Embedding First Nations perspectives is a priority in education. Across the Australian Curriculum, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures priority provides opportunities for all learners to deepen their knowledge of Australia by engaging in reconciliation, respect, and recognition of the world’s oldest continuous living cultures.
As teachers, we understand our responsibility to embed teaching and learning about First Nations Cultures across the learning areas.
Our two special webinar interview guests, teachers Tramain (AKA The Murri Teacher) and Caitlyn (AKA Tea and Country Teaching) took us through ways we can help our students make connections to people, culture and country, to expand the breadth of their learning to focus on histories and perspective of First Nations Australians. And further, how to use these learnings as foundations for helping to move towards reconciliation.
If you’d like to view the entire webinar, it is available here:
Let’s get right into it!
Why is it so important to embed First Nations perspectives into the classroom now?
Tramain: I think at the moment Australia as a whole, is there, there is positive change happening, and I think the generation that’s coming through, they’re more knowledgeable and they are hearing more perspectives than ever, but they’re also coming to us at a very young age where their mind can still be shaped in a way that is positive, even if their home life isn’t. So I think the way that teachers in general word their perspectives without bias could make a big difference in the next generation of kids. So I’m hoping that teachers are coming into things without bias and with the want for that change to keep happening.
Caitlyn: Yeah, I think in today’s day and age, like we have such quick access to information that they, in my opinion, there’s really no excuse to (not) be informed about things that are going on in our world. And so the, you know, the lines that maybe we could have said in the past about, oh, I didn’t know about that. Or I was never taught that in school that doesn’t, it doesn’t really apply anymore. Like the information is there for us and for us to bring to our students. So just because we didn’t know about it when we were at school or maybe school wasn’t taught the same way that it is currently is even more of a reason to bring it to the forefront now.
Caitlyn, can you tell us a bit about your background as an educator, but also just who you are as a person?
Caitlyn: Yeah, so this is my fifth year of teaching and my sixth year of teaching actually. And I have taught in a small country school and now in quite a large Melbourne suburbs school. So having kind of a range of experience with teaching of age levels, socioeconomic status, cultural status. My current teaching context is in a very multicultural school, in a growth area in the suburbs of Melbourne. So that I find that that has really sparked my passion for incorporating culture in the classroom, because there are, there’s so many cultures that my students bring in with them every day. And so that’s been able to really help us to share you know, similarities and differences between their cultures, between Aboriginal cultures and Torres Strait Islander cultures. It’s been a really great kind of base point for us.
I teach year four, this is my third time teaching grade four at this school. And I’ve been able to really grow in my own journey as a teacher when considering these perspectives mostly starting from last year, I was always interested in learning about Aboriginal history. I studied some subjects in university. I was always kind of passionate about it, but never really knew how to bring it into my teaching. I knew that I had to, I knew that, you know, I could do little things on Saturday or Reconciliation Week, but going further than that I always really struggled. And then last year I did a PD with Australians Together and just really felt after that, you know, some of those barriers that we’ll talk about a bit later were really torn down for me. And I felt really confident in just starting somewhere. And from there it quickly grew into yeah, quite a passion of mine in our classroom and in my teaching team then. Fantastic.
Tramain, tell us about yourself?
Tramain: All right. So I am in my second year of teaching, I teach grade two. I have 23 kids. All of which identify as First Nations. So Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and both. I am an Aboriginal woman myself, of course. So I’m a Bundjalung woman. And I’ve grown up and lived my whole life on Yuggera country from the Western suburbs of Brisbane. I went to an Indigenous school myself. So we were the first year of graduates from there. And I think from that school, I realized that until that moment I was at that school, I’d never seen an Aboriginal teacher before. And I didn’t realise that that is something that I could be. So when I left uni, my main goal was to work in an Indigenous school and I do now. And it’s just the best to like, I get to work with other Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander teachers every day and get to bounce a lot of my learning off them and expand on my knowledge every day of different countries around Australia. And it’s just the best.
It was exactly, I think I’m the teacher that I needed as a little person, so it’s awesome for my kids and it’s awesome for me. – Tramain
What is the first step that teachers can take to start to effectively integrate First Nations cultures into their classrooms if they’re not already?
