Australian Council of Deans of Education logoThe following are descriptions and reflections from Indigenous people studying in teacher education, with suggested implications for institutional structures and procedures, student support and course content.

The stories are based on common experiences from extensive interviews with students in every state and territory as part of MATSITI and ACDE research in 2012.

Teacher Education Case Studies


Julie – in mainstream teacher education at a large urban university

Julie enrolled at university, straight out of school and was doing pretty well academically … so well in fact that she was successfully nominated on the basis of her results for a faculty-based Indigenous scholarship at the end of her first year. While she holds an Indigenous scholarship she openly says she ‘is invisible to the lectures, to the university even’ … yet – she does have a very strong relationship with the Centre where she does her assignments and draws on ITAS support – several people in the Centre know her family and she describes it as ‘a place I like to go’.

She feels that much of her success is a direct result of three things – the Centre, the financial support that her scholarship provides and the support that her ITAS tutors are able to give.

Actually she is being very modest as it also about how hard she has worked. While she excels across most of her degree, and likes most courses – she has struggled to pass what she describes as ‘this $%#%* compulsory Maths course’ and then there’s the Indigenous studies unit. In some ways she says it was affirming – but because her Aboriginality is ‘not visible’, she recounts how she ‘sometimes has to listen to a lot of ignorance and resistance from the other students who don’t know she is Aboriginal and this “really, really really hurts’.

She says, ‘It felt awful to keep my mouth shut when I heard what they were saying – but I didn’t know what to do. I think I’m the only Aboriginal student in my year’.  She found a lot of non-Aboriginal students taking the Indigenous studies unit were negative about the content and this made her feel wary about stating her opinions. She wishes there were more Aboriginal students to relate to, and more Aboriginal lecturers and says openly that she is surprised not to see Aboriginal business except in the Centre – ‘no faces on posters’, ‘no mention full stop’.

Throughout her 1st and 2nd years at university she maintains a high GPA … but it all starts to unwind during the first semester of her 3rd year as she struggles to juggle her studies with a range of community obligations that include taking care of her sister’s baby for a while. At the end of the semester, she receives a form or standard letter from the university telling her that her scholarship is going to be withdrawn due to the fact she failed to complete certain units that semester. Suddenly this exceptional preservice teacher is on the cusp of having to drop out.

While she is offered the option of studying part-time she feels embarrassed at having lost her scholarship. She is first in family to attend university and many people around her have been building her up as a leader … she acutely feels the pressure.

While we suspect the there are many stories similar to Julie’s that don’t end well, in this case the School of Education and Centre had good lines of communication open and they were able to quickly revise the conditions of the specific scholarship that Julie held. This enabled her to continue the program with financial support and Julie will graduate half way through 2013, out of step, but graduate nonetheless.

At present Julie is maintaining a GPA in the top 20% across the majority of her courses.

What can we learn from Julie?

Institutional structures & procedures

  • Regular review and support for scholarship students
  • Greater Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander presence on Campus

Student support

  • Centres and ITAS tutors are often crucial to student support
  • Academic success is not solely the responsibly of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Higher Education Centre
  • Schools/Faculties to be more aware of Faculty/School-based scholarship holders

Course progression

  • Mainstream Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students may be invisible to School/Faculty

Course content

  • Indigenous knowledges crucial for all students, but different issues arise for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students who may (though do not always) feel unsafe in compulsory Units.

Jack – from a regional town attending an urban, mainstream university

Jack grew up in a small town that serviced a rural community where he knew no other kids who had gone on to university. While he didn’t do that well in high school, he completed a foundation course after lots of encouragement from a family member and entered university via an alternative entry route.

At 19, he moved to the Capital City of his state to start an Arts degree (majoring in History). It wasn’t long, however, before he started to experience loneliness and cultural dislocation. He repeatedly told us how he missed his family and his community and that in his first year how much he hated the city ‘I had no friends or family’. He described how he felt like an outsider in that first year – he couldn’t figure out how to access scholarships, didn’t know how to take books out of the library, couldn’t find his lecture rooms – in general he found the size of the campus daunting and he struggled throughout his first semester – well before the end of his first year he dropped out and returned to the rural town where he was born and once again began to hang out with his mates.

The turn around for Jack happened when a contact from the Centre followed up and encouraged him to return to his studies. This was helped by the fact that he had family members who were teachers who also encouraged him to re enrol into an Initial Teacher Education course. He now spends his spare time working and hanging out in the Centre – ‘it’s quiet and I like it – Yeah it’s the first place I go when I arrive every day’ – ‘You know I’ve had the same ITAS tutor for 4 years’. While Jack didn’t initially like to ask for help he has increasingly sought out individual mainstream tutors and lecturers who he finds are helpful.

