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  What Works - The Work Program

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Athe Walter Nona

If he doesn't come to school every day, we get worried... we go looking for him.

Athe Walter's official roles | Steve Foster talks about Athe Walter | Athe Walter's own story


Athe ('Grandfather') Walter Nona is 78 years old. He is a respected Elder in the Badu Island community and president of the school's P&C, a position he has held for over 40 years.

In addition, Athe Walter is employed at the school for 13 hours per fortnight at teacher aide wage rate as the school-community liaison officer. He was nominated and elected to this position unopposed at a public meeting where all community members were in attendance.

But the above information goes only part of the way to describing the vital importance of Athe Walter to the school and community generally. He is a bridge between non-Indigenous teachers and students, parents and community. He is an advisor to school staff and students alike. He is a mentor and friend. He is a mediator. He is a role model.

Athe Walter's official roles

  • To liaise between the school parent organisation, Community Council and the community.
  • To counsel children on the school's behaviour policy and general behaviour acceptable in the community.
  • To provide cultural guidance to new members of staff.
  • To help improve attendance levels at Badu Island State School.
  • To talk to and counsel staff.
  • To provide support to individual families leading to improved educational outcomes for the children.
  • To be a role model to children, providing encouragement and support.
  • To represent the school on the Torres Strait Islander Regional Education Council (TSIREC).

In performing these roles, Athe Walter

  • makes daily school visits to every classroom to observe both teachers and students;
  • provides feedback and informs teachers and administration staff on the cultural happenings that might be taking place in and out of the classroom that could be affecting a student or students;
  • counsels students and parents about the School's Behaviour Management Policy;
  • helps counsel children and staff in the absence of the principal;
  • works with parents on protocol and processes for dealing with complaints, concerns or queries regarding school issues;
  • approaches families on the school's behalf when specific information or concerns need to be shared. He also acts as a liaison when parents have requests or complaints to bring forward to the school. In the dual role as community representative and staff member, he can listen to both points of view and enhance greater understanding and communication between both parties; and
  • spends time talking to specific parents in relation to children's attendance at school and smooths the way for children to feel comfortable and secure when returning to school after unexplained absences. Parents can also prevail on him to provide support and encouragement when they themselves struggle in getting their children to attend school.

Steve Foster talks about Athe Walter

Athe Walter had been attending school regularly prior to me coming, because he had a deep interest in the school. What we did was we approached the community and spoke to them about protocols and processes that they were happy with and that the school should be following. Was there a way that I should make contact with parents? I wanted to know how they wanted me to do that first of all so that they felt comfortable and relaxed and felt that general community protocol was being followed with respect.

They said 'Look we should have a community liaison person in the school' and I said to them 'Well, I'll leave it to the community to decide'. And at a public meeting everyone wanted Athe Walter in that role because of his involvement in the past. He was already doing a lot unofficially but we made it official that he became the school Elder-community liaison person. We wanted to be able to say in a formal way 'Look let's offer you something for the work that you do instead of taking it for granted'. So Athe is only on teacher aide wages but that's some way of saying — 'Thank you and that we do respect you and acknowledge you for coming into the school' — even though he didn't want to take money.

Now part of Athe's role when he comes to school is that he'll go around and visit all the classrooms. He'll spend time to observe what's happening in there, he'll come in and check up on attendance, like who's absent from school and he'll check to see whether they've been absent for a long period — two days or more. And if we don't have any information in the office, Athe will do a home visit to find out why and how he can get that student back at school.

When he does his classroom visits he also observes the teachers teaching and he'll give them some feedback from a cultural perspective. You see often we have teachers coming from a different culture, a non-Indigenous culture, and whilst they may be good effective teachers on the mainland, some of their teaching strategies may not be appropriate for here and Athe can pick things up like that. He'll pick things up about grouping students and because he knows things about what's happening in the community; if there is any family feud or individual feud going on there, he knows about it. And the little things, the non-verbals that are going on in the classroom, he'll pick that up. See, Island people don't only communicate verbally, we have all our hand signs, we have our own way of communicating. And just the expressions and things, he can pick those things up very quickly.

He can see and hear the way teachers talk to the students. If they're trying to chastise a child and they're using words that a child would get upset about, Athe will mention it to them. Or, there's the way you stand next to people physically. Or, if you touch a student. You've got to know what you're doing in those situations.

