One wonderful thing that happened on my first day ... at recess this young lady comes off the playground and says there's eight Aboriginal blokes out there, what are we going to do?
Everyone looked at me, the only new person in the school. And I'm thinking — not saying, thinking — I'm the new person here. If there's eight Aboriginal blokes from this town on the school's playground, you'd think that they would have known these blokes and it wouldn't be a big deal. Silence in the staff room. So I said, well I'll walk out and say g'day.
And I happened to know every one of those eight blokes. I had been to school with them, played football with them, or they were mates of one of my brothers. But they all knew me, and they basically said, we'd heard one of you lot was coming, we didn't know which one, but we knew that whichever one came wasn't going to be a racist. So I had this core of the Aboriginal community that I had instant credibility with.
But you have to maintain that credibility. So I built my links, I built my networks and, right from the start, I never made a decision about any kid without consulting their parents, and that's a major issue, particularly with Aboriginal kids. You've got to empower people. You can't just say — rock up and I'll tell you your kid's done this or that, they're suspended for four days ... Then a second short suspension goes into a long, and that's the end of the kid, and the family, and often your credibility in that community.
What do I do with new teachers? First, before they even walk into the school, I take them down 'the other end'. The other end used to be the reserve, now called 'The Village'. There is a demarcation line in town towards the western end beyond which only Aboriginal people live, and I think that you've got to see it to believe it and know where our kids are coming from.
The difficult circumstances — like, it's a job just for some kids to get to school — the overcrowding, the non-air-conditioned houses, domestic violence, drugs, gambling, alcohol. All those are issues that impact on our work. So, I give them a really good 'up front, in your face'. These are our kids — and they aren't middle class kids with your background, your parents, all those issues.
Before new teachers walk into a classroom, I also tell them that Aboriginal kids have a sixth sense when working with non-Aboriginal people. If the kids don't perceive them to be fair dinkum — up front, you know, I'm here to do a job for you and in a nice quiet supportive way — those teachers will lose 95 per cent of the Aboriginal kids instantly.
When they first walk into that classroom, they must be seen as a human being, somebody who's here to teach, and to help kids in any way, shape or form. That's what they are getting paid for.
The model we use here could be put in place anywhere. It just so happens that 50 per cent of our kids are Aboriginal. We've proved that you can get nearly equal outcomes for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal kids in the same environment by just treating them as kids.
However, as far as Aboriginal kids are concerned, they've got to know that being Aboriginal is wonderful. They have got a rich, wonderful, diverse civilisation and culture, might be the oldest on the planet — and it's great to be a blackfella. Whitefellas have got to learn that about Aboriginality too.
But we're all Aussies, you know. At the end of the day, we're only people.