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Inside Teaching : October 2010
www.atra.edu.au | firstname.lastname@example.org INDIGENOUS INSIGHT 13 Attitude – it’s a fascinating word, particularly in its current most common form, where it’s come to mean bad attitude. We might refer to a student as having ‘attitude,’ but equally we should be mindful of our own attitude, and be alert to the things that stir our sensitivities. Most of us teachers are in control of our attitudes and behaviours – at least while engaged in activities that are aligned to our values and beliefs – but what about when we’re confronting people or behaviours that don’t reflect our cultural mores? Are we still able to maintain such control? Do we even want to? The attitudes, and the values and beliefs that underpin them, that in colonial times guided the establishment of institutions like education, health, welfare and the law – and more often than not guided the exclusion of Indigenous people from those institutions – remain deeply embedded in the Australian psyche. Imagine that you’ve been raised in a community where to be of white, Anglo-Saxon heritage is to occupy a privileged position. Your birthright entitles you to a good education that guarantees you the pick of the more highly paid, secure employment opportunities, a high socioeconomic status and the right to expect respect from others. Of course, many teachers were not personally born into such privilege, but many of us have long committed ourselves to the values, beliefs and attitudes that enable white, Anglo-Saxon privilege. Does this befit our role as members of a profession trained to help all students to take their rightful places in society? Privilege matters because it influences classroom interaction, the engagement between student groups, and between students and teachers. Imagine this scenario. A row erupts in your classroom to do with a local area history unit you’ve introduced. Last week, you’d invited some local traditional owners to share their stories. They recounted a story about a massacre that had happened near the creek, many years ago, in which local families, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, had been involved, and which resulted in a very high Indigenous death toll. The two male students involved in this row are from families who were involved. As you enter the classroom, the non-Indigenous student makes an extremely offensive and personal racist comment to the Indigenous student. While you don’t hear it, several nearby students do. As the Indigenous student yells a response, you move to calm the situation down. One student tells you what was said. ‘I didn’t think anybody used that sort of language anymore so keep it out of my classroom,’ you say. You also tell the Indigenous student you don’t appreciate his yelling in the classroom. You begin the lesson. Imagine you’re that teacher. What did you just do? Who’s in control, and who isn’t? What have your actions just told your students about your attitudes? How has your decision to behave in the way you did contributed to changing the status quo in this country? Imagine you’re the Indigenous student. How do you feel right now? How effectively is your teacher creating an inclusive learning environment that delivers on the promise of education for all students? What might your teacher have said to make you feel you ‘belonged’ in this classroom? That scenario is based on the facts of real-life situations that I’ve increasingly been asked to respond to in recent years, and I believe it’s time for us, individually and as a profession, to engage in some deep reflection, to think about our personal attitude toward ‘difference’ and how that attitude might affect our capacity to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous educational achievement. Every move you make can contribute to maintaining the status quo. Equally, though, every move you make can contribute to changing it. ■ Professor Jeannie Herbert holds the Chair of Indigenous Studies at Charles Sturt University, New South Wales.