How to prepare yourself to teach Aboriginal studies

Teaching Aboriginal studies? Here are some tips & resources that help you prepare yourself and avoid common mistakes.

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The first thing you need to do is learn about Aboriginal culture, people, challenges and highlights. One way of doing that is browsing this website and joining my community of Smart Owls (my newsletter).

When a group of 600 teacher trainees in Brisbane self-assessed their level of knowledge about Aboriginal culture, most selected 'little' to 'some'. Less than one third of them had met and spoken with an Aboriginal person .

If you have little knowledge you might unconsciously teach your own stereotypes. Of those teacher trainees, many had already formed negative opinions about Aboriginal people, often from unbalanced media coverage. You need to recognise unlearn negative stereotypes you hold.

A common pitfall is that teachers think they have to replace or erase the Aboriginality of their students . Cultural awareness training for teachers is one way how you can avoid such 'soft racism'. "Culturally uneducated" staff is one of the reasons for low rates of Aboriginal school attendance .

If you can face the true history of Australia and not hold back on its appalling elements, if you can 'own' this history fully, you'll be a much better teacher.


The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority provides free notes for teachers which help you to appropriately embed Aboriginal science in the curriculum from K-10 (Years 7–10).

Expect your Aboriginal students to excel

Sometimes teachers don't understand why some Aboriginal students are not learning and ascribe it to their 'Aboriginality' rather than trying to find out the real reason. They dumb down schooling content to accommodate the alleged 'slowness' of Aboriginal children .

Driven by their preconceived views, non-Aboriginal teachers might expect Aboriginal students to underperform. Because they are Aboriginal, teachers assume these kids will not be able to keep up or ever reach the level of non-Aboriginal students—a dangerous assumption.

No matter how brilliantly Aboriginal children perform, teachers with such views will always be very critical and won't encourage them because they've already accepted, and expect, that they will fail.

Grouping students like this is not confined to teaching Aboriginal students. A study of 600 teachers across 82 UK high schools found that 74% of the teachers expected more from high-performing students and did repetition and rehearsal with low-performing students. Teachers also said they thought lower-achieving students were less able to learn independently without monitoring and support – an assumption that creates a "cycle of restricted opportunity", as the study's authors found. 

Wiradjuri woman Linda Burney remembers going to school and "being told that my capacity was limited by my race and that my potential was capped by expectation". Defying the expectations of her teacher, she went on to become Australia's first female Aboriginal member of the House of Representatiaves in Canberra.

Avoid falling into this often unconscious trap. Have high expectations for all your students. Try seeing the future academic, lawyer or leader. Inspire them to see the same.

I said to a lot of kids throughout the year 'Blackfella kids can do anything. In fact, I expect you to do anything'. That's the attitude we have to have.

— Mick Dodson, Law Professor and Indigenous Australian of the Year 2009

Story: "I was really hungry for education" – From scrubbing floors to Alumnus of the Year

Victoria Close is a member of the Stolen Generations. Her journey teaches us about stereotypes, but also what one can achieve .

"[As a little girl] I pinched one of the exercise books [which had times tables and measurement conversion charts printed on the back] and taught myself the times tables... I was really hungry for education and I tried to learn everything I possibly could. But when I went to school [at the children's home] I didn't know anything, all I did at the home was scrub floors.

"Eventually I was fostered out... and they put me in a school, into sixth class. The principal called me up and asked if I was Aboriginal. I said 'Yes' and he said 'Don't you understand you can't educate Aborigines?' and of course they sent me back to the home.

"From there I made my own way and eventually got jobs. I must have had a couple of thousand jobs. I conned myself into a job, learned a little bit, then a little bit more and finally ended up as a nurse."

After several marriages and rearing her own children Victoria applied to study a social science degree at university. She was 58.

"I topped the uni, and received an award in recognition of outstanding scholastic achievement and excellence, and the Golden Key International Honours Society scholar award at the same time for outstanding academic merit.

"When I was at the home they would lock me in the cupboard with the chamber pots, locked in there sometimes for six hours with the chamber pots right around, you couldn't bend down and sit, and your legs would be screaming out in pain, or they'd flog you til you had welts, or make you scrub the floor with brushes with short bristles, and then they'd make you do it again till your fingers bled.

"They didn't win, I won. I'm the one who realised my dreams of education."

On April 28, 2012, the University of Southern Queensland awarded Victoria her PhD and named her Education Faculty Alumnus of the Year.

We've got to make sure while our young people are educated that they don't become blackfellas in white skin. They need to be educated blackfellas so we don't lose our culture.

— Dr Victoria Close

Watch an interview with Dr Victoria Close, 2012 USQ Alumnus of the Year for the Faculty of Education:

Gently unearth Australia's true history

Australians have a "schizophrenic" understanding of their own past, says Stolen Generations member, Leone Pope, who gives talks at universities and TAFEs.

"On the one hand you have the glossy Australian patriotism, where it's pretended everything is okay and then you have a seething undercurrent, knowing that things aren't all right," she says .

Often students are shocked to learn the truth about Australia's history. And many only learn it once they have left school.

