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Saibai Island community expectations of their first fully qualified principal

Steve Castley
First fully qualified Principal at Saibai Island State School since 1949

Barry Osborne
Department of Pedagogics and Scientific Studies in Education
James Cook University of North Queensland


This paper summarises a study done by the first author while he was primary school principal at Saibai Island. We set about, using Spradley's (1979) development research sequence, to discover community expectations of him as the first non-lslander principal since 1941.[1]

Until January 1986, primary education [2] in Torres Strait was managed by the Department of Community Services. In the years preceding that date only six of the fourteen villages had fully qualified principals (Badu, Boigu, Darnley, Mabuiag, Murray, and Yorke). The other eight schools had Torres Strait headmasters with varying amounts of formal teacher education, but none with the minimum formal requirements of a Diploma of Teaching. The fifty-four teachers in those schools were Torres Strait Islanders or resident Papuans - again, none had the minimum requirements of a Diploma of Teaching. The Torres Strait Island School, based on Thursday Island, offered inservice support and an advisory service to assist these teachers, headmasters, and indeed, even the fully qualified principals.

January 1986 saw the "takeover" of all outer island schools by the Queensland Department of Education and the appointment of fully qualified non-lslander principals on all islands. By 1987 not only were there fourteen fully qualified principals (as from August 1987, one of whom is a Torres Strait Islander) but also eight qualified non-Islander teachers.

Steve Castley had been the principal on Boigu for two years before his appointment to Saibai and he was concerned for new principals coming into the region. While he and some other principals had undertaken prior preparation for their roles in Torres Strait by means of the Graduate Diploma in Aboriginal Education offered by the Townsville College of Advanced Education (now amalgamated with James Cook University), the speed of takeover had prevented the Queensland Department of Education from releasing principals for a year to do the course prior to their appointment to a Torres Strait school. Hence, principals were moving into a culturally different setting and could make unnecessary mistakes in their workings with staff and community. Given that there is a dearth of recent written material about education in Torres Strait communities, Steve decided to conduct a small study about his community for the use of principals moving into Torres Strait schools. He decided to focus on community expectations of him as the "first" white principal.

His review of the literature revealed that nothing had been published on this topic for Torres Strait, or indeed for any other cross-cultural or Australian settings. Given the concern expressed in documents like Project 21 for community involvement in the running of schools, it seemed quite appropriate to ask, "What does the community expect of me as principal?"

Steve decided to conduct ethnographic interviews with the community members. Such interviews attempt to discover the meanings of informants (Spradley, 1979) rather than impose the interviewer's meanings on the situation. He was unable to follow Spradley's developmental research sequence fully because the informants use English as their second or third language and at times the nuances of questions were not clear to them. Nevertheless, each of the informants was interviewed twice and two of them were interviewed three times, the interviews were recorded and transcribed verbatim (Spradley, 1979, pp. 73-74), and informants' terms were given back to them in subsequent interviews to discover their meanings (pp. 155-160).

The original plan was to interview three men and one woman. However, the shortness of time available to complete the project and the selected woman's holiday during the planned data collection phase, her subsequent anxiety about responding in English[3], and the lack of time to find another woman to take her place ultimately resulted in a set of male-only informants.

Two of the informants were older Islanders who had taught in the school for many years. Accordingly, they were knowledgeable about education and the community and they were able to articulate their ideas in English. The third informant was an executive member of the P & C Association who was also most articulate. Although not specifically asked, the community probably would have nominated these three men as informants because of their knowledge of the school, their knowledge of the community and because of their senior positions of educational responsibility in the community. The importance of this last point is highlighted by Kennedy and Kennedy (1986, p.6).

The interviews were conducted during March and were transcribed by Steve. Some fifty-three pages of interviews became the database. Despite potential problems of over-rapport (Miller, 1969) and Islander tendencies to respond, particularly to authority figures, in ways they think that person wants them to respond (Osborne, 1986, p.23; Dean and Whyte, 1969; Argyriss, 1969), the data provides very illuminative insights into one Torres Strait community's expectations of a white principal.

