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Teachers' initial perceptions of teaching at Thursday Island State High School

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


This paper describes the first impressions of seven teachers newly appointed to Thursday Island State High School. Subsequent papers will describe perceptions of these same teachers at three subsequent points in time during their first 13 months on the island and the teaching strategies they used during the same period of time. As such, the completed set of studies aims to document any changes in perceptions, goals or teaching strategies which occurred during those first thirteen months. Accordingly, the completed study should provide useful insights into the socialisation of teachers into a teaching situation which is culturally very different from the ones they experienced as students, as pre-service teachers, and in some cases even from their early experience as qualified teachers.

The larger study involved spending a week in the school during each of early February, May, October and again the February of the next year. During each week the teachers were ethnographically interviewed (Spradley, 1979), observed in their classrooms, and videotaped for one thirty-minute period. This data base is being analysed in a variety of ways. In this paper, the initial interviews are analysed.

In a related study, Osborne and Coombs (1987) have analysed the first six minutes of the first videotaped lesson of one of the teachers. Videotape analysis (Scheflen, 1973; Mehan, 1979; McDermott, Gospodinoff & Aron, 1978; and Erickson & Mohatt, 1982) is a very time-consuming activity: the six minutes of videotape has taken some 80 man-hours to analyse. Accordingly, the remaining 26 hours or more of videotape will take considerable time to transcribe and analyse. While this analysis continues I decided to prepare papers on the perceptions of the teachers throughout their first 13 months. Later, the observation data and the videotape data can be triangulated (Le Compte & Goetz, 1982) with the interview data.

The reader might well ask: 'Why collect so much data on such an atypical socialisation process?' There are several reasons. First, when I was appointed to teach at this same school nearly twenty years ago I was thoroughly unprepared for the cultural differences I found. Furthermore, in an assimilationist era the adjustments I made to teaching strategies were insignificant and largely ineffectual. Hence the issue is how well the teachers of today are prepared for that scene, given the enlightenment of cultural difference theory, the availability of pre-service English as a Second Language courses of study, the availability of in-service programs like the Graduate Diploma of Aboriginal Education (Note 1), and perhaps a raised general awareness in our community of Aboriginal/Torres Strait Islander issues particularly as they relate to education.

Second, we do not know a lot about the process of socialisation of beginning teachers. Recently the process has been documented by Zeichner (1986), and Zeichner and Tabachnich (1985). This study should add to such knowledge because three of the teachers were just beginning their teaching careers. It should add to knowledge in a special way.

That special way is the third reason. Rather than focus on average teachers, in average schools, being socialised into teaching average students (Zeichner, 1986), this study focusses on an atypical setting. In so doing it should throw into sharpened relief the processes of teacher socialisation.

Fourth, and more pragmatically, it should provide important insights into the pre-service preparation, induction and in-service support of teachers as they begin teaching in schools like the one at Thursday Island.


Thursday Island is the administrative capital of Torres Strait and has a population of about 3000 people of whom 2700 are mainly Torres Strait Islanders with some Chinese, Japanese, Malays, and Sri Lankans. These migrants had been attracted to the area during the golden days of pearling, trocchus, and beche-de-mer fishing which by and large ended in the mid 1960s. Some 300 'Europeans' (white Australians) inhabit the island, mainly as transient teachers, nurses, post office or Telecom workers, or as departmental officials of both the state and federal governments.

Thursday Island is situated about 30 km north of the tip of Cape York, where the only other High School catering for Torres Strait Islanders is located at Bamaga. Bamaga State High School also takes students to Senior and has about 180 students.

Thursday Island has a variety of shopping facilities, four hotels, a taxi service, a hospital, a bank, a post office, a variety of churches, a bowling club, pistol club, basketball courts, a six-lane Olympic swimming pool and wading pool. It is also a centre for a variety of outdoor activities: boating, snorkeling, scuba diving, bushwalking, camping and sailboard riding. Light aircraft regularly service all the fourteen villages on the outer islands, on a regular basis.

