• Secretary's update

Cultural connection and school engagement

02 September 2020

On Indigenous Literacy Day Secretary Mark Scott talks to eminent educators working to improve teaching and learning outcomes for Aboriginal students.

Video – Indigenous Literacy Day panel discussion

Duration – 40:25

On Indigenous Literacy Day Secretary Mark Scott talks to eminent educators working to improve teaching and learning outcomes for Aboriginal students.

Mark Scott

Well, hello, everyone. I'm delighted to be with you here on Indigenous Literacy Day where we've got a panel discussion about how to improve teaching and learning outcomes for Aboriginal students in our care at NSW schools. We're going to three eminent educators who've given this a lot of thought and through their practice and through their experience, have a lot to teach us all today.

I'm Mark Scott and I'm Secretary of the Department of Education. I'm speaking here today from Cammeraygal Land. I want to acknowledge Traditional Owners of the lands on which we meet and pay my respects to Elders, past and present, wherever we are watching this podcast today.

I'm delighted to be able to be joined by Nancy Penfold who joins us from Broken Hill North, Stuart Keast, who works in our schools in South Western Sydney, and Allison Stewart from Murrumbidgee. She's in Griffith today. We're going to hear from all of them shortly about the work they're doing and have a good conversation together.

Nancy, we're going to go to you first of all. I understand you're a fifth-generation teacher. A lot of teaching in your family. You're working as an intervention teacher at Broken Hill North. Can you tell us a little bit about what an intervention teacher does and what your work entails?

Nancy Penfold

Yep, sure thing. Thank you very much for having me here today, Mark.

I pay my respect to all of the Elders who have helped shape me into the woman and teacher that I am today. In my role as interventionist, what I do is work with students who need extra support in literacy.

We focus on getting up their phonological acquisition. So I'm making sure they have a strong understanding of sounds, that can then lead them into being successful readers and successful writers. So we're giving them the foundational skills that will take them through their life long learning journey, and that's the bulk of my job. I do that both with small group intervention and also supporting class teachers to make sure that the program and practices that we've got here are appropriate for all of our students, in particular, the high number of Aboriginal students that we've got at this public school.

Mark Scott

And you're working with students from K-6?

Nancy Penfold

Yes, from Kindergarten all the way up to Year 6. The focus of my work is targeting the early years, so Kindergarten to Year 2. There are students though, as we know in all of our public schools, that need intervention throughout, but focusing on that close-the-gap target of number four, making sure that our children are thriving in their early years because when we set them up for success from our Kindergarten, it really helps them to be successful throughout school.

Mark Scott

Now, Nancy, I'm going to introduce the other panel members but I want to make sure we come back and discuss the question of school readiness because I think this is a really interesting challenge for us. I think one of the things that we can see across the system is an indictment really for us that we need to work on is that gaps grow in our system. Learning gaps grow over time. You can make an argument that those learning gaps grow from Kindergarten on, so how do we make kids ready for Day 1, Term 1 of Kindergarten to put them on a successful trajectory through? I want to come back and discuss that with you.

Nancy Penfold

Absolutely.

Mark Scott

Stuart, welcome. Now you were hailed from Campbelltown in South Western Sydney. You've been teaching there for 17 years within educational leadership in that part of Sydney. I understand that you're working with the Yalaganj Initiative. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Stuart Keast

Yeah, thanks Mark. Can I just as well acknowledge the Dharawal elders from where I do my work across day in and day out? Yeah, I've been part of this project now for four years. Yalaganj means smart person in Dharawal. So, we've been really looking at identifying and trying to support schools to identify and build relationships with kids with great or are high potential. We use a lot of data, internal and external, NAPLAN, PAT, school-based data, formative and summative assessment of trying to identify those students within the school and really get that picture of who they are.

So we take that data. Then we dig deeper and have a conversation and really dig into the teachers, "Who is this kid? What are they doing? What are they good at? Is culture their thing? Do they know lots about that? Are they a footy kid? How am I going to connect with them? Are they into science, history, is literature their thing? What is their thing and how can we move them from where they are so that they're reaching their potential. A lot of our work we do around building self-efficacy and self-esteem and confidence and skills in one area, we're trying to transfer across into others.