Caitlyn: Yeah, I think for me, the understanding that it is my responsibility as a teacher and educator, but it’s also my responsibility as an Australian. Particularly as an Australian who doesn’t identify as an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander.
The responsibility lies with me because it doesn’t lie with First Nations people. – Caitlyn
And I think that’s been said quite openly on a number of platforms in the lead-up to Reconciliation Week that it’s our responsibility to educate ourselves with the information that is out there. And it’s then our responsibility to share that as educators with our students. I think as well, that understanding that I do not know everything and I have wrong ideas and my bias is evidently present in my ideas. So it’s a continual journey for me recognising that bias and perspective.
Some of it has come from my own cultural heritage. Some of it has come from my education as an Australian child recognising the, I suppose, discrepancy in that and then taking chances to improve and change those things. So sometimes it’s not about the first steps, you as a teacher, but actually you as a person. Once you kind of reconcile that within yourself and you understand where you’re standing at the moment, whose land it is, and the history and the tragedy behind that. I found that I couldn’t stop myself from learning more and bringing it to the classroom because as a human, as a woman, as a, you know, friend, all of those things push me to try and incorporate that as much as I can because it, it simply shouldn’t just go unsaid. So I think it’s, yeah, it’s kind of like coming to that realisation as a person, first of all. And then taking it into your teaching.
Tramain: So my first steps I took was when I got into my school, I looked at our unit plans and I looked at the timetables that were already existing and I completely redesigned it. I just wanted to take out this kind of integration that was there, just here and there, because I found that First Nations perspectives in the preexisting unit plan were just done for the sake of being done. And I think in like in particular, my context, that wasn’t good enough, but in any context that’s good enough. So I started to put it into every single day in my classroom and every aspect of the kids’ lives while they were in my classroom, I looked at the Australian curriculum and thought to myself, how can we move past this clear line of this is culture, and this is our Western education system and make them more on par with each other and more intertwined. So that’s specific to my particular situation, but it’s more for me making sure that culture is in everything, not just like something that we do as an extracurricular activity. So yeah, I just wanted to make them a clear joint thing. So I had a lot of our families have this perspective that school is something separate to what they do in their lives, but I wanted the kids to be learning just as much about culture at school as they are at home. Like it’s, they’re the same.
How did you begin to break down the line between Western ideals of teaching and learning and cultural teaching and learning?
Tramain: As an example, last semester we looked at, for our integrated science and history unit, the theme of community. And I am in no way a master of my community and the kids’ communities. So instead of me standing up there and acting like I was the person who knew everything I had an Elder come in. And I often have Elders come into my classroom. And he spoke to the kids about the Aboriginal community in Brisbane, and how important it was. I always say this when people ask: The most important thing you can do to integrate Aboriginal perspectives into your classroom is to have Elders and community members come in. Because their wealth of knowledge is so beyond what even I, as someone who’s always lived here as a member of the community, could know. They just have so much knowledge on so many things that you wouldn’t expect.
If we’re looking at maths they can tell you the existing seasons that were here before white Australia’s concepts of a season came in. And the way that the fishing was and when you could fish at certain times. It’s moving past that rigidness of what the curriculum is and delving into being specific to the area. And I think a lot of the time that makes a lot of sense to the kids that live in that area, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, because they think “oh yeah, I do know that you can fish better at that time”, or “I do know that those flowers start to bloom at that time”. And it’s relevant to them as somebody from that community, not some Northern Hemisphere season.
Caitlin: Just that even looking from a historical perspective, every concept that we cover in the curriculum has historical roots somewhere in the world. And so often you can bring that right back to historical places and things that people did in Australia before colonisation. You know, we’re doing an inquiry unit on time at the moment and time has not always existed the way that it exists now. It has not always been minutes, hours, seconds, twelve months. And so it’s so easy when you think about that in a historical context, well how did Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders used to measure time? How did they know seasons? How did they know night time from day time? How did they measure time and measure events and the time between events?