At the time of data collection Thursday Island State High School was operating out of its original 'hill site' and out of its partly completed 'Aplin site'. The hill site began operating as a high school in 1966 and by 1987 had ceased to operate. At the time of the study a special timetable operated to allow students to commute between the two sites: they went from the Aplin site to the hill site for Home Economics, Art, Manual Art, and some Grade 9 general subjects. Commuting between the two sites took some ten minutes on foot, about five minutes on bikes, and about five minutes in the school truck, which took a longer bituminised route.

The school had a teaching staff of 27, and a student population of 440. The arrival of the new school at the Aplin site ushered in the introduction of grade eleven, then grade twelve for the first time.

The high school students come from Thursday Island itself, the western Islands (Saibai, Biogu, Duan, Mabiaug, Badu, or one of the two villages on Moa, Kubin or St Pauls) from the Central Islands (Yam, Yorke, Coconut, Waraber) or from the Eastern Islands (Stephens, Darnley, Murray). Some students also commute daily from Prince of Wales, Horn Island, and Hammond Island. All speak Torres Strait Creole (locally referred to as 'Pidgin') as their first language, although some Thursday Island students speak mainly Standard Australian English. Standard Australian English is very rarely used outside of school on the outer islands. The traditional languages (Kala Lagaw Ya or Kala Kagaw Ya in the Western Islands plus Coconut, Yam, and Waraber, and Miriam Mer in the Eastern Islands plus Yorke) are spoken by the older people and are frequently understood but infrequently spoken by younger adults or children.

Because Standard Australian English is not well spoken by many students from the outer islands, English as a Second Language (ESL) classes had been introduced to assist them at the high school. ESL classes occur in Grades 8, 9, and 10 and are taken predominantly, but not exclusively, by outer island students. This situation is about to change for 1988 (personal communication, Note 2).


During the study I worked with seven teachers new to Thursday Island. One man, in his mid to late twenties, had been teaching for five years and much of that time had been spent teaching at an Aboriginal community. Another man, in his late thirties, had been teaching in Brisbane schools for seven years. The third man, in his early twenties, had been teaching for eighteen months in Brisbane before his transfer to Thursday Island. The fourth man, also in his early twenties, was a new graduate: his first teaching appointment was to Thursday Island. One of the young women (all of whom were in their early to mid twenties) had several years' teaching experience and was appointed to Thursday Island after studying the Graduate Diploma in Aboriginal Education in James Cook University. The second young woman had a Graduate Diploma in English as a Second Language Teaching and was taking up her first teaching appointment at Thursday Island. The third young woman was also newly graduated and hence was teaching for the first time in her career at Thursday Island.

These seven teachers volunteered to work with me on the study on the written understanding that they could withdraw at any stage, that they would receive feedback prior to any articles being published so that they could vet such articles to check accuracy and to protect their privacy. These ethical considerations are paramount in ethnographic studies such as this (Spradley, 1979) particularly since it is not possible to disguise the school. Its location and role cannot be adequately explained without disclosing its name - hence I use its real name and in subsequent articles use pseudonyms for each of the teachers. In this paper teachers' names are not used at all - it is a general paper describing the range of perceptions held by the teachers all of whom were in their third week of teaching at a school new to all of them and in a role (teaching) which was brand new to three of them. They taught a variety of subjects: Economics, Manual Arts, Social Science, ESL, Mathematics, Science, and English.

What follows is a summary of their responses to the following questions:

Tell me about your knowledge and background information about Thursday Island before you arrived.

What were your first reactions to your appointment to Thursday Island?

What were your first reactions to arriving here?

What are your first reactions to teaching the kids here?


The teacher who had been studying the Graduate Diploma in Aboriginal Education did not focus her study on Torres Strait, she had been anticipating an appointment to an Aboriginal community (even though she wanted to go to Thursday Island), so her knowledge of Torres Strait was confined to 'talking with people who had been there' and contained 'no specialised reading'. Indeed she claimed initially that she did not 'know anything' about Torres Strait or Thursday Island.