Mark Scott

Sounds to me that's a classic case study, putting faces to the data, understanding what the data tells you, but putting it in the context of every student in your care.

Stuart Keast

Yeah. That's correct. Really starting with that, does it even match? Are they doing as well on their external assessments as they are in class or is it an opposite? Are there lessons in class matching what they should be getting and being capable of? Then really unpacking who is that kid and what does that look like for that kid and that teacher, and the teacher within that class? Are they a first-year out teacher that might have one of our smartest kids in the system and they don't really know it yet? We need some support there. Are they an experienced teacher with a kid who needs some extra support for catching up in literacy or they've got some regulation skills. How do we tap into that for that child and get them growing and developing to what they're really capable of?

Mark Scott

We'll come back and talk about that a bit more in just a minute. Allison, we want to go to you. We find you at Murrumbidgee Regional High School today. I understand you're a proud Gulidjan woman and you grew up in Hay, but you've been teaching for 24 years across Kinder to Year 12. But at the moment, you're at Murrumbidgee Regional High School. You work in the Aboriginal Learning and Engagement Center there. Tell us about the focus of that work.

Allison Stewart

I'd just like to start by paying my respects to Wiradjuri Nation on which land I'm working on today, and respects to Elders both past and present. Yeah, the aim of the centre – and it's relatively new at the moment, we started Term 2 of this year – is to increase the proportion of Aboriginal students attaining their HSC by 50%. To do that, we are engaging closely with the community and families. We see them as an important part of the journey for our student. Also, we're working closely with the teachers in putting Aboriginal perspectives into their classrooms. So the children have that sense of cultural identity, language, and learning about their culture.

That's our main aim. To do this, we're starting with targeting Year 9. Year 9 is the year that we find that a lot of our students are disengaged. So we're targeting Year 9, and we'll follow them through to their HSC. And, yeah, get 50% of our Aboriginal students through.

Mark Scott

That's very important. I had a meeting with the Premier recently. I was being cross-examined by her on our ability to get home this target. It's an ambitious target. But I think when we quietly sit and think, why shouldn't that be the case for Aboriginal students, as all students? I'm interested in the Year 9 focus. I was reading recently about initiatives in the Chicago School System. Quite a long way from here, and with many different and distinctive challenges.

Mark Scott

But they also identified Year 9 as a key point to success and a successful experience in Year 9, transitioning students through those final years of learning. Whereas a struggling Year 9, feeling defeated by the system or alienated by the system Year 9 was sadly a predictor of students being unwilling to finish school.

Allison Stewart

Yeah, we're finding a lot of our data reflects that. Tell Them From Me surveys reflecting that the students when they hit Year 9 are not connecting with the school. They don't feel like they belong to the school. They're not connecting with their culture. Their attendance rates, suspension rates, everything seems to drop in Year 9. That's why we're focusing on that very important year group.

Mark Scott

Yeah. It's interesting, I think, as we do the work on the Premier's Priority, which is this big target to increase by 50% students completing the HSC whilst maintaining their cultural identity. I think the more we look at that this is not a Year 11 or a Year 12 challenge, this isn't even a high school challenge, per se. This is a challenge that goes all the way back through schooling and responsibility for working with these students and putting them on a successful pathway through school all the way. Nancy, let's go back to your work, your strong focus on primary school students. Before you were at Broken Hill, a long way from Broken Hill, Marrickville West.

Nancy Penfold

Yes, yeah.

Mark Scott

But also Aboriginal students there and working strongly with communities. Tell me about the importance of community engagement in order to put Aboriginal students on a pathway to success through schooling.

Nancy Penfold

Well, Mark, our community engagement really is everything that we have. That's our core business. We're working not just with our Aboriginal students, but with all of our students in the system. I was very lucky that in Marrickville West, my grandma Tulsi Flower actually was one of the nurses who set up the Redfern Aboriginal Medical Service. So I had the connection to the community through her. My mother, when she began teaching, she started teaching at Darlington Public School in Redfern and was a member of the same Aboriginal Education Consultative Group that I became a member of the Inner City Mid-East AECG.