So everything has a historical concept to it, and if you can make those connections, then something abstract like time where you think, “Well I could never think how to think how to connect time with Aboriginal perspectives”. Well, yes you can. Because everyone in history has measured time in a different way, so it’s about breaking down some of those blocks of curriculum content and making them more transdisciplinary to begin with.
On a daily basis, what are some practices that you undertake in your classroom with your students to connect with people, country, and culture?
Caitlin: I think for us it’s definitely been a journey this year of how to incorporate it daily. It’s not something that we’ve done prior to this year. There’s been a lot of change around our understanding of Acknowledgements of Country. When to say those, what do they mean, writing our own. At the moment one of the things that we’re talking about in my team during planning is, we use the idea of a campfire space, a circle time for whole group sharing. So linking that back to culture and thinking about, well how has this been used over time and what’s the significance of a circle, what meaning does the shape of a circle have in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture. That’s been a really interesting track for us to inquire into and then hopefully bring that in when the kids are back at school with us.
An Acknowledgement of Country poster that can be adapted to your local area.
A simple Acknowledgement of Country poster to display in your classroom.
A bright and colourful illustrated Acknowledgement of Country Hello poster to display in your classroom.
A bright and colourful illustrated Acknowledgement of Country poster to display in your classroom.
We do have a blog on how to write an Acknowledgement of Country with your class which will be helpful in starting the ball rolling with this.
Tramain: Like Caitlin, we start each day with a yarning circle. At the very beginning of the year I speak to the kids about the cultural significance of circle and the rules while we’re in circle. I explain to the kids that Miss Tramain didn’t make these rules up, these rules have existed for as long as our culture has existed so we must respect them. It’s making sure that kids feel comfortable to be able to share, but knowing that only one person can share at a time. We don’t talk over each other. Miss Tramain is equal with you in this circle, I’m not your teacher, I’m somebody that’s sharing in the circle as well.
We open that yarning circle with Acknowledgement every day, so the kids and I designed this together at the start of the year and we are very comfortable, the kids are very comfortable with that. We acknowledge that even though we are Murris, Aboriginal people from Queensland, that we don’t come from this area. There’s no kid in my class that’s actually a Yuggera person so we acknowledge that even though we are Murris, this is somebody else’s country and we have to respect that. And that there were laws and protocols here long before we were, and we need to respect that as even Murri people.
We also have Elders in and around our school all the time and I always take the opportunity to have them in my room. I think they’re just so valuable.
There’s no wasted time with an Elder and I never give them specific topics to talk about. – Tramain
I really want them to have authentic conversations with the kids. Even if they ask me, what do you want me to talk about today, I always say, whatever you want to talk about, whatever the kids want to ask you about, I want that to be from them and directed from them. I don’t want to interfere with that. And it doesn’t have to be within the boundaries of the curriculum. There are so many life lessons that you can learn from an Elder that I sit down and cross my legs and listen to as well because I am still obviously learning.
This year our school has adopted a Torres Strait Islander language. I’m going to butcher this and my teacher at school is going to die, Kala Kawaw Ya (KKY). It’s from the Western islands of the Torres Strait and she’s from an island called Saibai. She teaches that to our kids and we’re so lucky to have her on staff. She’s our prep teacher actually. She’s very patient. So she teachers the kids language once a week but I then also use words with the kids all the time. They greet in language, they say thank you to their specialist teachers in language, we say Simon Says in language, if we’ve got a spare couple of minutes we’ll sing in language. It’s just amazing how quickly these kids pick this up and it’s going to be a part of their life for a long time. They pick it up faster than I do, they are more confident using the language than I am and it’s just going full circle. We try to incorporate Torres Strait Islander perspectives as much as we do Aboriginal perspectives because a lot of our kids are both. It’s amazing to hear a First Nations language thriving, not just surviving but knowing that these kids are going to carry that on.
What do the children talk about in yarning circle?
Tramain: And my year twos have had a lot of practice, this is only a recent establishment I would never have let them do this at the start of the year. And I don’t interrupt if I’m not in circle. They know that that is a sacred circle and I’m not part of it if I’m not in circle. We do Acknowledgement and then they check in. They each go around and they can do thumbs up thumbs down, or they can do a zones of self-regulation check-in. A lot of them do a little spiel about their morning. Some of them go on for a long time and we have to get a move on (laughs). But then after they’ve done their check-in we then talk about what’s happening throughout the day. So it’s just giving them each the time to talk and share if they need to share. But it’s also something that I haven’t yet done but you can do again at the end of the day, as a what went well in our day today. But I’m hoping that I can start to integrate more.