Another man who had also wanted to teach in an Aboriginal community had no formal preparation for that role, except a 5000 word review of the literature he chose to write on the difficulties of teaching science to Aborigines. He was aware that the Islanders were different from Aborigines, that there were 'different island groups' (Eastern, Central, Western) and that 'ESL was taught in school'. He gleaned this information from 'reading materials sent from the school' (magazine, prospectus, and the language policy statement) and from articles read in the press.

Another young woman came to the school to do her second teaching prac. while doing the Diploma in ESL teaching. She had done some reading prior to that, knew that 'the people were Torres Strait Islanders', that the Department of Community Services was in the process of 'changing over' to local control but claimed 'very little formal background or knowledge because the ESL course was migrant-oriented'. Nevertheless, she enjoyed her prac., decided that she would like to teach on Thursday Island, applied, and was appointed here.

One of the young men received a transfer to Thursday Island and set about trying to find out about the place. He 'went to the library', 'saw a film' and 'talked to a few people who gave [him] advice and told [him] quite a bit about the place'. However, when he arrived he found it different from what he expected:

I hadn't really thought about life here - I thought more about the geography of the place but as far as social life is concerned I did not know anything about it. I did not expect to be doing much here. For that reason I enrolled in a BA degree through uni [University of Queensland].
The fourth male, with a school-aged family, had no previous reading about the people or their culture. He had found some information about conditions on the island by talking with others who had been there. He claimed 'no special knowledge of the people or their ways'.

The sixth teacher, a man, had visited the island with his students from an Aboriginal community in 1981 and 1982. Accordingly, he had a 'good idea of the actual set up of the place'. He had also read Singe's The Torres Strait : People and History, talked with the author, and talked with other teachers who had been there. So, he claimed 'some knowledge of the school', a 'good general knowledge - what the place looked like, but in terms of the actual schooling, curriculum, and perhaps the kids themselves, [he] didn't have a great knowledge, just a general knowledge.' His BA Dip Ed had 'no content whatsoever of Aboriginal or Islander education'.

The seventh teacher had 'kept taking Aboriginal electives in the hope that if I took an Aboriginal one they would be more likely to give me a Far North Region[al appointment]. I took about four but they didn't have an islander-based curriculum'. However, she had been given a Thursday Island High School yearbook by a lecturer and she received a 'book on Torres Strait, called "Our Torres Strait" (Note 3)' and the school prospectus from the principal.

It is clear from the above that none of the teachers had much formal preparation for teaching on Thursday Island, or much formal knowledge about the social/cultural aspects of life in Torres Strait. Some had visited before, and so knew something about the place; some had read a little, but knew little about the people or their way of life. This creates problems for teachers as they attempt to relate curriculum (Maths, Science, Social Science, Art, Music or indeed any of the high school curriculum) to their students' experiences. A common factor among the diverse learning/teaching theories of Ausubel, Piaget, Rogers, Glasser, Bruner, and the like is that learning best takes place on the basis of the learners' prior knowledge and experience. This expanding horizons approach to learning/teaching is impossible if teachers are not familiar with the everyday life of their students. Most of the teachers new to Thursday Island had initial substantial ignorance about these matters. In Osborne & Coombs (1987) an exception is shown. One teacher, with prior experience on an Aboriginal community, built local knowledge into his ESL curriculum in a substantial way. The other beginning and experienced teachers did not do this in the third week of the school year (preliminary analyses of other videotapes). So, initial ignorance makes it difficult for teachers to make curriculum relevant. Teachers, in some cases, sought to find out about the island, but frequently learned only about its location and geography or, as will be shown later, some of the less desirable aspects of island life, namely drunkenness and fighting.