So we had 60 or so years' worth of community relationships and community engagement before I'd even stepped foot in that school. That's all of those people from health, from education, that can support our students and can give us either some tips to help the kids because they know some things that might be going on that we need to know about. Also, then we can feed back to them and we can be reminding them and asking them to do, especially with AMS, to do things like checking our kids for our hearing and making sure that we're really focusing on that in schools.

Because we do as you were saying before, Mark, we do have so many fantastic people within the Department of Education. We've got our hearing itinerants and our really fantastic hearing training. But if teachers are not aware because they're not engaging with their local Aboriginal medical service, that hearing problems may be an issue for our students, it can be another challenge that our kids are up against. Another community organization that I engage with as well is the local police and the PCYC. They come into the youth commands. I've been very fortunate that my mother after many, many years in public education moved over to the NSW Police Force, where she is the Aboriginal education teacher there.

So she teaches all of the people in the state from all of the police, all the PCYC people about how to engage with communities. So I was very lucky to have that connection. I'm able to see the benefits of having strong engagement with your local PCYCs and AMS because they do have systems and strategies and programs in place that can support our Aboriginal students, and all of our students when they're not at schools. They've got programs such as the Rise Up and the Fit For programs that do work towards meeting the Premier's Priorities of our well-connected communities, our highest quality education, and also our close the gap targets of making sure that our students are getting the education that will allow them to succeed and set them up for employment after school.

Mark Scott

It's really interesting in a recent discussion with the Premier around the Premier's Priorities. I was there with Georgina Harrison. The point the Premier made, which I think was telling, it's just what you're saying now is that education will not be able to achieve this Premier's Priority target on HSC completion rates for Aboriginal students on our own. We're going to need to work in a context of community provision and community support and encourage us in our thinking in response to that challenge to think through who our partners need to be in order to get this work done.

I think you've told great stories there. I mean, they're great deep personal connection that your family has, in a sense through generations in tapping into this community expertise and support. One of the things that I'm struck a little bit, I think we all understand you know, that old I think African proverb, "It takes a village to raise a child." How do you draw on all that expertise? It's an important thing to do. For many people though, their own school experience was not necessarily a great experience. I can imagine that there will be Aboriginal students in our schools whose parents did not always have a happy and successful pathway through our schools, through public education.

So, therefore, there might well be a question of confidence and willingness for them to engage with the school themselves and feeling at home and welcome and comfortable in a school setting. Had you given that thought and how do you make parents and other family members and friends feel open and accepted in and around the school community?

Nancy Penfold

Well, that's a very good point, Mark. One of the things that I really try to focus on in my own schools is to make sure that when we are having conversations with our Aboriginal staff, to begin with if we've got Aboriginal stuff in our school that we are treating them with respect because the kids in our school see more than what we often realize they do. So if we're not treating our Aboriginal staff, whether they're our Aboriginal teachers, our Aboriginal education offices, SLSOs, with respect, the kids see that and then that goes home. Then that is another hurdle for us to come up against.

An example of that would be I've had an executive staff member say to me before, I've been telling them a story about some of the Elders in my community when I call them Auntie or Uncle, this executive said to me, "Oh, they're not your real uncle, are they?" That was in front of students. I was quick to pull them up and said, "Well, yes, they're my real Uncle. That's really irrelevant if I'm telling a story about this person." But then those students hear that and then that message goes home. That has the potential to create a bigger gap that we then have to work on filling that instead of working on moving forward.

In the sense of people potentially having negative experiences with the schooling system, they do still see the importance of having a quality education as being part of that Close the Gap target. For my local community as well, the PCYC and the police do a fantastic program every year called Nations of Origin, where Aboriginal students from all around the state actually travel to go to a police-run community event. We know through the history that there hasn't always been a positive history with Aboriginal people and communities and the police. Yet we're seeing the students that I had at my school that would love going to the Nations of Origin would happily travel three hours each way to go to these community-run events by the police. We are able to build those relationships when we are treating each other with respect and making sure that that we that we set the standard And that we are conscious of what we're saying and the message that that puts across.

