Innovative teacher training in remote Australian Indigenous communities: A sustainable staffing model


In this article Wendy Giles, Debbie Prescott and David Rhodes from Charles Darwin University explain how they are delivering the Bachelor of Teaching and Learning, to Indigenous students by sending lecturers out each week to five remote communities in the Northern Territory in Australia. 

The Growing Our Own Project
In remote Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory of Australia, there are very few indigenous teachers in our schools, and even fewer accessing teacher training through higher education providers (Fordham and Schwab, 2007). It is difficult to recruit teachers who stay for more than one year. Typically, they are young and inexperienced, do not speak the local language and feel isolated in the bicultural environment (Lyons et al, 2006; Taylor, 2010). Student attendance at these schools is poor, retention to leaving age is limited, and educational outcomes for the students are well below national benchmarks (NT Board of Studies, 2008; NT Department of Education and Training, 2008). Each class in these schools has a local Indigenous Teacher Assistant (TA), many of whom have worked in the school in excess of 20 years. They are typically unwilling or unable to leave their family and country, live in substandard housing, have no access to a computer or the internet other than at school and are the mainstay of their families and household. They have a reasonable level of education themselves, and express a great desire for there to be more Indigenous teachers teaching their children and acting as role models. In an effort to promote a more sustainable staffing model for these communities, and, as a consequence, to improve the outcomes for the students, Charles Darwin University, in partnership with the Catholic education Office and Department of Education in the Northern Territory, is taking its course to the communities by sending lecturers out each week to deliver the program to these Teacher Assistants.

The overarching goals of the program are:

*To empower Indigenous educators to join culturally relevant ways of being, knowing and doing with contemporary curriculum and pedagogical knowledge;

*To empower non-Indigenous teacher mentors to understand culturally relevant Indigenous ways of being, knowing and doing and infuse these with contemporary curriculum and pedagogical knowledge to strengthen opportunities for children’s learning (Elliott & Keenan, 2008, Appendix A, p. 5).

Whereas mainstream teacher education students access courses externally via the Internet and/or internally by attending lectures and tutorials, the Growing Our Own program enables students to access the course by the lecturer coming to them, in situ. If this option were not available, it would be highly unlikely that students would be able to move to Darwin to attend classes because of their complex commitments to their families and community. Internet access is patchy and not available in most of their homes; so online learning outside of the school is also impossible. Therefore, the Growing Our Own project has sought to overcome some significant barriers for students who would otherwise have little or no chance of becoming qualified teachers.

The delivery of this program is distinctive in that it blends the Assistant Teachers’ extensive classroom experience and expertise with knowledge about teaching and learning to meet course outcomes in practical ways relevant for each school and community context. The Growing Our Own students are already working in their schools as Teacher Assistants and are deeply embedded in the community. Many of them have significant responsibilities and all possess extensive knowledge of the local culture, language(s), families and environment (Maher, in press). In the bilingual schools (where school instruction initially takes place in an Indigenous language, then English is gradually introduced over the years), the TAs are an integral part of the classroom when the teacher speaks only English. They are also the main link between families, the community, and the school.

The TA role provides an ideal opportunity for the integration of the learning required as part of an undergraduate teacher education qualification with day-to-day classroom activity. It allows the use of authentic, culturally appropriate ways of learning to be used to progress the learning outcomes required by CDU course and teacher registration requirements. These outcomes are achieved across subjects within the school context, rather than as part of isolated, university-based units. As the program has progressed it has become apparent that the participants are gradually repositioning themselves in the classroom and the school as teachers rather than teacher assistants.

A CDU lecturer, a school-based coordinator and a mentor teacher support each preservice teacher. The CDU lecturer visits the site once a week (by plane, four wheel drive or boat) for the whole school year (typically 40 weeks) to deliver the academic course content, as well as to oversee the preservice teacher’s planning and liaise with the school staff. The lecturer works closely with the school coordinator and also with the Catholic Education Office and other CDU lecturers. The school-based coordinator works with the group when the lecturer is on site, and then supervises the students’ study and practical work for the rest of the week. The school-based coordinator also plays a crucial role in being the link between the coursework and the classroom practice, working closely with the mentor teachers to ensure that the preservice teacher completes thorough planning and receives feedback on lessons. The Growing Our Own students were extremely resilient in a dynamic school environment where mentor teachers, school-based coordinators and other educational leaders stayed for less than the duration of the project.