That’s a great opportunity to talk about Country and talk about the environment and talk about what’s happening around us. Would that be something appropriate to bring into that time as well?
Tramain: Yeah, yep. So I do talk about what’s going on in those circles. I know that in my school this is still a new concept. I did it in the school that I attended as a high schooler but my specific context there, teachers are still a little bit unsure of how they can do it in their own room. So I always encourage it, even if you mess it up it’s something that you’re going to learn to do over time, it’s not going to be perfect the first time. The first time the kids will all be talking over each other and you’re going to be like, oh my gosh this is not working. But they will learn. And you will learn and you’ll fix things and change things as time goes on.
Caitlyn, what benefits do you find from your yarning circle and how do you operate that in your room?
Caitlin: We use the space of a circle for a range of different things. Sometimes it’s a start-of-the-day check-in, particularly after a weekend or school holidays just as space just to gather together and to share. We haven’t yet introduced the term yarning circle, that has just been a fairly new thing for us to think about. But to resolve issues, to talk about problems in the classroom, and come up with shared solutions. To celebrate each other’s achievements. To praise each other, we do shout-outs and they go around the circle and share something that they’ve noticed someone else in their class doing really well.
Anything works in a circle because I guess our agreement which we made at the beginning of the year in my class was that the circle is a safe and shared space where everyone is equal. Having that shared understanding with the kids. And it is probably a little bit easier to get their head around in year four than in kindy but I think everyone appreciates the feeling of sitting in a circle with everyone facing one another. It’s got a very calming feel, it’s got a very open feel and anything from praising each other and celebrating success to restoring hurt relationships or issues within the classroom or the playground. It’s just so flexible to so many things that we already do in the classroom, but instead of it being me at the front kind of talking to them about that, it’s a shared conversation together on the floor.
How do you start to broach the conversation about reconciliation with your students and how do you have that conversation ongoing in your classroom?
Caitlin: Yeah, so we practice restorative practices at our school. Which is, when an issue arises between people instead of reprimanding and handing out punishment or something like that you actually have a conversation that restores a relationship and seeks to mend that hurt. So the connection between that and to the wound of hurt from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders across many many generations, and this is a really important part we talked about the other day, is that the Stolen Generations isn’t one generation of people. It’s got a multi-generational effect so the connection between those two for our kids, was really easy for them to kind of understand.
And I think kids are so empathetic and when they hear stories of other people being hurt, even whether it’s in the detail that we might talk about in the upper primary years, or whether it’s in the really simple phrasing of things done that hurt a specific group of people that was not fair and that’s continued for many many years, the kids get that. They are instinctively empathetic towards those situations. So the idea of reconciliation I find is actually easier to have kids understand than adults.
There’s a lot of pre-judgement when you’re talking about adults with (reconcilliation), there’s a lot of bias, there’s a lot of perspectives. But kids are naturally open and wanting to understand how to make things better for people. – Caitlyn
The emotions are often a really good place as well to start thinking about, “well what can we do now?”. It happened before your time, it happened before my time, what can we actually do? And the emotions that they’re feeling are really real and they’re valid emotions. And to get that as the starting point for those discussions, whether it’s by doing something simple like writing Acknowledgements of Countries, or researching more about the land that you’re on and who it originally belonged to, or whether it’s learning words from the local language. All those different small steps of taking action come from that provoking, emotional moment of understanding what it was that actually happened, and continues to happen as well.
Tramain, with your context, and you teach all First Nations students, how do you approach the idea of reconciliation?
Tramain: The prep teacher at our school is Torres Strait Islander, the year one teacher is also a Murri woman, so they come to me with a very strong understanding of reconciliation already. So I’m very lucky. They also come to me with home experiences of knowing already that there is a broken relationship between white Australia and Aboriginal people. They know that by the time they get to me. I guess our job is to really hone in that reconciliation, although it’s this big word all it really means is coming together to heal.
