Hello all, My name is Kristine Davis and I wish to start by acknowledging and respecting the traditional lands of all Aboriginal people, I respect all Elders past, present and future. I acknowledge the Badimaya People of the Midwest, where I live today with my family and acknowledge their contribution to education and the education of future generations.
As you might have gathered from my opening, I live and teach in regional Western Australia. Currently in a small town, Mount Magnet, 550km North of Perth and 350km East of Geraldton. Home to the Badimaya People.
In line with the 2018 NAIDOC theme of “Because of Her We Can” I would like to share with you how several women have helped me understand the struggles and joys of living on country.
I started my career in Mount Magnet in 2005. A fresh new graduate straight off a plane to come face to face with the red dirt that has stained my heart, and everything else! The very first person that I met when I walked through the school gates was a little indigenous woman, who was introduced to me as “Nanna”. Now days, some 13 years later, I respectfully know her as Nanna Phyllis. Our Senior AIEO (Aboriginal Islander Education Officer), who has worked at our school for so long that the education department don’t have an actual start date confirmed for her. Why does this matter? What does someone’s grandmother have to do with smile_teachers or anyone for that matter? Well, Nanna Phyllis was the woman who gave me my first insight into “culture”.
Nanna taught me that living in indigenous communities was about mutual respect. That we are here and have responsibilities to the land but also to culture. That it wasn’t my job to teach our indigenous students how to be white, but give them opportunities to be the best version of themselves. She taught me that there are the good, the bad and the ugly when you work in regional areas and come face to face with family violence, alcohol abuse and students who come to school because it is safe. She also taught me that Marlu (kangaroo) tails are best in the coals with the fur still in place, that Bimba (sweet tree candy) is a sometimes food (unless you want to be running to the toilet all night), that Yarlibirri (Emu) travel in twos and their eggs make the best cakes and as tasty as Bungarra (Goanna) is – they are good to keep around because they eat the Milyura (Sankes). The greatest resource you have in communities is the AIEOs and EAs that have lived on country their whole lives. Ask the questions, ask for permission and be respectful of the answers that are given.
I will never forget when Nana came to me and asked what Welcome to Country was, because she was asked to give a welcome at an assembly. This was when Welcome to Country was a very new thing to do and me myself had little understanding. I said to her that I think its when you get up and welcome people to Badimaya Country. She thought it a strange thing to do but she would do it anyway. So at the assembly, Nanna got up and she said “Parents, Teachers, Community members, students, visitors, we are the Badimaya people and we welcome you to country, where we all share it together like zebras”. There was a little bit of a giggling around the audience and she sat down next to me. After I asked Nanna why “like Zebras” and her reply was – because Zerbras are black and white and so are we. From that moment, I realised that this woman was something special and to this day, she and I have a bond. Her husband passed a few months ago, after being ill for a long time, he used to take her bush and they would hunt for Marlu to cook tails for dinner. Knowing this, my husband now hunts for her, and keeps the fur on just how she likes it. Mutual respect.
So I left Mount Magnet in 2008 and headed East – far East, to a town called Laverton. Home to the Wangkatha People. Its here that I met the next lady to impact on my teaching. One of the biggest challenges in teaching in rural and remote communities is overcoming the isolation. The lack of phone service, supermarkets, fuel, medical facilities and the hundreds and thousands of kilometres of nothingness. It is hard, so very very hard to pack up your world and head to a town where you know no one and be expected to arrive at school and teach.
Besides the long wait for your belongings to arrive, weeks sometimes months waiting, you are faced with often old, under resourced and over used equipment. With technology that doesn’t work or that is so slow due to satellite bandwidth that its impossible to do anything. That’s if there is power as outages occur on a regular basis. Laverton was no different. Although they had Telstra phone service, that service was so jammed by mine sites, travellers and locals that it wasn’t easy to get a skype call home, adding to the isolation you are already facing due to geographical features of the land.
So let me get to the woman that “Because of her we can”. This time, a non indigenous woman by the name of Julieen, or Miss Julez as all the students and community knew her as. I met Julez in Mount Magnet when she was a flying squad teacher and we clicked. She had previously lived and worked in LA (that’s Laverton for those who aren’t in the know) and was moving back there. She said it would be the perfect place for me to teach. I arrived and once again got off the plane and came face to face with the driest desert heat I had ever experienced in my life. A whopping 47 degrees in the shade. I didnt know it at the time, but Julez was going to be my mentor into life in “community”. We went to the local caravan for our first dinner, like a mobile burger place, and while waiting Julez starts conversations with some of the locals walking by.
It seemed like she knew everyone. Later that night, as I was staying with her while my things arrived, I made the comment that she seemed to know everyone. Her response will always sit with me. Not only did Julez know them, but their mothers, fathers, sometimes aunties or grandparents. She had made it her business to know the person and their families, and it is that which led me to make it my mission to listen. So many people come to teach in communities thinking they know it all. Or that their job is to only know those students in their class. But if you want to live and thrive in communities, you need to take the time to understand, respect and communicate with all the family members.
One of the things that always resonated with me was how could a baby of 4 months old be the pop of a woman in her 60s. I asked Julez, she explained to me the hierarchy of family units and that it was important to understand the difference between aboriginal cultural family groups and that of what others would deem “normal”. She explained to me how someone’s sister may be what we would class as a cousin or second cousin, but that to community, it was just sister. Ask questions, listen to answers and make no judgements. Education for me in Laverton was more than the walls of the classroom. It was a lesson in cultural understanding, and respectful living, because believe it or not, you might not know the person walking down the street, but they will know all about you “Teacher Sister Girl”.