Mark Scott

Thanks for that. Stuart, so let me just go to you, you were talking about data earlier and the need to mine the data to get insights around students and how they learn and how to engage them. If you look at our school excellence framework, and how schools rate themselves in areas. The areas where school rate themselves poorest across the state is around data analysis. I think we're getting more data into schools now. We're developing schools around data analysis. Tell us a little bit about how you go about mining that data to gain insight for the students in your care and also in the schools that you're working with to make sure that there is a complete picture or understanding of student's capabilities, students, areas of engagement and the full story of the student.

Stuart Keast

Yeah, okay. So I've been lucky to be able to work across a number of schools. Then being foreign to schools and foreign to some of the kids and not knowing them has meant that when I go into the setting, I'm literally looking at numbers on a page. When a reading level is a really low reading level, and there's a really good NAPLAN score, I think hang on, that doesn't match. So we've taken an analysis and come up with some systems where we're really looking closely at what do we have is as school data? Do we have school data?? Is it accurate? Is it accurate and consistent between the kids in that grade and that school? Is it accurate with what external data that's been pulled out and put across?

Then starting by looking at that and go, okay, does that make sense? Does that match? Why does it match? Why doesn't it match? So once we've got that first little picture, then we take it back, we might look at their attendance data and go, "Okay, well, they're almost scoring top two bands in NAPLAN, but they're actually never here. Why are they never here?"

Well, maybe because of your classroom teacher. What are you doing in the classroom to engage the kid and then we take that back and have a conversation with the school and the principal and the executive, and then all the way down to the class teacher. It's not in a negative way. It's in a way that's about engaging in helping support this kid. How can we provide them with opportunities? What is their thing? What do they need to build their self-efficacy, self-confidence in the school? Do they need leadership opportunities? Is it culture? Are you embedding culture in their learning in their classroom?

Because some kids thrive on that. Is it a relationship that you haven't quite been able to break and branch with that kid yet? What is the area that you need to dig into? So we have to start with somewhere and start with look at that data and try and bring it down. But then it's really about being for it at school, keeping the school accountable, so they know that they're looking at it, drilling down to it, and then really understanding who the kid is and what makes that child tick. Sometimes it's about having the time and sitting and having a conversation with the teacher and the teacher sitting and having a conversation or listening to the kid about what they're interested in and where they can go.

Mark Scott

Allison, this the focus of your work, too, isn't it? With kids at the senior levels of high school, it's that strong individual focus and understanding of each individual student and in a sense, what makes them tick and finding the right connection with each of them.

Allison Stewart

Yeah. Very much. So I've been working a lot with teachers on why are our students disengaging at that Year 10 level. When talking to the students and their PLPs, the teachers and I really looked at that data and found out that the students are not ... They're disengaging because they're not engaging a sense of connection. They don't have a sense of connection either to a teacher, to a teaching style or to the curricula. So I'm working closely with teachers to say, "We need to make a connection with these students."

So if they don't like Shakespeare, we're not going to make a connection with what you're teaching, but we can make a personal connection. Talk to the students about or find out what footy team they like. On a Monday, they walk in and say, "So the Rabbitohs won," and you could talk about the Rabbitohs for five minutes. So really, I'm really working with teachers on making a connection, whether it be personal or with the way the student learns. I think by making it a connection, our students will engage more in school, which in turn will help us make the Premier's Priority of 50% attaining their HSC. So yeah, working quite hard on that in that area and making it very individualized and personalized to each student.

Mark Scott

I want to come back and talk in a minute about unconscious bias and the challenge of the deficit discourse. The real challenges I think that presents to us as a system and leadership and for teachers and school leaders. But at the other end, Stuart, I mean, one of the things that you're very focused on I think, is finding evidence of giftedness and finding high potential Aboriginal students and making a link between that and strengths that you're seeing every day. Tell us about, a bit more about the work you're doing to identify these areas of high potential in Aboriginal students that you're working with.