It was perhaps unfortunate that the study was commenced in the year it did because the principal normally supplied new teachers with 'Thursday Island High School Teachers Handbook', but because of printing failure at the school and late arrival of an alternative printing from Cairns, teachers had not received them at the time of first interviews. The handbook is in two sections.

The first section provides some information about the background of Torres Strait children and advice on improving our teaching performance, [The second section] outlines general policies and procedure of the school. (Teachers Handbook. p.1)
In particular the first section contains the school aims (by the Principal), An Overview of the Torres Strait Treaty, a brief discussion of Learning Styles, together with key further readings and two articles on Torres Strait Habits and Culture by the Principal. Hence, had the handbook been available, the new teachers' ignorance of background would not have been the school's fault.

A second problem relates to this ignorance of background. Namely, teachers with this ignorance are not in a good position to find out the relevant information they need. They may go about seeking it in inappropriate ways and in so doing offend locals who then become reluctant to share with them. Perhaps by discussion, by reading, by observation and by sensitive questioning the teachers overcame this ignorance as the year progressed, but that is a topic of a later paper.


The teachers displayed a wide range of reactions to the news of their appointment to Thursday Island.

Some were very happy:

Of these four, two had been to the island before, and three had wanted to come to Thursday Island specifically.

Another reaction was less favourable, initially:

However, as this young man found out more about the Islanders, his initial reaction mellowed considerably: So, despite an initially negative reaction, this young man's reactions became quite positive very early, even before he arrived on the island.

Another young man's reaction was:

The older man's reaction was one of 'it will be a challenge' and it will 'lead to better things'.

Generally, then, the teachers seemed to have a favourable attitude towards their appointment to Thursday Island. In fact, despite some of the rumours about the less favourable aspects of Islander life, the general impression was that Thursday Island is the 'paradise of Western service'. Clearly, part of this perception has to do with. the very desirable housing conditions for teachers, the pleasant nature of Torres Strait Islander students, and the excellent outdoor activities mentioned earlier. The growth of the school to Grades 11 and 12, the development of curriculum which is increasingly locally relevant, and the new school itself clearly add to the desirability of appointment to Thursday Island.

Given that the reactions to appointment were so generally favourable, it will be interesting to discover later reactions; perhaps once the 'honeymoon' is over things will change. Nevertheless, the favourable initial attitudes indicate a good start to teaching on Thursday Island, even if the knowledge background was not strong. Furthermore, given that three of the teachers had wanted to come to Thursday Island it is perhaps surprising that they had hunted down so little information about the sociocultural backgrounds of the children they were about to teach.


Several of the teachers referred to their reactions to a change of pace, a slowing down from hectic city life to 'island time'. Two appreciated it: Some others were less impressed: Another said she felt 'uncomfortable about being a female arriving on Thursday Island' but went on to elaborate:
I was aware that there may be problems and initially I felt a bit uncomfortable about going out to make phone calls in the evening and I like jogging but I haven't been jogging in the dark as I was aware about moving at night, but as 1 have been here I have become more relaxed about it, more comfortable about going out.
Another female teacher put her reactions this way:
I was really pleased with what I saw because I had heard some pretty bad stories about the place, how rough it was, drinking (everyone talks about the drinking problem on the island), and I was quite happy afterwards because it wasn't as bad as it had been painted.
This young woman had done a lengthy prac. on Thursday Island and continued her interview:
... after five weeks on the island, being a woman, I found it difficult. The kids at school were pretty friendly. The dichotomy between school and downtown was a bit hard to take, too, because I was used to being in a city where you leave school and you don't see the kids, whereas here you walk downtown and they are there. And you can growl at them in the afternoon in school and have them for detention for half an hour and then walk downtown straight away and no hassle. That took a bit of getting used to ... 'How can you smile at me after that?'
When probed as to the difficulty of 'being a woman' on the island, she replied with references to both her current situation and the previous prac.:
[Some of] the young guys who are not at school cruising around follow, you know, eyes following you all the time, calling out to you in language. If you go to the pub socially you have to be careful who you dance with; you know, there might be a jealous girlfriend in the corner somewhere but I found that there was that sort of problem within the community. And at school a couple of the boys seem much older than their years as far as eyeing a woman up and down, so it made me feel a bit uncomfortable. Also, the guy who was on prac. didn't have that much trouble. I don't know whether it was because of the nature of his class or it could have been that he was a male, but he didn't seem to have the stress with the boys in the class. Even the girls would sit up and take notice from him more readily ... So that sort of thing made me uncomfortable because I wasn't used to it. I am used to it now ... I lived in Asia for a while and you get used to knowing what you are able to do, how you should dress to avoid trouble, to not be hassled downtown.
So prior experience in another culturally different setting had helped this teacher adjust her behaviour to avoid 'hassles'.

