Friday, July 20, 2012

The Greatest Lie I Ever Told.

For my first teaching prac, oh so many years ago, I decided I wanted to go to the town my father came from. I had been at uni for about a year, doing a teaching/Aboriginal studies degree and hadn't quite found what I was looking for... a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose.

People often ask me why I picked a teaching degree and I usually give some pre-prepared answer about the importance of education etc, but the truth is I don't remember choosing it. I don't remember much of what happened during my HSC year, or exactly how I enrolled in uni because it was mostly done for me by my mom, and my school counselor. All I knew is that I wanted to get out of town as quickly as I could, and not come back. I wanted to run away from things I knew I couldn't run away from, but at 18 I thought it was still worth a shot.

My HSC year hadn't been the best, I had buried my great grandmother, a close friend, and a few other people along the way as well, but it wasn't until my father passed away, two weeks before my exams began, 2 months before my 18th birthday, that it all got a bit too much for me. I still sat my exams, but my marks were atrocious... or at least, not even half what I would have guessed I'd get only 12 months earlier. Not that I really cared about that at the time, or at any time since. I had far more important, and more depressing, things to occupy my mind.

So anyways, I left home and moved away to start uni, and after a year was ready to go on my first teaching prac. I wanted to go to my father's hometown, a town with a high Aboriginal population, to try and connect with a country I had realised I didn't know as well as I should. I didn't know what to expect, from the school, the community, I didn't even know if I had any family still living in the town.

The uni were not keen on the idea, mainly because they would not be able to do any school visits during my prac, and would have to rely on my teacher reports to grade me. I argued successfully against this, and was eventually granted permission to go.

I traveled by bus, a relatively long trip, but great scenery along the way, and arrived in the early afternoon a few days before my prac was to begin.
 
I got off the bus and began walking to where I was going to be staying for the two weeks I would be in town, with an old whitefella who worked quite extensively on the local language program. Before I made it half a block an old man drove passed and stared at me, I stared back. He pulled over, got out of his car and came over to me, I said "G'day". He said nothing. Instead, he hugged me and laughed. I think he could sense my apprehension because after this he said "Why do I know you?". I told him I had no idea, because I didn't know him. He asked who my father was, so I told him. "Ahhh, I knew I knew you!" We had a quick yarn, he had heard of my father's passing and he passed on his condolences. I kept walking, suddenly feeling a lot more comfortable about the reception I was likely to receive while staying in town. 

Over the next couple of days before I started I met a few of dad's old mates, and various other characters in the community as well. On the day before I started at the school I met the woman who would be my supervising teacher, she was younger than I expected, only a few years older than me, only on her second year out of university. She made it fairly clear that she didn't think very highly of the town, the school, the students, or the community. She was already putting in transfer forms to try and get out, and wanted to know why I had decided to come here to do my pracs. I told her. I told her that this was my father's hometown, that I was coming to try and reconnect with where he came from. I told her that we were an Aboriginal family, and that I didn't know what, if anything, this would mean for my stay here. She was fine with this and said she was looking forward to having an extra pair of hands in the class, as the kids were difficult at the best of times.

The next day, a Monday, I started my prac. I introduced my self to the kids, and started to get to know them. I observed my classroom teacher hoping to get an insight into how to engage with students, not just Aboriginal students, even though it was an entirely Aboriginal class, but just with students. How do you teach? I hadn't really gotten much of an idea from my studies about the teaching side of teaching, and quickly realised this was unlikely to improve much during this prac, but at least I could get a good insight into how not to teach, and work backwards from there.

I learnt on the first day that one of the two Aboriginal teachers at this school actually grew up in the house next door to my father, and was stoked to have me 'home again'.

I was really glad I had decided to come here. Apart from the fact that my teacher didn't want to be there, and was confused by the idea that I did, it was great. The kids were no trouble at all, the community was great, and I was learning a little bit more than I had known before about my father. Even though I had grown up with my father, there is nothing like talking to people who knew your parents before you were born to get a better insight into who they were as people.

Anyway, as I mentioned, I started at the school on the Monday, and on the Wednesday, the Aboriginal teacher I mentioned earlier informed me of an incident that happened in the staffroom that she thought I should know about. It seems as though my supervising teacher had been telling everyone, with much amusement, that I was "a white fella pretending to be a black fella", she even told this teacher as well. I'm sure she was shocked at the verbal dressing down she received from this teacher in response to her hilarious gossip.

I was a bit taken aback by this, not shocked as such, more disappointed. I had thought I was getting along well enough with my teacher until this point. Just to be on the safe side I rang my university supervisor that afternoon and told her what had happened. "What do you expect us to do about it?" I was asked, much to my surprise and disappointment. "Nothing" I replied, "I just want you to be aware of what has happened in case it gets any worse". I was told not to worry about it, and to get on with my prac. So I did.

The next few days went by without too many hassles, I had noticed a change in my supervising teacher on a personal level, which I had expected, but to her credit, she was still professional and I received excellent feedback about the lessons I had taught, and observations I had written up.

The only noteworthy experience I had with my supervising teacher from this point was during a playground duty, which I had to accompany her on. We observed a young boy, probably about 7 or 8, throw his rubbish on the ground. The teacher called him back to pick it up and was promptly told to go and get fucked. She walked after the boy, and he stopped to hear her out. She said "I don't want to have to see your father later on and tell him about what just happened, so how about you apologise, and go and put your paper in the bin?" The boy's response was something I will never forget, and the lesson behind it is something I still use when doing cultural awareness training to this day. The boy replied "You won't tell my father shit, because you don't know who my father is... My Mother doesn't even know who my father is!" and promptly turned on his heels, and walked away. The teacher stood silent, gobsmacked, and I fought with every ounce of my being not to bust a gut laughing at her tragic attempt to imitate what she had seen other teachers do quite successfully. What she didn't realise in her imitation was that you actually have to know the child's parent, and they have to know that you know them, for that sort of strategy to have any hope at all of working.