This paper is not based on taxonomies and domains established as Spradley (1979) prescribes. For instance card sorting and ranking were not used. Nevertheless, domains, while not exhaustive, are extensive and were established by having informants reconsider the terms included under a variety of cover terms. Initially, Steve worked the data into eight categories - build relationships, be a learner and fit into the community, value the community and its members' feelings, improve the education offered by the school, use Standard Australian English, allow the local language and culture to survive and grow, develop community awareness about education, and be a model of approved behaviour.

There was considerable overlap of terms included under these headings, so ultimately we decided to collapse the categories into two. These categories seemed to make semantic sense to the authors and eliminated overlap, but they do not derive from the informants according to Spradley's (1979) strategies. Hence, rather than being emically derived they were etically established (Osborne, 1987). The two major groupings became "be a learner and fit into the community" and "provide a better education".

Following the suggestion of Miles and Huberman (1984) the raw data will be presented as much as is possible in tabular form. The informant who used the term will be referred to by initial and the interview number and page number follows. Hence, (Z,1,3) refers to informant Z, interview 1, page 3. Where two or more informants provide similar information each of them is referred to beside the data. Furthermore, each statement is referred to by number for ease of cross referencing within the last table.


The first expectation of the community that informants discussed was that the principal should be a learner and fit into the community. We decided to discuss this expectation first for two reasons. First, it is not always abundantly clear to newcomers that they need to do this. They come with their own expertise in education, medicine, administration and the like, often assume the locals know nothing, and set about trying to change what they do not understand. Second, a principal who started by accommodating this expectation would probably have greater success than one who tried to improve education without learning about the local community or without trying to fit in with it, because of the Islands personal relationships are perceived as prerequisite to knowledge sharing (Osborne, 1986, pp. 9-10).



1.1Learn about the island itself (A,2,1)

1.10The set out (A,2,1)

1.11The way people live (A,2,1)

1.12The gardening (A,2,1)

1.13The functioning of the store (A,2,1)

1.14The cargo boats' routines (A,2,1)

1.15The various service agencies (A,1,1; A,2,1; Z,2,1)

1.2Meet and communicate with all the community (A,2,1)

1.20To set up a two-way communication (Z,2,1; A,2,3)

1.21To build rapport with elders and parents (Z,2,1)

1.22To learn the positions of authority of people in the community (Z,2,1; A,3,4)

1.23To seek advice from knowledgeable people (A,3,4; E,2,1)

1.24To get to know the parents (Z,1,3)

1.3Behave in a proper manner (Z.3.4)

1.30Attend church regularly (E,2,2)

1.31Attend public meetings (E,2,2)

1.32Be involved in gatherings, functions and feasts (Z,2,2; Z,3,3)

1.33Avoid involvement in

1.331family disputes (A,3,1)

1.332village fights (A,3,1)

1.333family problems in the community (A,3,3)

1.34Avoid being unkind in speaking about community people (Z,3,1)

1.35Avoid cutting off from the community (Z,3,1)

1.36Avoid drunkenness (A,2,4; Z,2,2; Z,3,4)

1.37Care for the kids (Z,3,1)

The informants said that it was important to get to know about the way of life on the island so the principal would know what people and children do and so the principal would know how to regulate personal/school life around such crucial events as the fortnightly arrival of the cargo boat and around other agencies like the medical aid post (whose nurses provide vitamin pills and anti-malaria shots to children during school hours at school) and the police (who help with attendance of children). Furthermore, knowledge of such local matters is crucial if curriculum is to be related to what the children know and do locally (Osborne and Coombs, 1987). In fact, teachers in another culturally different setting (Zuni) said that they thought teachers needed to know about daily life as culture (rather than dancing, kinship, and other components of culture which are better taught by elders) so they can link home and school in the curriculum (Osborne, 1983, pp.261-262).

