, it’s because authentically we think about the social justice aspect of our work. We want to make a difference, we want to make an impact to student’s lives and to our society.

And so we know this, so teachers are willing and they want to do it (most of them anyway) so really it’s a question of trying to get more comfortable with the content.

But research also shows that, you know, partnership with schools and Indigenous communities and the embedding of Indigenous cultural knowledge and the different perceptions and perspectives in schools can improve school outcomes for all students, not just Aboriginal students. You know, so there’s a lot of positive there and a lot of positive approaches and strategies we can actually use, and not to get stuck in the deficit approach of things, which is what this research is trying to do.

DR: Ultimately, this program aims to improve student outcomes. So, how have students responded to Aunty Maxine co-teaching in their classroom two days per week? Here, Aunty Maxine explains what she has observed and Rose shares some early insights on student engagement.

AM: The Aboriginal children just love, and the non-Aboriginal children, they all do. It doesn’t matter what age they are, they just love it. And, you know, I see them and they go ‘are you coming in to our class?’ ‘Not today’ ‘Oh.’ They want me there all the time. You know, because, I show them the way Aboriginal people used to learn. And there’s still that learning, there’s still that learning, that people are still learning, children are still learning, any age is still learning. And the schools that I’ve been to, they’re now more and more outside activities. They’re doing more and more outside learning.

RA: Yeah, as Aunty Maxine said, the children, both the teachers and the kids, cannot get enough of Aunty Maxine. You know, just because of her nature, but also the students just love to hear the stories. It has such an impact on them. Not only on the way they see the world, but they’re not only learning about Aboriginal content and history, they’re learning with, you know, Aunty Maxine, all these really important things.

And what we find so far, and again this is about changing teacher’s practice, but we see anecdotal evidence, that show that, you know, the students are building a lot of knowledge, but also deep knowledge about Aboriginal content and history. They are also engaging differently – you know, thinking about different perspectives of the way they see the world, and the perception of history, you know, who writes history and what knowledge is valued in some ways.

And so you have kids that are thinking differently about really, very powerful issues and powerful content as well.

And so I also want to say that, you know, that the kids also would go home and what we find is – we had a couple teacher parent nights – and what some of the parents told us is that some of the kids that are working with Aunty Maxine and in Aunty Maxine’s class that she works with the teachers, they will go home and teach their siblings what they’ve learned, and then they will go home and teach their parents. Sometimes their parents are unaware of some of the things that Aunty Maxine talks about. And so the parents wanted to know how can we continue this discussion with our kids at home? So there is really a snowball effect on the way the project really has an impact. So not only on the kids, it doesn’t stop there, it has a snowball effect for sure.

AMR: They’re taking it home.

RA: So it doesn’t stop in the classroom and we do see that, you know, the perception of the kids, the way they see things, their level of empathy. Also the way they think about Aboriginal content and, you know, Aboriginal topic is also quite different. Having Aunty Maxine there, I think it really adds a level of depth of understanding for the kids, but also a lived experience. They get to really share that experience with Aunty Maxine and the fact that Aunty Maxine shared her lived experience also brings some of the content to reality for the students so it’s been quite powerful I think.

DR: And finally, as Rose is about to explain, there was plenty of research that led UNSW to conduct this project. I’ll share the links to some further resources and information on this topic in the transcript of this podcast, which you can find under the podcast tab at our website,

RA: There is a lot of research that has been done and actually Associate Professor Kevin Lowe and about 10 or 15 colleagues have done a systematic review on all different aspects on Aboriginal education overall. And they have reviewed about 15 000 papers in research and studies around these issues and it has really cemented for us but also informed this approach. This approach that continued reinforcing the role that community plays and the value of the knowledge that community holds. And how that itself is very important if you’re talking about reconciliation, if we’re talking about reciprocity, that’s really important. So at the core of what we do is a partnership that is informed by community member’s voices to be heard and to be at the forefront of everything that we do.

So there’s multiple research and current research that’s been published … to have a look at what really informed our approach which is looking at true and genuine engagement with community whereby community have agency and they lead the way they want things done. Because they know best, and what needs to be done, and how things needs to be done, and what needs to be taught. And so the value of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge is at the forefront and at the core of this.

And trying to help teachers to really reconceptualise the way they think about embedding Indigenous perspectives is part of this project as well. I know we didn’t get a chance to talk about the professional learning aspect of this project, but the professional learning aspect of it is really on learning and relearning process about Aboriginal education and what it looks like and what it should be such that teachers feel empowered to really teach the content, but also do a really good job because I think most teachers want to do that overall. It’s just they don’t have the proper tools and the resources to do that and that’s what the project is trying to give them.

That’s all for this episode. Thanks for listening. We’ll be back next week with a new episode in our School Improvement series, which is looking at getting students involved in the school evaluation process in an authentic way. Be sure to subscribe to the podcast so you don’t miss the episode, and in the meantime, we’d love for you to rate and review us in your podcast app.

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Related readings

Burgess, c., Bishop, M., & Lowe, K. (2020). Decolonising Indigenous education: the case for cultural mentoring in supporting Indigenous knowledge reproduction. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education. DOI: 10.1080/01596306.2020.1774513

Burgess, C. (2019). Beyond cultural competence: transforming teacher professional learning through Aboriginal community-controlled cultural immersion. Critical Studies in Education 60:4, 477-495, DOI: 10.1080/17508487.2017.1306576

Lowe, K., Tennent, C., Moodie, N., Guenther, J., & Burgess, C. (2021). School-based Indigenous cultural programs and their impact on Australian Indigenous students: a systematic review. Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, 49:1, 78-98. DOI: 10.1080/1359866X.2020.1843137

Peacock, H., & Prehn, J. (2021). The importance of Aboriginal Education Workers for decolonising and promoting culture in primary schools: an analysis of the longitudinal study of Indigenous children (LSIC). The Australian Journal of Indigenous Education, 50(1), 196-202.

As a teacher, reflect on your teaching year so far and the opportunities you have had to teach Indigenous content. What did you do well? What could you improve on? How would you rate your own confidence and knowledge?