Stuart Keast

Yeah. The best thing about my job, Mark, is I get to go and sit and hang out with kids every day. I sit in the classroom, I sit on the floor, we throw dice, we code, we do artworks, we write poems. I get to hang out with kids every day. It amazes me the skills and things that they've heard that they can show me. Whether it's academic, whether it's leadership skills, creative knowledge and culture, or science and sports. There's kids with talents out there that we haven't even been able to tap and get into yet.

It's really the biggest part that we have in our challenge is finding who are those kids? What talent do they have and what area is it? Then how sometimes do we need to use that and approach that to help them succeed in another area? So maybe your greatness is really strong in your culture. So do we need to do more cultural stories and morals and books in your literacy to help you maybe progress, to get better paper result, academic result at the end of that.

Is it that you're really really proud of your knowledge of Minecraft and Fortnite? We're going to use that for helping in your maths and your design and your creativity. So for us, it's about embedding what the kids are engaged with in their learning, helping the teachers understand that, helping the teachers feel flexible enough to change what they might have had as their traditional program, to take advantage of these kids areas in needs and interests so that they can continue to grow and show their potential. Some of the kids will quite happily sit there and run at what they're doing, but they've got so much more to offer. For us as teachers in schools, it's about trying to export that, expose that, and take advantage of that and share it with other kids.

Mark Scott

Allison, one of the interesting things, a nuance, I think, but important nuance and the Premier's Priority is yes, most students throughout Year 12, but whilst maintaining cultural identity and cultural awareness. I think we've been talking about this for a while, but in your experience working with your students, how important are issues like culture and language to help Aboriginal students in their engagement with learning and their successful journey through schools? How essential is it to really be very, very aware of that context in dealing with Aboriginal students?

Allison Stewart

I think it's extremely important that the students see their culture being taught in a positive way within schools. I think once students see that their language is being immersed into their lessons or whether it's Aboriginal perspective in that classroom, it builds up the student's self-esteem. It actually feels like that the teachers in the school actually value their culture.

I think that's one thing that our students need, they need to feel valued. They need to improve their self esteem. They need to feel that culture is we want to learn about it, the whole school wants and needs to learn about Aboriginal culture. So I mean, at the moment, I'm working very hard with a lot of the teachers in embedding Aboriginal perspectives into their curriculum, into their day to day teaching. From that, you can see the improvement in attendance, our truancy levels are dropping because the children are getting some culture into their lessons. And if you can-

Mark Scott

Let's zoom at that. So you can see a direct link between embedding Aboriginal culture and perspectives across the curriculum to improve attendance rates for Aboriginal students in schools.

Allison Stewart

Certainly can, and truancy rates as well once our teachers started to embed some Aboriginal perspectives into their lessons. Students were not truanting those lessons anymore, they were going to those lessons because they knew the teachers valued them and valued their culture and wanted to learn. Often it was quite interesting when the teachers were saying that we're not the experts here. Can you help me out? Can you show me this? Can you tell me about this? Can you ask auntie or uncle or grandma about this? I think breaking that down have made a huge difference to our students, and empower them, and really gave them a sense of self worth.

Mark Scott

In a sense, do you feel that your colleagues there on the staff, having seen that lift of engagement, are now more likely to kind of pursue that as a course of action? Because I imagine teachers are busy, they have a lot of demands and to actually proactively pursue in a sense, the cultural input into what they're teaching - that's a further demand on them. I suppose they need to be sure that it's worth it.

Allison Stewart

Yeah, it is a lot of work. I'm lucky here at Murrumbidgee Regional High School that we have two AEOs, we have to Clontarf Academy and now we have the Learning Engagement Center, which is fully staffed. So we do have a lot of Aboriginal support in the school. So teachers know, for instance, the other day I had email from a chemistry teacher wanting help in putting Aboriginal perspectives into her chemistry class.

So that's been something I went and researched for her. I found a couple of links and some resources for her to put into what a Year 7 class were learning about geology. So we were talking about rocks and different stone tools. So teachers are now very aware of asking for help and knowing that we will do everything that we tend to support them. At the moment, it's hard to get community into school. So a lot of it is a lot of reading and online. But we would love as soon as we possibly can to get more community into the schools to support teachers. But the change I've seen in teachers asking for help and support to put Aboriginal perspectives into their lessons has been huge over the last term.