The second component of fitting in is to meet and communicate with all the community and this means going into the community rather than inviting them to school. It helps the community members to feel free to come to school. As one informant put it:

The principal invited the parents to come, come up to the school and visit the school and have a look at the children's work, but ... no-one did - not didn't want to - but didn't turn out to visit the school, because of their own commitment or they had work to do. Instead if the principal sits and talks with them, the parents will feel free to share what they really think ... the parents may find themselves free to talk to the teachers or principal ... (Z,1,2).[4]
This highlights the need to establish rapport on their terms before parents will express themselves.

The third set of expectations related to fitting into the community have to do with behaving in a proper manner. These statements clearly define the high expectations the community have of the principal and also demarcate areas which are considered the appropriate concern of the principal.

Closely related to the expectation of being a Learner and fitting into the community is a set of culturally appropriate ways of doing so. It spells out the importance of local protocol and offers suggestions like 2.220 (which they see as the most useful way to meet people) which are perhaps out of the prior experience or value positions of new principals. There is also a notable absence of recommending the asking of questions: Islanders prefer to watch, talk, and think. Direct questions of the kinds often asked by educators are accommodated but not specifically recommended.



2.10Contact the headmaster (Government teacher) (E,1,4)

2.12 Contact the Chairman and councillors (E,1,4) (this is custom and gives the community a chance to organise a welcome (E,1,4)

2.2After arrival

2.20Meet and get to know the service agencies, e.g., Council, Medical Aid Post, Store, Church, Community Police (A,1,1; Z,2,1)

2.21Meet and get to know teachers and children (A,1,1; E,1,3)

2.22After a week or two go into the community (A,1,1; Z,1,3)

2.220going to the store (Z,2,2)

2.221attending functions and feasts (Z,2,2; A,2,2)

2.222attending church (Z,2,2 and 3,4)

2.223visiting the canteen but not getting drunk in public (A,2,4; Z,2,2; Z,3,4)

2.224sitting and talking with people (E,2,6)

2.225visiting parents (Z,2,2)

2.23Make time to talk to parents (Z,1,1)

2.230to ask what they would like to do with the children (Z,2,1)

2.231to tell them about their children (Z,2,2)

The second set of expectations reflects a major concern of the community on Saibai: namely the improvement of education. As one informant put it when he heard of Steve's appointment:

I was really sort of thankful and tried to foresee the future of the school and also of the children ... because there are a lot more things to do. I mean although our coloured teachers have been trying very hard themselves to upgrade our students ... and there were some children who got through ... I would guess that many of our community people are possibly very thankful. What we reckon is that our school will be improved and that our children will have better education.
Another said:
It gave me a proud feeling. That was my expectation for many years, and at last my dream's come true.
The third when asked "why do you want a white principal?" put it quite boldly:
I think there's only one reason, for better education.



3.10Take responsibility for running the school (E,2,1; A,2,2)

3.11Teach and assist in all classes on rotation (E,2,2)

3.12Improve sports opportunity in the school (Z,3,1)

3.13Increase the technology used in school (videos, computers) (A,3,2)

3.14Organise trips to other islands and Thursday Island (A,3,4)

3.15improve standards in the school (Z,3,6)

3.16Work with yardman to beautify the school (Z,3,7)

3.2Islander teachers

3.20Develop the competencies of the Islander teachers (E,1,1)

3.21Work together with Islander teachers, rather than "growling on" them (A,3,1; Z,1,1)

3.22Acknowledge the importance of Islander teachers helping children learn their own language and culture (Z,1,5)

3.23Help teachers with daily and weekly programmes (A,1,2)

3.24Help with children when Islander teachers are busy with other children (A,3,1)

3.25Help with blackboard setting out and teaching ideas (A,3,1)

3.26Help with subjects (E,1,1)

3.27Be approachable so Islander teachers will seek help (E,2,2)

3.3 Children

3.30Be strict, stop bullying between children (E,1,5)

3.31Help children with their work (Z,1,1)