So we’re trying to improve the relationship between Aboriginal people and Western society in Australia. So it’s a pretty easy concept to explain to my kids in year two because they already have the base knowledge of Sorry Day by the time they get to Reconciliation Week. But they also know about forced colonization from January 26. So that stuff all happens before Reconciliation Week, which is nice. Not nice, but it’s nice that they have that pre-knowledge going into Reconciliation Week.
It scaffolds it, yep. So by the time we get to Reconciliation Week we’re actually talking about things that we can do to move forward and ways that we can heal our relationships with non-Indigenous Australians but also within our culture. Ways that we can heal as a people. I did a really great thing with my preps to year twos this year that I didn’t mention on anything because it was really specific to us as a school. So the year one teacher was like, what can we do? Because we try to make it so authentic all the time that sometimes there’s like that forced pressure that it has to be this next level. And I said well, what do we usually do as a people when this kind of stuff happens? And she said, we march from Parliament to Musgrave. That’s how we take action.
So our kids made signs and we talked about how Murris can do better for our own culture. And we talked about caring for Country and looking after each other, and caring for community. And we went on a little march around our school. We got to chant and all the other classes come out and watch, our admin came out and were clapping for us and I think the kids knew, like their little signs proved that they knew that it was about healing for us as a people. So I think they come with that knowledge by year two especially, that this is a healing process.
Had any of them actually attended a march?
Tramain: Yep. So that’s a real awkward thing for myself and other staff of my school, is we obviously attend these marches. And it’s great to see the kids there but it’s also like, oh my God, students! A lot of them go with their families, they have since they’re born. So they know, a lot of them, that this is how we take action as a people. And they love it, they think it’s the best thing ever.
Healing together, and healing us as a people. – Tramain
We have a lot of specialists in our school, like speech pathologists and OTs and they’re non-Indigenous, so the kids know that there are people in our own community, even though their teacher’s Aboriginal, their families are Aboriginal, there are people within their own community that are here to help that process as well that are non-Indigenous. So when you explain it as a, like there are people around you, they know that these people are here to help. And I think that’s healing that relationship a bit better too.
How can we, as members of this education community together better support our teachers to prioritise this learning? What would you like to say to teachers to inspire them to really make this is a true priority in their classroom?
Caitlin: I think the real sadness is not doing anything at all. Anything that you do, any place that you start is already so much more beneficial to where you were before. Whether that’s starting by just writing a class Acknowledgement of Country. Whether that’s starting by diversifying your bookshelf in your classroom. Whether it’s by just reading up on articles yourself, educating yourself first. Whether it’s by following people on social media who do educate and speak out a lot about culture, history and these social issues in our country. Any of those things is a very simple, very easy place to start. One of the fears that people might have is that they might say the wrong thing, or might not do it the right way.
But at this Australians Together PD that I went to last year, he said there is no right way if you’re trying to teach it. You will make mistakes absolutely, but making mistakes in trying to teach it is far better than staying silent because we’ve been silent for too long and we just can’t continue to be silent about it. I think just taking that step of faith, as educators we’re risk-takers anyway, we like to refine our teaching, we like to try new things. So taking that fear out of it and just overcoming it and getting started. I always say to my teaching colleagues how grateful I am for the Instagram community because there’s just so much information there at your fingertips and so being a part of spaces like that, whether it’s on Facebook, whether it’s on Instagram, Twitter, or even just the places where you get your news from. Making sure that you are listening to diverse perspectives and finding resources from First Nations creators primarily.
Other places are helpful for information and for resources, but making sure you’re finding accurate and relevant information especially for Sorry Day, Reconciliation Week, there’s so many First Nations creators and educators who’ve made resources for us to use. My preference is to always go to them first and then other places if I can’t find what I need.
Tramain: From online in particular, the people that are messaging me, asking me questions, they don’t directly say it but I think they’re scared to approach the Aboriginal community in their own community face to face, even picking up the phone. I always say to them, I am not an expert but I know the area that I live on and I know my own people but I don’t know what’s happening in Orange in New South Wales, I don’t know the Aboriginal people from there or their cultures, so you really do have to go to them.