The third female teacher, despite extensive experience overseas, seemed somewhat less accommodating to local norms and mores:

I remember the first time, the girl I live with ..., she's the same age as me, we went out to a ball and we were dancing, just dancing ..., the two of us, and everybody was just staring ... then they came up and said to us 'why were you dancing by yourselves before?' They thought 'God, they're weird' you know. 'Nobody gets up and shames themselves by dancing with themselves', so other than that they were pretty friendly ... [I thought] 'What's your problem, we haven't got a problem, what's yours?' but it's good that it doesn't wear on me much.
Hence, rather than fit into local norms and mores, she was willing to persist with behaviour at odds with them.

Other first impressions related to living conditions. As one married male put it:

My first impression of accommodation here is horrific, really was. The garden was overgrown ... the stench, the mould. A few little irritating things when you first got here, mattresses and pillows stank, and I couldn't sleep because our stuff hadn't arrived. I made rather strong efforts to ensure that it would get here and that was bad. We were only about eight to ten days without it. That was pretty hard on the family. I couldn't sleep ... I think the most annoying thing was having all my belongings, when we finally got them, dumped on the footpath [and now that we've unpacked them] there doesn't seem to be any provision to get rid of the crates ... That's something [else] that's hard to get used to: having to wait for everything, personal as well as school supplies.
The other married male teacher also complained about the overgrown lawns, mildewy walls and waiting for furniture. However, one of the single men was not in a house/duplex and complained that:
... living in the Batch with 15 other single males ... has been a bit frustrating. I've been very tired [and the noise does not help sleep]. I am looking forward to moving into the house [duplex].
The final male was concerned about the massive distance between himself and his girlfriend on the mainland which was confounded by the absence of telephones in the duplexes supplied for the teachers.

While there was considerable concern over accommodation, the situation is a far cry from the appalling conditions in which teachers used to live on Thursday Island. When I was teaching on Thursday Island, there was no married accommodation for teachers (just for principals), and eight men lived in a house, the enclosed verandah of which contained all eight beds without walls or even partitions between them. Now, there is accommodation for some married teachers, and single teachers share modern, very comfortable duplexes - two teachers to each half of the duplex. Nevertheless, the overgrown lawns, mildewy walls and delays in receiving furniture were clearly annoying to teachers used to more luxurious urban living.

Many of the initial reactions to arrival on Thursday Island were most favourable:

Another reaction was: 'It's a sad sight for me to see some of the locals sitting there drinking, nothing to do, sitting outside shops ....

Several themes emerge from these data about first reactions to arrival:


The responses to the question "tell me about teaching the kids'' displayed three different sets of concerns. The first dealt with the nature of the kids, the second related to the teachers' enjoyment of or satisfaction with teaching them, and the third concerned personal organisation and orientation to the teaching scene on Thursday Island.

Comments related to the kids were generally very positive:

The seventh teacher missed the first interview because of a misunderstanding and when asked in May about her first reactions to teaching the kids had nothing to say about the first reactions.

While most of the reactions to 'the kids' were very favourable two teachers referred to language problems outside of the classroom.

Language can also be a problem in the classroom, as mentioned above 'they are not game to tell you if they don't understand', and as described by another teacher: Perhaps it is surprising to note that only two of the teachers perceived this problem of shyness and lack of volume coupled with accent differences making communication difficult.