3.32Get children to attend school regularly (Z,2,1; E,2,1)

3.320notes to parents (Z,2,1)

3.321use community police (Z,2,1)

3.322talk to parents (E,1,2)

3.33Give our kids good training in all subjects, particularly English (E,1,1)

3.4Language and culture

3.40Teach all children to become good English speakers (A,1,4)

3.41Be a good model of English (A,1,4)

3.42Show an interest in local language and perhaps try to learn it (A,1,4; Z,1,5)

3.43Allow time for culture in school (Z,1,4)

3.44Communicate with elderly people to get their advice on language and culture in the school (E,2,1)


3.50Assist community members in completing forms and writing letters requiring English (A,1,2; E,1,6)

3.51Assist community members with banking, sending radio messages, but not all the time (Z,2,3; Z,2,4)

3.52Print some articles in the school newspaper in the local language (Z,3,6)

3.53Discuss children's work with parents (E,1,6)

3.54Communicate with parents about children's attendance and lateness (E,1,7)

3.55Contact parents, say: "Parents are the first teachers": they can give practice at home (E,1,1)

3.56Work with the P & C (E,1,6) and its executive (E,1,7)

3.57Help committees (like P & C) by giving them ideas (E,1,7)

For semantic reasons the various responses have been clustered under headings of school, Islander teachers, children, language and culture, and community. There is little need for discussion of these responses except to note that while the principal is expected to introduce ideas, technologies, and better ways of teaching, there is little guidance as to what sort of programmes should be introduced. This stems, perhaps in part, from isolation from mainstream education and, perhaps in part, from the principal being seen as the expert in matters to do with mainstream curriculum. There is still a concern about avoiding conflict, enlisting cooperation, and helping.

It seems to us that implicit in the tables and data presented previously that there is a set of values which need to be made explicit. These and their origins are contained in Table 4.


4.1Value the expertise and knowledge of elderly people in the community (e.g., 1.21, 1.22, 1.23)

4.2Value the importance of local language and culture (e.g., 3.22, 3.43, 3.44)

4.3Value the community's desire to include you in their community (e.g., 1.1, 1.4)

4.4Value protocol (Z,2,1) (e.g., 1.22, 2.10, 2.11, 2.20, 2.21 and 2.22)

4.5Value spending the time to get to know and understand the local people (e.g., 1.2, 2.21, 2.22, 2.23)

4.6Avoid direct confrontations wherever possible (e.g., 1.20, 1.21, 1.22, 1.23, 3.21, 3.27, 3.44)

None of the above tables should be seen as:

Nevertheless, they do give considerable insights into sets of expectations held in one Torres Strait Islander community. These expectations seem to fit very closely with those enumerated by Rod Kennedy who lived for several years with his family on Saibai. He states that:
Many Islanders have two strong felt needs:
  1. To upgrade their own communication skills with the "world outside".

  2. To take pride in showing their life and culture to you and through you to the world.
    (Kennedy and Kennedy, 1986, p.1)
Furthermore, the Torres Strait Islander Regional Education Committee has produced a policy statement which support the views expressed in this paper:

1.1   Torres Strait Islanders want "proper" schooling. There are several linkages and purposes for which such schooling must prepare children:
- Linking Education and culture
- Linking Education and employment.
1.2Torres Strait Islanders want education to be appropriate to their environment and structured to have more parental involvement.
2.3Torres Strait Islanders need to have more input into the conduct, content and administration of the schools.
3.1Torres Strait Islanders want the schools staffed by teachers who are acquainted with, familiar with and able to understand the culture and language of Torres Strait Islanders. These would preferably be Torres Strait Islanders.
3.1(a)Torres Strait Islanders see a place for both Torres Strait Islander and non-Islander teachers.
(b) Non-Islander teachers need special programs about Torres Strait before taking up their appointments.
3.2 Torres Strait Islanders ultimately want fully qualified Torres Strait Islander teachers in schools.
5.1Torres Strait Islanders want more input and influence on the training of teachers and on their induction and orientation into the Torres Strait Island schools.
5.1(a)Introductory programs should be established for non-Islander teachers coming to teach in Torres Strait.
(Torres Strait Islander Regional Education Committee, 1985, pp. 7-10)

Perhaps this paper goes some way to providing some insights into the culture and community expectations on one Torres Strait Island, Saibai.


