Teaching on Elcho Island (ND)

I undertook my practicum at … College, at Galiwin’ku, on Elcho Island which is off the coast of north-east Arnhem Land. Elcho is home to the Yolŋu people. The school operates under a bilingual approach, where both English and a traditional language – Djambarrpuyŋu, are taught alongside each other. In my Year 2/3 class, reading and writing was taught in Djambarrpuyŋu (the students’ first language). English was only taught orally. As a teacher, this setting provided me with a broad range of incredibly unique situations, that I had never considered I would experience. Within the school, each class is staffed with one Balanda (non-Indigenous) teacher and one Yolŋu teacher. My Yolŋu teacher was away for the majority of the term. This left a large language barrier and I experienced exploring ways to manage behaviour, give instructions and explain concepts in a way that supported students’ linguistic needs. There were numerous times where students’ understanding of English was not sufficient to understand concepts being explained and whereby my Djambarrpuyŋu was equally insufficient to communicate this. I experimented with a range of ESL strategies to effectively communicate and teach my students. I now feel equipped with a number of strategies I can use when teaching ESL students, including using short sentences with simpler words, using phrases and words in students’ first language, incorporating visual representations, and demonstrating and explicitly modelling activities.

Another unique situation I was faced with on this practicum was that of extremely low attendance. Attendance fluctuated greatly depending on funerals, ceremony, family responsibilities, social problems and community events. This contributed to a range of learning achievements. It was essential for me to differentiate every lesson in order to meet the learning needs of my students. Differentiation is such an important skill for a teacher to have, and I am appreciative that I was able to develop my skills in this area.

The Yolŋu have a very rich and strong culture and it was such a privilege to be able to witness this during my 9 weeks on Elcho Island. Traditional activities such as hunting and ceremony are still practised, the kinship systems guide relationships and the way the Yolŋu interact with the world around them, and numerous traditional languages are spoken fluently. I learnt how culture influenced the school community, the staff and students. As ceremonies and funerals are cultural responsibilities that supersede school, Yolŋu teachers and students would take time away from school to participate in the appropriate ceremonies. Culture offered ways for learning to be enriched. The school offered a ‘Learning on Country’ program for the students, promoting learning that is linked with traditional activities and ways of learning. This was an engaging program that supported the interests and culture of the students. I was able to be involved in weekly meetings with the Yolŋu staff, rangers and members of the community who shared their culture with us, including bush medicine, sign language and using positive language. We were encouraged and supported to consider how this knowledge could be incorporated into the classroom. Through incorporating students’ prior knowledge into my teaching I was able to understand how to create a classroom atmosphere that was culturally sensitive and that made the way I interacted with these students more meaningful, all the while strengthening their cultural identity.

The constant uncertainty of the number of children in my class, the range of abilities and the behaviours I would need to provide for each day, combined with sudden changes and events in the community helped me to become adaptable and flexible. I learnt how to deal with unexpected change in the classroom in a way that provided stability for the students. It was also a useful experience in developing resourcefulness. Being in a remote location there were times when the resource I wished to use simply was not on hand. I had to look for alternative ways to meet the need with what was at my disposal.

I also developed a number of skills for communicating with parents and including them and the community in the educative process. Creating connections and a strong rapport with families is crucial when working with Indigenous students and I was able to develop these through being involved with the community. Collaborating with other teachers and community members, allowed me to grow and learn from their experience. I feel that I have become equipped with a number of skills for effectively engaging with parents and the community, ultimately working towards improved outcomes for the students.

There were many challenges working in the context of … College, but they were challenges that saw me grow as a teacher. I was able to actively seek out creative and culturally appropriate responses to problems, that have given me a repertoire of skills and knowledge that will be beneficial for me as a teacher in any future position.

I chose to complete my practicum at … College because I was interested in teaching in a similar area in the future. My practicum has given me a strong understanding of what it is to teach and live in these communities. I have begun to develop skills for working with Indigenous communities and ESL students, and I am aware of what skills I need to continue to develop and professional development I can undertake, in order to be an effective teacher in a similar setting. My experience was incredibly positive and has strengthened my resolve and passion to work with Indigenous students and communities.

I would like to thank the ACEN for supporting me through the scholarship and helping to make my practicum a possibility. It was a placement that offered incredibly unique opportunities for learning. The combination of isolation, low attendance, bilingualism and ESL, and the rich culture of the Yolŋu created a school environment so different to mainstream schools in NSW. I feel incredibly blessed and privileged to have been so welcomed, and to learn so much about teaching from the students, staff and community. I feel that I have been equipped with skills that will support me teaching in any context, but particularly in working with Indigenous students and communities.