Issues in Educational Research, 4(1), 1994, 27-30.

Education to empower: The role of the primary teacher in Aboriginal education

Freda Ogilvie
Halls Creek District High School
Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders are the indigenous people of Australia. Their distinctive cultures are a rich and important part of the nation's living heritage. Traditional education processes of Aboriginal people have been eroded for a variety of reasons. The education arrangements and procedures established from non-Aboriginal traditions have not recognised and accommodated the needs and circumstances of most Aboriginal people. Education is fundamental in enabling Aboriginal people to exercise their rights and participate fully in Australian society.

Role of the primary teacher

In coping with the cognitive behaviour of a class of children, it is imperative that the primary classroom teacher be aware of the specific needs of each child. The initial job for the teacher is to research each child's school history, as well as to learn to become an efficient observer of classroom behaviour or norms. The teacher will need to monitor such behaviour as: group processes, peer teaching, leadership skills, self-esteem, expectations of the learners, communication processes, conflict and organisation. If any classroom processes become fragmented or incongruent, then conflict arises. But it is part of human development and part of everyday life to deal with this conflict; the education comes in handling and negotiating the conflict.

The teacher must also have a range of teaching strategies to cope with the size of the classroom, the number of students, the demography of the local population, the resources available in the school and the support services offered by other government and non-government departments. For some children, small group processes are more effective and for others peer tutoring will be most beneficial In the case of the latter the functional language utilised by the students in informing, addressing, explaining, directing, correcting and controlling the learning environment can assist other less competent language users.

Language and the importance of social development

Coghill & Taylor (1991, p.3), in their studies at the Derby District High School describe the elaborate, definitive and categorical statements which reflect Aboriginal children's mastery of language. For example, repetition is used to dispel disagreement, and to reach a consensus in the Aboriginal community. On the other hand, repetition in the non-Aboriginal community is used to repeat, recover or reiterate. This is only one instance of the English language and the Aboriginal language being misconceived and misinterpreted because the words have different meanings in the linguistic communities.

The secrets of English language have a social interaction dimension interrelated with the general Western cultural knowledge requirements (Pettit 1989, p.129). The survival skills in a Western society require some academic skills, but in the Aboriginal community social skills are crucial to survival.

To be able to survive in the western world, Aborigines need to move between two worlds. The schooling process should assist children to demystify the Western World and increase empowerment. Schools should be functional in the social worlds too. Harris (1990, p.136) states "any academic success is probably dependent on first correcting the sociopolitical context of schools."

However, in the Aboriginal Voice in Education (1987) the results of the surveys carried out showed some parents requesting that their children are taught English in schools and the mother tongue at home. Schooling was seen as the vehicle by the community to achieving more access to the advantages of society. It was thought to contribute to the knowledge and skills students needed to enable them to participate in the political, economic and social setting of the wider community.

Affiliation is the basis of personal relationships. Associated with affiliation are social concerns. Hughes (1984) and Watts (1981) both argue that due to early socialisation practices Aboriginal children place a high value on social relationships with their family and peer group; this is a major factor in their orientation to learning. The individuality of the person is secondary to the common goals of the whole group.

Coghill & Taylor (1991, p.2) quote Koch (1985, p.192):

No communicative function is served by minimising the difference between Aboriginal English and Standard Australian English. On the contrary an accurate understanding of the difference between the two communication codes can go a long way towards minimising the dangers of miscommunication.

The effective teacher of Aboriginal children

The school success of the Aboriginal students will depend to a large extent on their innate and perceptive skills in the interpretation of non-verbal language (kinesics). The students will know the feelings and attitudes of the teacher with unerring precision, regardless of the voice modulation and intonation. Erickson (1987) states "all children have the power to assent to learn". McDermott (1974) and Willis (1977) say children can resist learning. In tum it is the teacher who can promote a sense of pride in self, community interests, ethnic and cultural identity and must have a duty of care for the students. McInerney (1991) says "the school plays an important role in developing within children a belief in their capacity to learn." Good schools will respond to that need by instigating programs and structures which will maximise the student's potential.

Kleinfeld (1972, in Green, 1982) identifies the characteristics of effective teachers by the use of four major categories: traditionalists, sophisticates, supportive gadflies and sentimentalists, while Green (1982, p.125) outlines cultural factors which may inhibit effective teaching:

teachers, who in the confident assessment of personal worth, tend to underestimate the importance of such values to children who are being denied access to these social markers. Furthermore, teachers may be oblivious of their catalytic role as they generate positive or negative forces within the classroom.
Malin (1990) has studied the responses and the expectations of the teacher, the assumptions and values of two lifestyles, together with a combination of cultural differences, ideology, macro and micro political processes of the classroom and school. Malin (1990, p.312) defines the role of the teacher as "an equitable distributor of a number of resources ... time, affection, responsibility, encouragement and high expectations". The quality of these resources will largely determine the academic success or failure of Aboriginal students. With respect to this academic success or failure, Kale (1988, p.45) states "There is no doubt the most effective teachers of Aboriginal children are people from their home community or those who share their lifestyle."


If education is to be an effective tool to empower Aboriginal people, then the selection of suitable teachers is vital. So too is the need to implement Aboriginal studies into the curriculum immediately, and cross-cultural training on a larger scale must be implemented. With these also comes the need to recognise the diversity of Aboriginal people, their language and culture as fundamental to Aboriginal education.


Coghill, E. & Taylor, A. (1992). Language arts programme. Derby District High School.

Green, N. (1982). The classroom teacher's influence on the performance of Aboriginal children. In J. Sherwood (Ed.), Aboriginal Education issues and innovations. Perth: Creative Research.

Kale, J. (1988). For Aboriginal children in the earliest years of schooling. Aboriginal Child at School, 16(3).

Malin, M. (1990a). Why is life so hard for Aboriginal students in urban classrooms? Aboriginal Child at School, 18(1).

Malin, M. (1990b). The visibility and invisibility of Aboriginal students in an urban classroom. Australian Journal of Education, 34(3).

McInerney, D. (1991). Key determinants of motivation of non-traditional Aboriginal students in school settings: Recommendations for Educational Change. Australian Journal of Education, 35(2).

Author: Freda Ogilvie is a Nyoongar teacher, who has taught in the Kimberley for over four years, and spent over eight years in the Australian Public Service. Freda is a Life Member of the Perth Aboriginal Medical Services and a foundation member of the West Australian Aboriginal Education Consultative Group. In the period 1992-1993 Freda was on secondment to Murdoch University as Coordinator of the Aboriginal Education Unit. Now she has returned to the Kimberleys and to the classroom and is working at Halls Creek District High School.

Please cite as: Ogilvie, F. (1994). Education to empower: The role of the primary teacher in Aboriginal education. Issues In Educational Research, 4(1), 19-26.

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