Mark Scott

Nancy, I want to go to you. I mean, we know that we have a challenging history here in NSW public education on our engagement and success with Aboriginal students and some of our history has not been great. We haven't always created an environment where Aboriginal students have flourished. Now, there are some great case stories of success. You're one of those, and your family is one of those. But you've done work on unconscious bias. How do you think that can affect Aboriginal students? As a teacher, what should I be looking out for to ensure that unconscious bias that I might carry isn't having a negative impact on students in my care?

Nancy Penfold

Yes. Well, we're always going to have an unconscious bias. That's the whole nature of it, that it is unconscious. So it's up to us as individuals and working with our school team as well to identify what those biases may be and how we are going to work towards reducing them in our classrooms. What the research shows us is that with the unconscious bias, that will have an impact on the way that we are providing feedback to students, whether we're providing feedback that's maybe a little bit too difficult or a little too easy and also the way that we are pushing students to reach their learning goals.

The two big takeaways that I would give to teachers when looking at identifying unconscious bias in themselves, it does come back to that close the gap target of our students thriving in the early years. One of the biggest things that I've seen is that our students, when they are coming and enrolling in schools, they're speaking at home standard Australian English, which is what the curriculum is taught in. They're also speaking Aboriginal English. They may be lucky enough to be speaking some of their own dialect and an additional language if they've got another parent or they're living in a community that speaks Italian or Mandarin or something else. So you've got students that are enrolling in Kindergarten that are four or five, six years old, who may be speaking four languages at home.

It's really amazing when these students do start. It's something that I'm able to recognize being an Aboriginal teacher working in the early years is that I can see the students knowing the context in which to use Aboriginal English and knowing the context in which to use standard Australian English. Even so, that when I'm doing, say a reading lesson with a handful of students, they can change within a matter of seconds between the different contexts. They know that having a conversation with Miss Penfold is okay in Aboriginal English, and then immediately are able to change over to standard Australian English to read the text that they're reading, and then to respond to the questions. That is something that we do recognize as the Department of Education. We're lucky enough as well that recognizing Aboriginal English as an additional language dialect is recognized and we have got scholarships to support teachers, if they are wishing, if that's something that they identify in their community, and they are wishing to get better in that area.

We've got lots of resources through our professional learning, with our online learning and with our specialists in state office and your local regional offices, who specialize in teaching strategies that support students whose English is an additional dialect, which includes students who are speaking both standard Australian English and Aboriginal English. It just means that you can put in place ... It just means that you can put in place some teaching strategies to support the students in their literacy development and make sure that they are hearing all of the sounds which they may not be exposed to at home or they may only be exposed to them in a limited way. That directly relates with success in the classroom and improvement in their reading and writing when they've got that because if the students can't, are not hearing the sounds of standard Australian English and have not had enough exposure to them to have mastered those sounds, it's very difficult to sound out words when reading, very difficult to sound out words when writing and that can be very difficult throughout school.

The second thing that is the most important for teachers to look for with this unconscious bias is that sometimes we have a bias that all students and all families are able to attend doctors and their local health centres to get hearing checked and that all families are teaching their students, their kids, sorry, to blow their nose throughout the day. Now we know that we've got lots of fantastic hearing itinerants. Again, we've got a scholarship through the Department of Education if you would like to specialise in hearing and supporting students and communities where hearing is an issue. When students are growing, the tube that connects their nose to their ears is a lot shorter and thinner than in adults. So it needs to be cleared out properly. Otherwise, it's like teaching students with earmuffs on.

In my experience, the reason that I've been able to make growth is because we have a blow your nose, practice it before every single literacy lesson that we do, whether that's spelling, sounds, reading, writing, because they need to be able to hear what they're sounding out. They need to be able to master the sounds in Standard Australian English. I teach students who are Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal. It's quite easy. It's just 10 star jumps and then blowing their nose. You keep repeating that until they're ready to learn.

