New Internationalist

Strong & smart

Issue 364

Aboriginal children are expected to do poorly at school. Teacher Chris Sarra blasts away the prejudice.

Photo: Greg Miller / www.gregmillerphotography.com.au
Chris Sarra with pupil: ‘You won’t get a pat on the head for doing nice things for teacher, but you will have the fire in your belly kindled.’ Photo: Greg Miller / www.gregmillerphotography.com.au

When I was in teachers’ college I spent some time reflecting on my days in high school. In Grade 11 I’d done advanced maths and I remembered one day the teacher handing back our exam papers and saying: ‘Sarra got 75 per cent for that test! It must have been an easy test!’ Of course it was his way of having a joke, but when you wash away the humour there remained an almost subliminal message that whispered to me: ‘Don’t expect to get more than 75 per cent for maths!’ And I never ever did.

Teachers in school probably thought I was a nice young Aboriginal boy and they loved having my brother and me there because we would see to it that the school won the open Rugby League grand final. I only remember one teacher pushing me to work harder on my academic pursuits.

Later, I worked extremely hard in teachers’ college as I started to understand that for many years, because other people in school had limited expectations of my academic ability, I had actually developed limited expectations of my own ability. I swore that from then on I would challenge all teachers’ limited perceptions of what Aboriginal children could achieve in school. Further, I would challenge all Aboriginal children’s own perceptions of what they could achieve.

After many years I became a career and guidance counsellor. On the first day in my first school as a guidance officer I made myself known to the other teachers. I remember going to one staff room where a young female teacher said: ‘Are you the new teacher aide?’

No. I am the new Guidance Officer,’ I replied.

She said: ‘Oh! Are you like… a “real” Guidance Officer, like, have you been a teacher and all that?’

Eventually we established that indeed I was a real Guidance Officer, and so then she said to me: ‘Oh! But you’re not like a “real” Aboriginal, hey?’ She then put her arm next to mine and said: ‘Look, I am just as dark as you!’

As I put my arm up for her to do a colour inspection, I couldn’t help thinking to myself: ‘I wouldn’t have to go through all of this bullshit if I was lying drunk under a tree somewhere with a flagon of wine.’

In the same school the Year 11 co-ordinator said, referring to the many black children in the school: ‘Chris, I don’t know why you go putting big ideas into these kids’ heads. Give them a football and they’ll be right. You can make a lot of money playing football these days!’

From there I thought I might make more difference lecturing to BEd students at a university. Again I worked hard to get them to understand ways of getting the best out of Aboriginal children in schools, but I would often be met with responses such as: ‘Are you a qualified lecturer?’

In the end I thought to myself: ‘Stuff it! Perhaps it is best just to get on and do the stuff you are trying to tell other fools to do.’

Photo: Greg Miller / www.gregmillerphotography.com.au
The message on the wall: Cherbourg State School’s motto. Photo: Greg Miller / www.gregmillerphotography.com.au

I am now the Principal of Cherbourg State School. It is an Aboriginal community school about 300 kilometres northwest of Brisbane, Queensland.

On my arrival there in 1998 the school was in dismal chaos, and nobody was questioning why it was like this. It was as if there was a mindset that convinced people that this is how Aboriginal schools should be.

The first 12 months were extremely difficult because the key players at the school accepted the appalling degree of under-achievement and poor student behaviour. They tried to explain that this was the best we could expect from our children, given their cultural and social complexities. This made a very convenient smokescreen for an under-performing school and laid the blame on the children and the community. As an Aboriginal person, I was disgusted at having to tolerate such poor student performance and outcomes, and indeed such poor school performance.

I set about changing that by getting rid of most of the teachers and getting in a new team that would actually believe we could make the children in our school stronger and smarter. We also convinced the children that they could be stronger and smarter, by making them feel great about being Aboriginal. Importantly, we got them to understand that they can be successful, and they can still be Aboriginal.

The aim at our school is to:
• Generate good academic outcomes that are comparable to any other school in Queensland.
• Nurture a strong and positive sense of what it means to be Aboriginal in today’s society.

So far, as a team we have achieved some notable results. Statewide literacy testing reveals that three years ago 13 per cent of our children were at ‘expected’ levels: today it is more than 60 per cent. We also reduced unexplained absenteeism by 94 per cent in less than 18 months.

‘I wouldn’t have to go through all of this bullshit if I was lying drunk under a tree somewhere with a flagon of wine.’

Our school is one that aims to deliver more than just regular education. You won’t get a pat on the head for doing nice things for the teacher, but you will have the fire in your belly kindled. The children learn the things mainstream Australia wants them to know, but they also learn to recognize and understand the things they don’t want us to know.

In our school we learn about and develop a new sense of power. And it’s not the kind of power that white people give to us, therefore it is not the kind they can take away. It comes from deep inside us. From our hearts, from our spirit, from our land.

I still get the odd person come into the school and ask me: ‘Is the Principal around here?’

These days I just remind myself that everyone has their own journey to make. In our school we are certainly well down the track. Many others don’t even know there is a path that must be taken.

Chris Sarra is the first Aboriginal Principal of Cherbourg State School.

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