The mentor teacher has a special role in the project, highlighted in the second major goal of the program. This implies that the mentor and the student teacher should learn culturally relevant knowledge and practices from each other, embedding them in the pedagogy and curriculum in the classroom. Thus the program enacts the both ways approach highlighted as essential by Indigenous communities. Indeed, as lecturers in the program, we are continually confronted with how little we know of the context and of how much we can learn from the Growing Our Own students, both about their culture and about the knowledge that is embedded within it. The relationships between the Growing Our Own students, their mentor teachers, the school-based coordinator and the CDU lecturer, and the mutual learning that takes place as a result, are key to the successful implementation of the program.

By locating learning within the context in which the students live, and activity within the day-to-day tasks of teaching in which they are involved, the Growing Our Own program creates an authentic situation in which to embed learning. By creating a partnership between participants at all levels it seeks to break down barriers that inhibit the participation of Indigenous people in traditional teacher education programs. By valuing the knowledge that the Indigenous students bring it seeks to instil the confidence required for them to become effective teachers in the community who have the capacity to use culturally appropriate pedagogy and create synergies between Indigenous and Western ways of knowing and learning.

So far (towards the end of the second and final year), 16 out of 26 students have stayed in the course. The English literacy levels (most of them do not speak English as a first language) have been a challenge for some students, and some have taken longer to complete various units. All students have expressed an enthusiasm for the course, and are keen to persevere to completion. The report by an independent authority to the project’s stakeholders at the end of 2009 was positive in most areas, but also outlined some issues, such as managing conflicting cultural and work ethic expectations. Anecdotal evidence from the preservice teachers, their lecturers and mentor teachers confirmed that there have been many benefits of the program in terms of ‘two way’ learning (Ebbeck, 2009).

The impact of this program on the five remote Aboriginal communities and the partner organisations is significant. This strategic and bold approach to Indigenous Preservice teacher education is a good model on which to build sustainable school environments which address the needs of Indigenous children.

Ebbeck, M. (2009) Evaluation of Growing Our Own – A two way approach to teacher preparation for Northern territory Catholic schools. Unpublished report: Charles Darwin University.
Elliott, A. & Keenan, B. (2008) Growing Our Own. Submission to DEEWR, Canberra, Australia.
Fordham, A. M. & Schwab, R. G. (2007) Education, training and Indigenous futures CAEPR policy research: 1990-2007. Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, ANU: MCEETYA.
Lyons, T., R. Cooksey, D. Panizzon, A. Parnell, & J. Pegg. (2006) The SiMERR national survey. University of New England: National Centre of Science, ICT and Mathematics Education for Rural and Regional Australia.
Maher, M. (in press) Making Inclusive Education Happen: The impact of Initial Teacher Education in remote Aboriginal Communities. International Journal of Inclusive Education.
Northern Territory Board of Studies (2008) NT Board of Studies Annual Report, Darwin: NT Government.
Northern Territory Government, Department of Education and Training. Enrolment and attendance statistics [Electronic Version]. Retrieved 3 May, 2010 from
Taylor, J. (2010) Demography as destiny: Schooling, Work and Aboriginal population change at Wadeye. Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research Working Paper No 64/2010, Canberra: ANU E Press.

About the author

Wendy Giles is currently assocate professor at the School of Education of the Faculty of Education, Health and Science at the Charles Darwin University, Australia

Debbie Prescott is currently Lecturer in Education at the School of Education of the Faculty of Education, Health and Science at the Charles Darwin University, Australia

David Rhodes is a Lecturer with the School of Education at the Charles Darwin University in the Northern Territory, Australia. He was a full-time secondary school teacher for a number of years and has submitted his PhD for examination. He currently lives in Darwin. He is actively involved in Indigenous Teacher Education. His research interests include diversity and inclusion in education.


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