For some students, they might be ready to learn after one tissue. Other students, it might take 20 tissues until they're ready to learn. But I would much rather...you get much more success and engagement from the students who can hear the teacher through doing that practice. So those are the two main things that we're recognizing, Aboriginal English as an additional dialect, and that we are recognizing that there are the potential for hearing problems. As I've said, while it's not always the Aboriginal students who I'm teaching who use lots of tissues, the Aboriginal students are 10 times more likely to develop otitis media and lifelong hearing problems if this is something that's not addressed in their young little life.

Mark Scott

Great practical advice there, Nancy, thanks so much for that. I know that those watching this will find that interesting and valuable. We're almost out of time. Stuart and Allison, I just wanted to go to you on the unconscious bias and high expectation question. How do you engage your colleagues around issues of unconscious bias? How do you ensure that there really are high expectations for all Aboriginal students in our schools rather than in a sense, a more negative, self-fulfilling prophecy or a deficit in our discourse? Stuart?

Stuart Keast

Yeah, Thanks, Mark. I think for us, it comes back - we start the data, we start the conversation. We talked to the teacher. We're always looking for the diamond in the rough. Okay? We're hunting and looking, "Who's there? What does this kid got to offer?" I think if I can share a really quick story, we had a little girl in Year 3, 60% attendance, wouldn't put her hand up to answer questions, not here, falling behind. We started looking and we started asking questions saying, "Who is she? What is she doing? What can she do?"

There wasn't a whole lot. So we sort of target her and tapped her on the shoulder and did a few things. We took it along to State AECG STEM Camps. We did leadership days with her. We did challenge days. We did different activities. We worked with culture with her. Year 5, she went top to bands in NAPLAN. Year 6, she became part of her prefect team. In Year 6, she sat on in front of 150 adults and was interviewed by department heads and Microsoft heads in question about a language and culture and ran the reality app that we made together. It's there. We just need to have the ... It might take time and make the effort to look and build the relationship with the kids.

Mark Scott

Allison, what about you, unconscious bias and high expectations?

Allison Stewart

Yeah, I agree with what's been said before. It's teachers knowing their students. If you know your student, you know what they can achieve and you know where you can set the bar and set those high expectations. I've had the same experience working with a Year 9 boy last term who is often suspended, really disengaged in school. I sat with him I worked with him on an English essay on 12 Angry Men, which is quite an old text, but we got through that. Some of the themes are still relevant today. He passed, he passed that essay. Now, previously to that, his teachers were talking to me about, Allison, he needs to get an apprenticeship. Allison, we need to look at post-school options for this student."

Now, that they've seen what he can actually do, it's like, "No, we will hold the student to Year 12. He's quite bright in math." It was just getting to know him, know how he learned. From that, all teachers now have changed their expectations of what this student can actually achieve, which is really amazing.

Mark Scott

Great story. Look, I think across NSW, we have tens of thousands of teachers in our public schools who are desperate to do all they can to improve the learning outcomes for Aboriginal students, to give them the building blocks of learning so that they can be independent learners through their lives, great contributors to communities and to society and to this nation, and to really set them up for great success. But it's been a challenge for some of the reasons we've identified earlier today. Just a final word to your colleagues, drawing on your expertise in the field, what's the key bit of wisdom that you've picked up that you really want to impart to your colleagues to help them nurture and extend Aboriginal students in their education? Nancy, what do you want to let them know?

Nancy Penfold

Look, my big thing is always the relationships. Those are the relationships with your students. As I've said before, with the staff in your school and with your local community because when we do have those relationships, students and families do feel more comfortable to come up and say, "Well look, we are speaking Aboriginal English and standard Australian English at home." They are more comfortable to engage with you as well.

So you can get a bit more of an insight into the students than you may not have otherwise had. The Koori Grapevine, I'm sure you've all heard, moves real fast. So whenever you've got a good story, it doesn't just stay in your community that spreads out through the rest of the state as well. We do do that. I know when I came out to Broken Hill North, I had just some really amazing conversations with my colleagues, especially the way, just how respectful my non-Aboriginal colleagues were to our Aboriginal colleagues and to our local Aboriginal community.

