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Learning From Country activity, outside with Tribal Warrior, held on Clarke Island, Sydney Harbour.

Next generation of Sydney teachers are Learning from Country

1 June 2022
Learning local Aboriginal ways of knowing, doing and being
Offered to enhance the cultural competency of our teachers, the Learning from Country unit connects students with Aboriginal community educators to bring First Nations histories and cultures into schools for safer, more responsive classrooms.

This major is open to students across the university, not just teacher education students

Due to the success of this teaching/research program, Learning from Country is now a foundational concept in the new Education major offered by Sydney School of Education and Social Work.

An Aboriginal experience such as the Aboriginal Cultural Tour of the university grounds, is implemented every semester throughout the degree. These experiences are built into assessment so that students value and apply Aboriginal knowledges and skills to their daily lives.

Learning from Country provides pre-service students with the opportunity to connect with Aboriginal educators and Elders, off campus and in local communities, to better meet the needs of the young people they’ll go on to teach.

Throughout the course, students gain first-hand knowledge of the diversity of First Nations cultures, as well as a respect for cultural practices, and an understanding of the contemporary issues Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples face within the education system.

“The thing I really enjoyed about the course was the range of new knowledge we learned. Whether it be one semester learning about the importance of the natural environment, how it’s used and valued in community,” says Master of Teaching graduate, Arkady De Jong.

“Then the next semester, learning about the local community itself, it’s people and it’s different perspectives.”

For many students, the Learning from Country unit marks the first time they’ve meaningfully engaged with local Aboriginal communities.

“Until this course, I hadn't had an experience that wasn't about colonisation and Aboriginal people through the European perspective,” says Bachelor of Education/Arts graduate Sarah Forsyth.

This was my very first experience of that and it was so eye opening. It allowed me to find an interest (in Aboriginal cultures) that I didn't know I had. It was such a positive experience. There’s so much we can learn from Aboriginal peoples.
Sarah Forsyth, Bachelor of Education (Secondary: Humanities and Social Sciences), Bachelor of Arts, 2019

On-Country learning leads to culturally responsive teaching

Since graduating in 2019, Jessica Scarcella has been teaching English at Blacktown Boys High School.

She says the immersive learning experience led to a similar breakthrough, empowering her to go beyond curriculum requirements by incorporating local Aboriginal perspectives and histories in her classes to engage students.

“We do a Heroes unit in Year 7. It's a really fun way to kick off the year – we go through superheroes and then we do our regular heroes that we'd sort of had in the program before. But I took a look at that and thought, we can do a bit better here.

I decided to look at Pemulwuy as a historical figure and as a hero. And the students loved it because we could look at a map and they're like, “Oh, my house is there now. Right where he was running his rebellion all those years ago.”
Jessica Scarcella, English teacher, Bachelor of Education (Secondary: Humanities and Social Sciences), Bachelor of Arts, 2019

Jessica says learning from Country helped her understand the significance of place in Aboriginal cultures, and realised the importance of knowing students’ backgrounds and bringing their lived experiences into the classroom.

“I was able to engage the students because they recognised the places. They were really interested in what Blacktown and Toongabbie used to look like... So thinking more about how I'm presenting information: using place as a tool for learning. Understanding that, for many of my Aboriginal students, that is a key to how they learn, how they've learned from their families and through their experiences. A connection to place.”

“Essentially it's about understanding the school you're at,” says Arkady. “The students you're teaching, what they need from you and how you can best respond to them.”

Cultural tours, truth-telling and change agents

Learning From Country cultural activity, as led by Tribal Warrior, held on Clarke Island, Sydney Harbour.

Learning from Country cultural activity, as led by Tribal Warrior, held on Clarke Island, Sydney Harbour.

The on-Country components of the course include cultural tours of the University grounds, Redfern, the Rocks and Sydney Harbour as well as yarning circles led by Aboriginal community educators like Julie Welsh, a Gamilaroi Murawarri woman, who share their stories and experiences in a safe environment that doesn’t avoid truth.

“One of the things that's incredibly important is making sure that everybody feels safe and very welcomed,” says Julie. “We really like lots of questions, as long as they’re asked respectfully.”

She says its important non-Aboriginal pre-service teachers build trust and engage with the history of inequality within the education system in order to change it.

“Because when we think about the experiences of our communities with the education system, the system isn't there for us as Aboriginal people to thrive in. Our children weren’t meant to thrive. It wasn't set up that way. But we can change that, and it's the teachers in the classroom that can change that.”

“Being involved in a program like this benefits myself and my family and my community,” says Julie. “By being able to engage in the difficult parts of the conversation and to do it in a really constructive way.”

Like many of the students who undertake the course, Arkady is committed to truth-telling through listening to Aboriginal voices, and believes Learning from Country provides teachers with the experiences needed to be “proactive agents of change”.

“You have to actively be involved in dismantling aspects of the system that are causing harm and creating issues for people.”

“You have to be an agent for change in the way that you interact with students, the way that you connect with the school community and ensure that whatever school you're working in, you're there as a positive force. That all the students are respected and included in the community.”

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