Your bridge to the community
The Indigenous people who work in schools are at the heart of school community relationships and partnerships. Chris Sarra knew this when he became principal of Cherbourg State School and in his description of change and improvement at the school, Young and Black and Deadly, he writes about the crucial importance of 'finding a Mrs Long'.
The prospect of venturing out into an Aboriginal community may seem daunting. For me it was made easier by Mrs Long. Mrs Long is an Elder in the community who worked in the school as a community liaison person. Like many people in Indigenous communities, she harbours an intense desire to see Indigenous children gain power through education.
The first three to four months saw Mrs Long working directly alongside me for most of the time, helping to establish who was in the community, who I needed to make contact with, who I needed to stay away from, who was the right person to get in touch with when a particular child played up, when was the right time to visit people, what the 'hot issues' of school concern were that were festering in the community. As the new principal, these matters were far more crucial than things like school curriculum programs and so on. Mrs Long was my eyes and ears in the community. Clearly it was wise of me to embrace her and what she had to offer. While she may not have had any formal educational qualifications, she had something far more valuable to me — she was highly respected and knew the community inside out.
Any new principal in an Indigenous school should find their own Mrs Long before doing anything else. I have not been to any Aboriginal community in which one does not exist ... If you are serious about establishing some form of collective understanding, then be prepared to work extensively alongside them. (p 20-21)
The roles of Indigenous people currently working in schools are as varied as the schools they work in.
In more remote communities where non-Indigenous staff tend to be transient, Indigenous employees and community members play a central role in binding and maintaining the continuity of the school and its work. The 'bridge' often consists of educating non-Indigenous staff about the community and its life and focus. In the rural centres where most Indigenous people live, Indigenous staff will often be from local families and have extensive knowledge about the community. However, in metropolitan areas, Indigenous staff may not be connected to the students' families and in fact be from other parts of the country. They will need to do their own learning. This should be expected and understood.
Koorie Educator Josh Wanganeen at Echuca College, Victoria
In some cases, an Elder or senior member of the community acts as a crucial bridge between non-Indigenous teachers and students, parents and community. A number of schools are fortunate enough to have Aunties and Uncles fulfilling this role — they might be a friend, contact or mentor for Indigenous students and they aren't afraid to growl if it is needed. Other schools employ Indigenous people in ancillary roles — for sports coaching, bus driving, grounds maintenance, informal classroom support, hearing children read and, too rarely, working in the front office.
Indigenous Education Workers (IEWs, with various job titles in different systems) bring particular and specialised knowledge and skills to their workplace, including commonly
IEWs are employees of the school, but their responsibilities extend into their communities as well. Partnerships are never stress-free and, just as IEWs commonly report unrealistic expectations on the part of the school, so they also report unrealistic expectations on the part of community members. IEWs are not all things to all people and should not be expected to be. Like other workers, their roles should be clearly defined.