  1. Williamson (1987, p.5) points out that Saibai had two fully qualified white teachers in charge of the school during the first fifty years of this century: Mr E.M. Longford in 1926, Mr C. Turner for some years between 1936 and 1941. Apparently, Mr Turner returned to Saibai later and finished teaching there in 1949 (A,2,2).

  2. The predecessors of the Department of Community Services were the Department of Native Affairs, until about 1970, then the Department of Aboriginal and Islander Advancement. Williamson (1987, p.4) points out that initially Douglas had sought a fully qualified teacher from the Department of Primary Instruction for the school on Murray as early as 1885. It is interesting to ponder the subsequent history of education in Torres Strait had his repeated requests been successful.

  3. This anxiety was communicated to Steve not directly by the woman, but via an intermediary. The importance of the intermediary is spelled out in Kennedy and Kennedy (1986, pp. 67-85).

  4. On Thursday Island, to encourage the parents to come to school, the Community Education Counsellor (an Islander) invited small groups of three or four parents to the school for morning tea, then personally conducted each parent to his or her own child's classroom. This system proved highly successful for parents, teachers, and students.


ARGYRISS, C. (1969) "Diagnosing Defences Against the Outsider" in McCall, G.J. and Simmons, J.L. (ed.) Issues in Participant Observation: A Text and Reader. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, pp. 105-114.

DEAN, J.P. and WHYTE, W.F. (1969) "How Do You Know if the Informant is Telling the Truth?", in McCall, G.J. and Simmons, J.L. (ed.) Issues in Participant Observation: A Text and Reader. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley, pp. 114-118.

KENNEDY, R. and KENNEDY, J. (1986) Adha Gar Tidi: Cultural Sensitivity Topics for Workers in Western Torres Strait. Torres Strait Working Papers 2. Series edited by Dr. Barry Osborne. Townsville: Department of Pedagogics and Scientific Studies in Education, James Cook University of North Queensland.

MILES, M.B. and HUBERMAN, A.M. (1984) Qualitative Data Analysis: A Handbook of New Methods. Beverley Hills, CA: Sage.

OSBORNE, A.B. (1983) An Ethnographic Study of Five Elementary Classrooms at Zuni: "Are We Doing What We Think We Are?". Unpublished PhD dissertation, The University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, New Mexico.

OSBORNE, A.B. (1987) "The Search for a Paradigm to Inform Cross-Cultural Classroom Research". Australian Journal of Education, 31, 2, pp. 99-128.

OSBORNE, A.B. and COOMBS, G. (1987) Setting up an Intercultural Encounter: An Ethnographic Study of 'Settling Down' a Thursday Island High School Class. Torres Strait Working Papers 6. Series edited by Dr. Barry Osborne. Townsville: Department of Pedagogics and Scientific Studies in Education, James Cook University of North Queensland.

SPRADLEY, J.P. (1979) The Ethnographic Interview. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

TORRES STRAIT ISLANDER REGIONAL EDUCATION COMMITTEE (1985) Policy Statement on Education in Torres Strait 1985. (Mimeo.)

WILLIAMSON, A. (1987) "White and Islander Teachers in the Outer Islands' Schools of Torres Strait, 18921941". Paper presented at the 57th ANZAAS Congress, James Cook University of North Queensland: TownsvilIe.

Please cite as: Castley, S. & Osborne, B. (1988). Saibai Island community expectations of their first fully qualified principal. Queensland Researcher, 4(2), 6-20. http://www.iier.org.au/qjer/qr4/castley.html

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Created 7 Mar 2008. Last revision: 7 Mar 2008.
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