Jack presented as having no specific needs and he describes himself as someone who generally gets through problems on his own and doesn’t like to ask for help. He is now in his fourth year and doing great – he is out of step as he still has a couple of third year courses to complete because he had three funerals last year. Jack opened up when we talk about his field or professional experience as he had a ‘hostile’ encounter in his first school ‘You wouldn’t send your worst enemy to that school”. He heard a lot of racist comments in the staffroom from teachers who were saying things like ‘All my Aboriginal students are hopeless’. He found the experience silencing and disempowering. Personally, he wishes he had been able to do his prac with an Aboriginal supervising teacher. He raises the point that he was offered a chance to reflect on this experience in one of his university assignment which he found very helpful.

Jack now mentors other Indigenous students and has a close relationship with the Head of School of Education and a couple of other lecturers who have, together with the Centre, worked closely to support Jack – they continue to monitor his progress. Jack continues to do well and can’t wait to get out of the city again next year – he is looking forward to hopefully teaching next year in a rural town close to where he grew up.

What can we can learn from Jack?

Institutional structures & procedures

  • Flexible pathways, exit and re-entry points can allow students to return when ready and supported

Student support

  • Personal relationships often make the difference
  • Relationships between Schools/Faculties and Centres may provide timely support
  • Mentoring makes a difference

Course content

  • Schools/Faculties can provide avenues for students to reflect and debrief on things such as racism
  • Increased sensitivity and awareness towards a host of issues that may arise during professional experience

Cindy – from teaching assistant to teacher in a remote school

Cindy lives in the remote community where she grew up. Now in her 30s, Cindy didn’t have a lot of formal schooling herself, but grew up with culture primarily from her grandmother who taught her to ‘trust her heart and mind’. She speaks English as a third language. At thirteen, Cindy left school to work in tourism with her father but after many years working as a guide she decided that what she really liked was working with children – so she got a job as a teaching assistant.

In her current job at the school, Cindy takes on many roles. She and the other Aboriginal teaching assistants do most of the behaviour management and they train the new non-Indigenous teachers who stay on average, she says, around 6 months. Without the teaching assistants, ‘the kids go crazy and the teachers don’t speak language’. They are crucial to the school. After a while she started to ‘feel used’ and decided she wanted to be the teacher instead of working for the teacher.

When she first enrolled at university (which ‘took forever’ since she did not know how to enrol online) she thought, ‘Oh my god, I’m going to die. It was so scary’. On top of English as a third language, the academic literacy was very difficult and the speed of the course has been tough though the university has been quite flexible. She has come in and out of her course, mostly because it was hard for her to be away from family and country, but she is back now, and appreciates her remote area cohort program because ‘it embraces what I have to offer’, i.e. her cultural knowledge.

Cindy talked a lot about the pressures of working full time in a school as well as studying full-time. She talked about ‘school pressures’ – that despite encouraging her to become a teacher the school she works in is not that supportive of her taking time to study or giving her time for her professional experience (practicum). She also talked about how she doesn’t get paid while on field experience and suggested she didn’t get treated the same as non-Indigenous pre-service teachers, for instance ‘I’m not entitled to teacher accommodation while on prac’. She explains field experience as a ‘prickly issue’.

While Cindy had nothing but praise for her lecturers and tutors, she did find having to take an Indigenous Studies unit intended for non-Indigenous students ‘a bit weird’ and she feels it is hard for her to be as selfish as she is required to be to study – there are a lot of people depending on her.

What can we learn from Cindy?

Institutional structures & procedures

  • Flexibility may make it possible to for students to complete their course where otherwise they would drop out

Student support

  • Students commonly need help with enrolment procedures and online learning
  • Students commonly express a variety of issues related to field experience – these issues require attention both in remote and urban programs.
  • Universities must recognize the community responsibilities of many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students
  • Partnerships between communities, schools and faculties are crucial in easing study for remote area Education students. Support has to come from all three sources.

Course content

  • While Indigenous Studies units are positive, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students should be recognized as having different requirements.

Narratives provided courtesy Queensland University of Technology (QUT) Faculty of Education researchers as part of the MATSITI and Australian Council of Deans of Education project:

Improving graduation and retention of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in initial teacher education.

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