And teachers say they find it very useful. Put it this way, if Athe doesn't go into their classroom they get worried. They don't see it as a threat, they see it as something positive. With our teacher induction program at the start of the year, we talk to them about Athe's role in the school so all the new teachers know beforehand that it's not someone coming in to watch you teach or criticise your teaching. They see it as someone coming in to offer you support to make your stay here more enjoyable and more effective. And even after his first visit in the classroom for the day they'll say 'Look I'm doing this in the afternoon, can you came back in?' or 'Can you come back and talk to them about some cultural things?' So, whenever there are units of work involving an Islander perspective, they'll call Athe in to give that perspective on cultural things and how that ties into the units.

The other thing that Athe does is the home visits and the parents have decided that, initially, Athe is their first point of contact. If they have a concern, instead of what used to happen in the past, when parents used to come straight to the classroom and sometimes it used to be on. We've now worked out a way of doing things properly so that no one gets hurt and there is a win-win situation.

We decided as parents they can come to Athe as the community person. Instead of coming all heated and so forth, they come in here and talk to Athe or myself. Whenever I have a meeting with a parent I always have Athe as a community rep with me. And I don't do the home visits unless Athe talks to the parents and finds out that they'd like to see me. Whether it's at home or up at the school, he'll organise that and we'll make it happen. But the first point of contact is Athe and they don't feel shame if 'A principal turned up at my place' or 'My place is not clean' or if someone turns up you can put them on a defensive thing. But I think they're quite happy for Athe to turn up anytime because he's related to most of the people here. And that breaks down a lot of barriers, you know.

The other thing that Athe does, he acts as a shadow with me. When I go down to the Community Council to have any meetings with them Athe is there with me as well. So that you have that community involvement the whole way through. If we've got any staff meetings or any presentations, Athe's involved in that. When we go down for public meetings to give school reports, I give reports as well as Athe Walter. And Athe is also the community rep on TSIREC, which is the Torres Strait Island Regional Education Committee.

That's Athe's role in the school. If he doesn't come to school every day we get worried... we go looking for him. That's how much we value him in the school. He's broken down a lot of barriers between school and community. Every school would benefit from having a person like Athe working in it.

Athe Walter's own story

All these kids at school, all these kids here are my grandchildren.

I come to the school every day. If I die knowing that we've got good education here, I'll die happy. When I know the children are good and their knowledge is growing. That's why I come every day, to make sure.

I talk to them about the opportunities they have. I tell them the future is yours, try your best. Put these things in front: humble and respect. If you use those two things you'll go on, if you don't, you'll just mark time. I talk to them about manners and what is right and wrong. But the kids know what is right and what is wrong. You ask them 'Is this wrong or right?' and they know. So I say 'Then don't do that, you know yourself!'

The Year 8 Transition Program

Instead of walking outside, doing nothing, they come and learn more, because we want them to grow, not go down. That's what my aim is. We encourage them when we talk, we don't growl. So they understand. And I talk to parents 'The children are yours, don't growl at them. Encourage them'. You know, the teaching comes first from home. School is coming after.

His earlier life

In my day, they got the teachers from the road! I thought maybe I know more than some of these teachers. The school was near here, built from coconut tree leaves and ti tree bark, with mangroves. No timbers, just mangroves. But the rain never got through.

I only went up to Grade 5, and I was sitting in Grade 3 doing those lessons. Teachers told me 'You're 14, you want to leave school'. All my mates were gone because they were 16 and she said 'You have to come back another couple of years'. I wanted to learn and I said 'Well teacher, you want to teach me?' and she said No, so I said 'Well, what's the good of wasting my time and coming back and sitting here like a fool?'

So I had to go out and work for my mother. My father had died. I got the boat to Thursday Island to sign up and go to sea. I put my age up, in those days the law was not so strict like today, so I got in. And I went out for Trochus [shell], three years out working outside and I never came home.

Then I went to the army, in Cairns. I was 17 but I made up my mind and when the colonel said 'How old are you?' I said 18. It was years after that before they found out and then they did nothing.

Athe Walter has given his own land, owned under native title, for educational purposes

When the old principal's house was burned, then I said I would give my land for education. This [where the school stands] is my land and we put marks and I said this is for the school, this land is for education. And at the back there, that was for the principal's house.

And some day we might have a high school here. I think it will be happening. I believe it will be happening. And what I've got in my mind is only my common sense. Torres Strait children, they'll come here, we'll have accommodation. The island is big.


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