During my last few days I felt torn about leaving, but also knew that I probably wasn't going to come back, even though it had been good to make the connection, it wasn't really my home, nowhere was. I needed to carve out a new life for myself, not chase after my dad's life, trying to recreate what could never be replaced; him.

My teacher wasn't going to be there until the end of my prac as she had to leave town for a few days, I don't rightly remember the reason, but it meant that she had to give my report early. I was stoked about this, as I would see the fruits of my hard work. I had really gone above and beyond on this prac, I had turned up early every day, left late, and prepared my lessons with enthusiasm and passion.

So you can imagine my shock when I saw that I had been failed, under the category of 'General profession attributes". I questioned my teacher about this, she said not to worry, everyone fails at least one category on their first prac. I told her that failing in any one of the eight categories meant that I failed the entire prac, and that I couldn't actually be failed in this category because I am Aboriginal, lol, just joking, I told her I couldn't be failed because in order to fail in any category you first have to receive written notification that you are being placed at risk, a support plan has to be written up, and you have to not do whatever it says you need to do before you can actually fail. None of this had happened.

I was told that it wouldn't be changed, and that she had no more time to discuss it and she had to go and prepare for her trip away.

The next morning I rang the university to lodge a complaint, and to ask for their guidance. Apparently my supervising teacher had beaten me to it. She had told my uni supervisor that I had turned up late, left early, turned up on some days barefoot in a t-shirt, and that I had 'verbally threatened her' to change my mark. Before I could respond to these allegations, all of which obviously untrue, as surely I would not have been allowed in the school if I was not wearing proper attire, and because the school had a sign in sheet which recorded my time of arrival and departure every day. Surely the university would have been made aware of these things if they were true. As for the 'verbal threat' that was my word against hers, or at least it would have been if I was given a chance to reply, instead I was told I was lucky the teacher wasn't pressing charges against me, and then I was hung up on. I could have cried, or laughed, or been knocked over with a feather... but before any of these things could happen I saw the principal of the school walk passed and was struck with one the greatest moments of inspiration I have ever experienced.

I asked to speak to the principal and told her of what had happened with my final report, and that I believed it had nothing at all to do with 'general professional attributes' and everything to do with the incident that had occurred during my first week, that I was paying for the fact that she had been dressed down by another staff member for her comments about my identity. I told her about the processes for failing a student on prac, of which she was already well aware, and I told her that I had spoken to the university, and that they were shocked, and outraged at what had happened and had offered me their full support... this may have been a slight stretch of the truth, by which I mean I lied through my teeth, but at this late stage of the game I figured that it was worth a shot. The principal was not keen on the negative attention this incident was likely to attract (or could have had I not been abandoned by the university, but what she didn't know wouldn't hurt me). She took over the class for my last few days and supervised me personally, gave me a glowing report, and sincerely apologised for what I had experienced, inquiring if I was still interested in placing a complaint against my teacher. I said I wasn't, and that I just wanted to go home.

I left a few days later...

Every now and than I think back to this experience and reflect on how close I came to never becoming a teacher, to dropping out of university (which would have been inevitable) and becoming a labourer in Sydney with all of my mates who had also left our home town upon turning 18.

Occasionally I think about how many other Aboriginal students have their own version of this story, how many of those Aboriginal people who do not make it through their university degrees do not so much fail their degree, as are failed by their institutions...

One simple lie, which has affected my life from that day on... since then I have completed my degree, taught my own classes, taught at university, ran countless programs in schools all over the Hunter, Central Coast and in Sydney, conducted research, given guest talks, lectures, facilitated professional development sessions and had countless other wonderful experiences.

How many Aboriginal people, who should now be my peers, have been turned away from their dreams because they took the either remained silent, or took the prescribed option of placing a complaint of racism, and inevitably lost their case, only to leave disillusioned disheartened, and disgusted... 

I'm willing to bet the answer is too many.

And that whatever the number is, it is still growing.

When I got back to uni I told the Aboriginal unit about what had happened, they wanted me to give a talk to a state AECG conference they were hosting about it. So I did. In retrospect I think it's pretty ordinary that this was their only response, but whatever... this was the first experience of overt racism from staff I had encountered at uni, but it was not to be my last. Some other time I'll tell you about what happened during my internship, or at least, during the first time I attempted my internship...

7 comments:

  1. Were it not for some of these moments in our lives we'd likely be someone entirely different than who we eventually become.

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  2. All too common a story across colonizing societies. Thank you for sharing.

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  3. Good for you, brother. Like you I too was failed on the last day of my prac with no prior warning. It was my final prac and my first child was due in six weeks. I had a job lined up- I was a mid year finisher - and I ran the same spiel as you. In my case it worked and I got my start.. I lasted 5 years.

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  4. And it doesn't end. Working for the NTEU I have seen our black academics be continually insulted because it's assumed that they got their degrees on a concessional basis, or that they wouldn't know anything about "real blackfellas" because they're too educated, etc and so forth. 78% have experienced racism on campus. Sadly, whatever the system is, we're always fighting against it, and unfortunately some just get sick of having to fight all the time, or they don't have the skills to. Change is far too slow...

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  5. Racism is still alive but rather than being overt it's invert. But hopefully one day it'll be eradicated.

    http://www.healthyaction.com.au/tribulus.html

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  6. Hi Luke,

    Good to see you back on the intertubes.

    As usual, a thoughtful, perceptive, articulate and thought provoking piece. Can I use this with my Ab Studies class?

    See you when I'm looking at you binghay.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Geoff. You can definitely use it with your class, I'd be curious to see what they think of it.

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