So after a semester at Laverton, it was announced that a staff member would need to be relocated due to student numbers. I was last in – so yep you guessed it I was first out. Just another hurdle in the life that teaching remote brings to you. I was however so lucky to be given the opportunity to stay living in town and travel to a tiny remote community school, 22km west of Laverton called, Mount Margaret. Mount Margaret was a mission, founded by Rod Sheink and a place where the stolen generation would be taken to school in the 3 E’s – Education, Environment and Evangelist.
It is here that I came face to face with what could have made me or broken me. It is here that I met 2 amazing women, and it is because of them that I can! First, a senior AIEO who’s name was Valda, Nanna Valda. I met her on my first day of school in Mission. She nodded and smiled at me and told me a little about her family. I was going to be teaching her grandchildren and her sister’s grandchildren. A week or so went by and I went to Nanna in the kitchen where she and other community members were making sandwiches for the students lunches. I said to her “Nanna im so sorry if I say this wrong or if I offend you – but what does ***insert a very bad phrase in Wangkatha language*** Nanna looked at me and with a straight face translated it for me into English.
That was the first time that I had been exposed to an Aboriginal Language, and from there I made it my mission to learn more. Which brings me to language and what that means for a teacher in communities. We were lucky to have another amazing and beautiful Elder of the community (who has since passed and out of respect I will not use her name) come to school and teach Wangkatha language to the students. It was my DOTT time (Something you don’t often get in remote community schools as you may be the only teacher) and for the first few weeks I would pack up my daily work pad and head to the shared prep room to plan for the week to come. That was until I realised, that I could not teach my students if I could not understand my students. So, from that point on I would sit on the floor and be a student. I would listen, recall, sing, dance and share my learning experiences with my students. Its is so powerful for students to see adults move out of their comfort zone and take risks.
Although I was feeling welcome in the community, I would drive out every afternoon. I felt that maybe I was being disrespectful to the community doing this. After all there was a house available to use in community. Until one day I was driving home and I saw my entire class, swimming and playing in the water hole along side the road. I pulled over and stopped, got out of my car and walked over. I saw happy, muddy and smiling faces of my students. One of the boys said I should come in. I looked down at my long black pants, floral blouse and flat shoes – knowing this was my time, I took off my shoes and fully clothed in my work clothes, I joined in the fun. I would have spent about an hour playing and listening to stories of spirits of the land. From then I knew that I had been accepted. Take the time to be part of the community.
Not long after this I was driving to work one day and I saw smoke. This wasn’t unusual for summer time as summer storms often lit up the dry bush, but something was different. As I drove up to where the waterhole was that I was swimming in not long before, I saw an upturned car and a man on the side of the road. He was waving me down. I stopped and got out. He was talking in language and I didn’t understand what he was saying until I looked around and saw the horror that was a motor vehicle accident where people didn’t wear seatbelts. I am a volunteer ambulance officer and I knew what I needed to do.
Afterwards, I started hearing about “Kumina” and “Law Man”. I didn’t know what this meant and so I went to Nanna Valda. I found out that the man who survived was running away from his responsibilities. I didn’t understand, and being aware that somethings are not for females to discuss, Nanna Valda informed me that I did nothing wrong in helping this man. This was also my first interaction with “Kumina”. When a person passes, their name is no longer spoken, and if your name is the same as theirs, you are then known as Kumina or you are given a Kumina name. It was then I realised why I was so confused with legal names and those names that were spoken at school and in community. Lesson learned, trust in the cultural information being given to you and respect it enough to say no more.
The Elder who was teaching the students language at school, could see that I was worried about my role in the accident. That I was worried that I bought this person into community and that I was worried that I would have payback for my role. She took me out to a place called the healing ponds. A place where you float on the surface (extremely high salt water content) and was known for its healing properties. I had been there before but never with this Elder. As we walked to the edge, the water bubbled and bubbled, the Elder spoke language to the water, I had no idea what she was saying except the word Tjilkamara (Echidna). The water stopped bubbling and she told me to go in to the water. I went in and floated and upon walking out she said to me that I was a Tjilkamara, an echidna, because im tough on the outside and soft in the middle, and that water will heal my worries and that I am always welcome in Mission and on country.
Following the accident, the student numbers declined, sometimes I would have 1 or 2 students in the class. Again, I confided in Nana Valda, who explained Sorry Time to me. Sorry Time, is the time between the passing of a person to the time that they are laid to rest. A time where the whole family go to a Sorry Camp and they mourn, celebrate, hunt, yarn and connect to country. Before living in Laverton, I had never heard of this. Something I had to take into consideration when planning and assessing. To respect the process and understand that transient and visiting students were a part of the life of a teacher in communities.
What I have tried to do today is give you some background into the life of a teacher in regional and remote communities. That the learning responsibilities is on me, I am the visitor, I am the person responsible to ask the respectful questions and build the relationships with the community stakeholders. It is my role to listen, to communicate, to be resilient, to overcome the isolation and see the beauty that is teaching in the outback. That not all communities are the same, and not everyone will experience the same things. I am so appreciative of these amazing women who have had such a profound impact on my teaching career.
If you would like to know more about working in remote communities please don't hesitate to ask Smile Teachers for my contact details.
I will leave you with my top 5 tips for working in remote communities.
1. Respect the Elders – they will teach you more than any book, podcast or university lecture ever will!
2. Ask questions – even if you think you may offend someone or that it may sound stupid – ask questions!!
3. Learn Language – if you are blessed to be working in a community that speaks language, learn it! You will never say it right, but you will be respected for trying.
4. Manage your isolation – prepare yourself for limited communications, long drives for a monthly shop, no regular post, no alcohol, weather