Nancy Penfold

I was so impressed, I rang up all the mob I know from around the state. I'm saying, "Oh, you've got to hear about these conversations I've had at Broken Hill North," and all of my teacher friends up in Queensland as well. That's not just this community that's had a positive impact and positive relationships with their Aboriginal community, but that's now spread across the state and interstate. We're looking and saying, "Well look, how can we make these positive interactions and these positive relationships in our communities too? What can we do to build on the relationships we already have, and build on our partnerships with our other agencies?" Be that our local AMS, our PCYC, our AECG, our other agencies that we've got.

Mark Scott

Great advice. Stuart, what do you want to suggest to your colleagues?

Stuart Keast

I'm going to say, take the time and make the opportunity to build a relationship, ask them about their culture, go and kick the football with them, sit down and have lunch with them, ask them to teach you about Minecraft or Fortnite. But then just listen, listen to what they're going to say and learn about who they are.

Mark Scott

Allison, last word with you.

Allison Stewart

I think we can all remember that that one teacher from we were at school, that one teacher that made a difference to us. When we think about why that teacher, we still remember that teacher and why is it. That teacher knew their student. They knew me, they knew everyone. So I think it's that make a connection with your students. If you can make that, if one teacher can make one connection with one student, that will be with that student forever and that student will have success. Make a connection.

Mark Scott

Two hallmarks in our strategic plan. One is a commitment that every student, every teacher, every leader, every school improves every year, and also that every student, every young person in our school is known, valued and cared for. Great testimony from the leaders of our school system today about the work they're doing with Aboriginal students, to see them focused and engaged in learning, to see them part of a learning community and to see them on a pathway to great success through our schooling system and beyond. I want to thank Nancy, and Stuart, and Allison, for all they're contributing to public education and the generous way they've shared their stories and insights with us all today. Thanks, everyone, for joining in this conversation.

End of transcript.

How to engage students early in their education, to how to increase the number of Aboriginal students attaining the HSC and identify gifted and talented students are topics covered in the wide-ranging conversation.

Nancy Penfold, from Broken Hill North Public School, is a fifth generation Aboriginal teacher who works in early intervention with students from Kindergarten to Year 2, focusing on phonological acquisition.

“We're giving them the foundational skills that will take them through their lifelong learning journey,” she said.

“Community engagement is really everything we have. That’s our core business. We’re working not just with our Aboriginal students but with all of our students in the system.”

Stuart Keast works across south-western Sydney schools on the Yalaganj Initiative to engage and identify high potential Aboriginal students.

Yalaganj, which means ‘smart person’ in the Dharawal language, makes use of student data – from NAPLAN to in-school assessments – to put faces to the data and build a relationship with students to extend their academic performance.

“A lot of our work we do around building self-efficacy and self-esteem and confidence and skills in one area [that] we're trying to transfer across into others,” he said.

“The best thing about my job is I get to hang out with kids every day. I sit in the classroom, I sit on the floor, we throw dice, we code, we do artworks, we do poems.

“There’s kids with talents out there that we haven’t even been able to tap and get into yet.”

Aboriginal teacher Allison Stewart works in the Aboriginal Learning and Engagement Centre at Murrumbidgee High School in Griffith.

Her current focus is on the Premier’s Priority to increase the proportion of Aboriginal students attaining their HSC by 50%, working closely with students, teachers and families to put Aboriginal perspectives into classrooms “so the children have that sense of cultural identity, language and learning about their culture”.

“To do this we’re starting with targeting Year 9 ... it’s the year we find that a lot of our students are disengaged,” she said.

“Once our teachers started to embed some Aboriginal perspectives into their lessons students were not truanting those lessons anymore; they were going to those lessons because they knew the teachers valued them and valued their culture and wanted to learn.”

Mark Scott

About the Secretary

Mark Scott is Secretary of the Department of Education. He has worked as a teacher, in public administration and as a journalist and media executive. He is committed to public education and learning environments where every child can flourish.

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