The second set of responses relate to the enjoyment, satisfaction and/or frustrations of teaching the kids early in the year.

On a less positive note: So, although most teachers enjoyed most of the kids, there were some problems related to motivation and the perceived lack of ability of ESL students (Note 4).

The third category of response is alluded to in the preceding quotation about textbooks and course structure: I have called this the personal orientation/organisation of the teachers. Clearly, the last teacher did not appreciate the 'work-oriented' curriculum which 'leaves very much up to me' and he would have preferred a more structured, 'textbook' approach. Not all the new teachers agreed:

This same female teacher expanded on some of the concerns she confronted as she tried to change things: Another male teacher was dissatisfied with his own lack of preparation and the fact that his more experienced peers chided him about the amount of time he did spend. He felt that Another put it this way: A third male was even more pragmatic: 'smaller classes, which is terrific.'

The reactions of teachers to teaching the children were again highly positive. Most of them found most of the children very good while there were some frustrations, like the sexual maturity of some of the boys which was disconcerting for one of the young women; the unfamiliar language which children could use and which created some uncertainty among the teachers; and the difficulties at times teaching children whose first language was not English.

By and large, then, the first reactions of these seven teachers to their appointment, to arrival on Thursday Island, and to teaching were favourable. Later analyses will explicate whether the local scene, the children, or other factors resulted in changes to these perceptions. Furthermore, the study shows that Thursday Island State High School is perceived, despite some adverse press about drinking and other social problems, as the 'paradise of western service'. It provides some insights into why this perception exists - generally friendly children and community, a new school with good organisation, relaxed life-style, good accommodation and excellent leisure facilities.


  1. This course is now called the Graduate Diploma in Aboriginal and Islander Education and is offered at James Cook University of North Queensland.

  2. ESL is to be incorporated into all subjects and the special ESL classes are being discontinued.

  3. This book was published by students from the school as part of their school curriculum.

  4. This kind of comment was not uncommon in staffrooms. The ESL students were perceived as less able than other students, hence the disbanding of ESL classes in 1988 (see 2 above).


Erickson, F., & Mohatt, G. (1982) 'The Social Organization of Participant Structures in Two Classrooms of Indian Students', in Spindler, G.D. (ed.) Doing the Ethnography of Schooling: Educational Anthropology in Action. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, pp. 132174.

LeCompte, M.D., & Goetz, J.P. (1982) 'Problems of Reliability and Validity in Ethnographic Research'. Review of Educational Research, 52, 1, pp. 31-60.

McDermott, R.P., Gospodinoff, K., & Aron, J. (1978), 'Criteria for an Ethnographically Adequate Description of Concerted Activities in Their Contexts'. Semiotica, 24, 3/4, pp. 245-275.

Mehan, H. (1979) Learning Lessons: The Social Organization of the Classroom. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Osborne, A.B., & 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.

Scheflen, A. (1973) 'When is a Context? Some Issues and Methods in the Analysis of Social Competence', in Green, J. & Wallat, (eds) Ethnography and Language in Educational Settings. Norwood, N.J.: Ablex, pp. 147-160.

Singe, J. (1979) The Torres Strait: People and History. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press.

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

Zeichner, K.M. (1986) 'The Practicum as an Occasion to Teach'. Proceedings of Third National Conference: The Practicum in Teacher Education. Geelong, pp. 1-21.

Zeichner, K.M. & Tabuchnich, B.R. (1985) 'The Development of Teacher Perspectives: Social Strategies and Institutional Control in the Socialization of Beginning Teachers'. Journal of Education for Teaching, 11, 1, pp. 1-25.

Please cite as: Osborne, B. (1988). Teachers' initial perceptions of teaching at Thursday Island State High School. Queensland Researcher, 4(2), 45-66. http://www.iier.org.au/qjer/qr4/osborne.html

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