Your school should be making it a priority. Especially, in this particular teacher’s instance, she had a lot of Aboriginal children in her classroom. I said, your school needs to be making that a priority. It obviously does come to teachers because they’re the ones facing the children every day, to be doing that extra work. But I think a lot of admin in a lot of schools could be doing a lot better for their teachers so they don’t have that fear of having to approach communities themselves. Because it’s new, if you haven’t grown up in those communities and you don’t know them, like I wouldn’t just go and approach strangers on the street and be like, teach me how to do this! Because you don’t know the reception you’re going to get. But I think admin need to start forging those kinds of relationships with communities for their staff and for their students because it’s definitely a missing link in a lot of chains.
Caitlin: I think even providing PD as well. That should be school leadership’s responsibility to provide this PD to teachers. We can find it ourselves but I personally don’t feel like that’s our responsibility to source that. Especially if you want your whole school to be on the same path and the same track for incorporating these things. It should be coming from leadership.
An educational poster providing a rationale for teaching Australian children about the National Apology.
National Reconciliation Week begins May 27. Here are some free, curriculum-aligned resources to help teach your students about reconciliation in Australia, from the Narragunnawali platform.
A reconciliation hand to promote thoughtful discussion on National Sorry Day.
A mindful colouring activity to promote thoughtful discussion around issues of reconciliation on National Sorry Day.
What is the best PD you’ve ever done with regard to embedding First Nations perspectives in your classroom?
Caitlin: I’ve used Australians Together for two different PDs over the last twelve months. I teach at a Lutheran college and so incorporating the faith-based side of reconciliation, as well as Indigenous perspectives. And both of their PDs have been hugely transformative in my understanding and my confidence as a teacher and their website has so many free videos, free articles, all just so informative. So that would be my first place to go to. Well actually no, my first place to go is Instagram. I feel like there’s so much teaching there and so much education there for free, but yeah Australians Together would be my first recommendation.
Tramain: So I have surprisingly never done a specific PD on how to embed First Nations perspectives outside of what I am taught obviously in my school from my colleagues. So we’re super lucky to have First Nations teachers and AEOs on our school staff who always share their ideas and perspectives. But I’ve heard really good stuff about Wingaru and I’m trying to get my school to do a school-based PD with Leslie from Wingaru because I think she is just, even on Instagram gives out so much for free that that really deserves to be recognised I think. She is just a wonder woman and the stuff that she puts out is just amazing. And as a First Nations person she has just taught me so much. I always suggest people to just go to her Instagram if they don’t know where to start because she has so much on there.
Who are some of the teachers that you’re following on Instagram who you are inspired by, and who are really great voices in the space of talking about First Nations Australia?
Caitlin: I wrote a whole list. We probably have like lots of double-ups. Tramain is obviously on my list, top with Jordan from @learning_to_ngangaanha. I think Rhiannon from @outbackteacher and also Caitlin from @shemovedfromthecity. Neither of them identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander but they have lived and worked in communities which means that their experience of culture and communities, it’s real, it’s not just in their mind. Hannah from @teaching_in_solidarity is a real truth speaker and share sometimes the, maybe not so pretty side of incorporating these perspectives in our teaching. @wingaru_education, @teachingwithtanna, @missgibbsau, yeah there’s heaps more. Have you got any more Tramain?
Tramain: You’ve literally taken almost my whole list. I was going to say @teachingwithtanna is fantastic because I think in Instagram secondary school teachers aren’t as big and she puts out not only really awesome resources but she also talks a lot about what she does in the high school setting which is obviously very different to what we’re doing in primary. In the same context, Lisa from @teaching.ninny.ones is great for early childhood because she does so much. She identifies as Noongar so she’s Aboriginal and she just makes beautiful little stations in her classrooms…
And they’re teaching concepts that are obviously way above that age level in a way that’s really hands-on and that they can grasp the very beginning steps of that concept which is just awesome. She always inspires me to do little play things in my classroom.
Viewers were given the opportunity to share links, so if you missed them during the session, here they are: