Teaching for reconciliation in your classroom

Teaching for reconciliation in your classroom

Monash University

Do you feel confident about teaching Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures? Does your teaching promote reconciliation? Research suggests that many teachers struggle in these areas.

A new resource developed by Monash University in collaboration with ILBIJERRI Theatre Company and Drama Victoria helps to tackle these issues.

Do you feel confident about teaching Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures? Do you feel confident that you can support your students to engage respectfully, and to feel a sense of personal connection with First Nations content? Does your teaching promote reconciliation? These are the expectations of both the Victorian Curriculum and the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers and yet, research suggests that many teachers struggle in these areas.

For many teachers, the mandate to teach Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander content and perspectives is uncomfortable and challenging, particularly as their teaching is expected to actively promote reconciliation. Some try to avoid it altogether. They say that it’s ‘too hard’ or ‘too problematic,’ that they ‘don’t want to offend anyone’. But, like it or not, Australian teachers have a crucial role to play in this space.

Since 2016, Monash University has collaborated with ILBIJERRI Theatre Company and Drama Victoria to support Victorian Drama teachers in undertaking this work. Together, we developed a resource that tackles teachers’ commonly expressed questions and concerns. Here, we share some advice from this resource about how to approach teaching First Nations content and teaching for reconciliation.

Don’t let your own lack of knowledge be a barrier

If you feel nervous about teaching First Nations content because you don’t understand enough about it, do some research to learn more. Seems pretty simple, doesn’t it? After all, teaching ourselves new content is something that teachers do all the time. So why does this feel different? Maybe it’s because the stakes seem unusually high? Maybe you’re just time poor, overwhelmed, or simply don’t know where to begin? Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Don’t be too hard on yourself. Many teachers lack even basic knowledge of First Nations peoples or cultures because it wasn’t taught when we were at school. As teachers today, ‘not knowing’ isn’t a problem. It’s the unwillingness to dive in and get educated that is problematic.
  • If this work is new to you, start small, be led by what is most relevant to your students, and follow your own interests.
  • Make a point of engaging with the voices and perspectives of First Nations peoples.
  • Whatever you read or watch, always ask yourself who the author is, whose views they represent, and what their vested interests might be.
  • Notice any feelings that come up for you – especially uncomfortable ones like shame, guilt, and fear. As uncomfortable as it might be, stay with those feelings. Try to feel them without judgement. With understanding, these emotions can inspire new awareness and determined action.
Aboriginal person teaching a non-aboriginal girl to weave baskets.
Make a point of engaging with the voices and perspectives of First Nations peoples
(photo: student-devised performance based on Remembering the Empty Coolamons by Yamatji artist, Robyne Latham.)

Embed First Nations awareness in your everyday classroom culture

It makes sense to think about the history and cultures of the First Nations of Australia as a core part of Australian history and culture. Too often, they are taught as something completely separate. No wonder it is hard for students to think of First Nations histories and cultures as having anything to do with them. By embedding First Nations awareness in your everyday classroom culture, you encourage familiarity and connectedness.

Here are a few simple ways to begin:

  • Include an Acknowledgement of Country as part of your daily or weekly routine. Have students research and present a personal acknowledgement of the histories and peoples of your local Country.
  • Display the AIATSIS Map of Indigenous Australia and mark the Country your school calls home.
  • Decorate your classroom with words and images of your local Nation and Country.
  • Celebrate and acknowledge key dates on the Koorie Education Calendar.
  • Explore the similarities between the histories and cultures of First Nations peoples and those of students’ own families and communities.
Aboriginal Australia map
Aboriginal Australia map (source: http://nationalunitygovernment.org/pdf/aboriginal-australia-map.pdf)

Be prepared to respond to racism

You are bound to have at least one experience of a student doing or saying something racist. They might repeat racist remarks or unintentionally racist attitudes and stereotypes they’ve heard at home, seen in the news, or read online.

Whatever the case:

  • Be prepared for that racist moment (and the next one and the next). Turn it into a teachable moment through non-judgemental whole class discussion.
  • Supporting students to relearn their relationships with racism is challenging. To better understand why, read, learn, and teach about white fragility, white privilege, unconscious bias and whitewashing.
  • Invite parents to support this work by continuing the conversations at home.
The Aboriginal Parade on Australia Day 2019, Melbourne, Australia.
Encourage students to reflect on how their identities as Australians are being challenged.
(photo: the Aboriginal Parade on Australia Day 2019, Melbourne, Australia.)

Provide regular opportunities for students to reflect on their emotions, attitudes, and assumptions

Facing the difficult truths about our shared history as First Nations and non-Indigenous Australians can be a confronting and unsettling experience. Supporting students to move through their difficult feelings is a vital part of teaching for reconciliation.

  • Regularly invite students to experience the fullness of their feelings without judgement and then reflect: Where do those feelings come from? Who do they serve? And how can they be resolved?
  • Encourage students to reflect on how their identities as Australians are being challenged.
  • Invite extended reflection on how students’ attitudes, assumptions, beliefs, and behaviours are being affected.

Don’t expect straightforward answers

As with most dilemmas we face as teachers, figuring out how to teach for reconciliation is not about finding the right answers. It is about understanding the right kind of questions to ask, the range of possible answers, and why we might answer in different ways in different contexts.

Teaching for reconciliation means accepting that there are no easy answers and asking the questions anyway. Embracing the complexity is often the first step on an extraordinarily enriching teaching journey.

This article is based on content from a new resource for teachers, Teaching First Nations Content and Concepts in the Drama Classroom: Advice for Teachers in Victorian Schools (pdf).

The development of the resource was made possible through the generosity of the First Nations performing artists who contributed to the ILBIJERRI Advisory Groups in 2015 and 2016. We are all beneficiaries of their generosity of spirit, their creative acumen, and their belief in our work as teachers.

The banner in this article features a section of the painting by Jamil Tye (Director of William Cooper Institute). The painting was created for NAIDOC week 2020 and reproduced here with the artist's permission.  For an insight into the meaning of this painting, see this Q&A with Jamil.

Resources

References

  1. Aileen Moreton-Robinson (2015), The White Possessive: Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty, Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.
  2. Sarah Booth and Bill Allen (2017), More Than the Curriculum:Teaching for Reconciliation in Western Australia, International Journal for Cross-Disciplinary Subjects in Education, iss. 8, no. 2, pp. 3123-30.
  3. Adam Heaton (2019), Combatting Racism to Create a Better Australia: The Potential of the NationalCross-Curriculum Priority of Teaching Aboriginal Histories and Cultures, Australian Aboriginal Studies, no. 1, pp. 41-50.
  4. Simone White, Zane Ma Rhea, Peter Anderson and Bernadette Atkinson (2013), A unit outline and content for professional learning units to support teachers in meeting Focus Areas 1.4 and 2.4 (AITSL, 2013).