As a teacher, you need to prepare students for the dark chapters of Australia's history so they're not shocked when they learn about the massacres, the abuse, racism and discrimination.

Start by knowing, and owning, this history yourself. Then read Aboriginal sources to get another perspective.

The ignorance displayed by today's politicians on the topic of Indigenous peoples is not an unexplainable Darwinian phenomenon, but rather the consequence of an education journey devoid of a genuine Indigenous perspective.

— Stephen Hagan, Aboriginal activist, author and film-maker

Use the AIATSIS Map of Aboriginal Australia as a visual reminder of the diversity of Aboriginal culture, and that all nations have their own names, languages and boundaries.

Mind your language

Jason Glanville, a Wiradjuri man from central New South Wales and inaugural CEO of the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence in Redfern, warns about the dangers of using the wrong language.

"Language is important. At the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence (NCIE) we like to use language that talks to ‘liberating possibility’," he says. Even difficult circumstances shouldn't prevent us from achieving and being happy.

"Every generation, Indigenous or not, wants something more, wants something different, and it’s no different for this generation of young blackfellas. So why talk about disadvantage and exclusion when we can talk about innovation, excellence and opportunity?"

For this change to happen, teachers need to look closely to how they communicate to, and about, Aboriginal students.

"The language of disadvantage has legitimised Governments and others to play in the space, to frame the issue in the negative. It is a short step from here to engaging with, investing in and ultimately trying to solve the problems that impact on the lives of blackfellas across the country with a view that disadvantage is the accepted default position or ambition for our mob. We talk about the beautiful continent and the inheritance of the oldest continuous living culture but then condemn people through our language and actions to a future framed in disadvantage."

The following negative example is taken from a Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) of a company:

"Our RAP helps us play a role in addressing the dispossession, disadvantage and hardship faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as a direct result of the removal of their land, children and culture."

Ouch. This would be better:

"Our RAP is a business plan that uses a holistic approach to create meaningful relationships, enhance respect and promote sustainable opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians."


Contact the NSW Aboriginal Education Consultative Group. Their teachers can help you teach the correct pronunciations and proper interpretations of words.

Give students a strong cultural identity

Leading educator and Aboriginal man Dr Chris Sarra wants teachers to convey a sense of identity to Aboriginal students. "If schools seek only to make Aboriginal children smart, without developing any positive sense of cultural identity, then we do little more than assimilate them into the mainstream. In this circumstance, we all lose," he says .

If teachers, parents, principals and Elders work together to form a "circle of support", Aboriginal education could succeed to motivate children to read, even outside school . The Deadly ReadAthon programme was a one-term read-for-one-day concept created in Cowra, NSW. The program proved very successful and helped Aboriginal students feel appreciated at school.

How can you do this? Know about what it means to be Aboriginal, the challenges Aboriginal students face, but also what gives them strength culturally and spiritually, the inherent opportunities everyone has if they own two cultures.

When [teacher] John Muldoon in Third Form told me not to listen to anyone in the world and said I could write, I was amazed, I believed him.

— Rhonda Roberts, who went on to become a journalist, writer, and arts and cultural specialist

[I was] made to stand up in front of the class one day and told [I] was a 'dunce [dumb person] who would never achieve anything'.

— Memory of Alex Gater

If you are also teaching physical education, Yulunga Traditional Indigenous Games is a valuable resource with individual PDFs of traditional Aboriginal games and sports for children (and adults) of all ages and abilities.

Story: Jharny Love: "Like switching codes"

18-year-old Aboriginal student, Jharny Love, was the first of her 11 siblings to complete Year 12 at school. She recounts what made her achieve .

"The teachers who had the best influence on me were the ones who had knowledge about my background, did not come down heavy on me for some of the bad choices I made, but had high expectations on me to achieve. I realise now that teachers who don't have high expectations that Aboriginal students can achieve are showing racist behaviour.

"The adults I felt positive about understood there were factors of disadvantage I needed to overcome. For example, money for projects or for trips or whatever. They provided money without giving me shame.

"Shame is so important though—any public correction, being singled out, has the 'shame factor' and that can result in violent behaviour. Similarly, drawing attention to being late meant I wouldn't go at all.

"I did best at school when I was not told to do something, but given a model of what was appropriate. I didn't want to copy it, but having a model gave me confidence to tackle my assignments.

"One turning point was switching from using Aboriginal English in my written work to standard English. This was like switching codes, and my mentor understood this. This happened while maintaining respect for my first language."

Use Aboriginal books to your advantage

You can make a huge difference to an Aboriginal child or teenager by giving them a book written by someone just like them. Palyku writer and lecturer Ambelin Kwaymullina has some tips for you how to use Aboriginal books in the classroom:

  • Check your library collection. Assess the books by Aboriginal writers in your library. If the library doesn't have any, begin to build a collection. You can source them from Aboriginal publishers. Magabala Books has a great range of children and young adult books. Start with the Aboriginal publishers, then add books published by other publishers.
  • Let go of Western concepts. If something needs to work in an Aboriginal environment, Western ways are often not working. For example, a small East Arnhem Land community reorganised their library books according to local Aboriginal concepts, ditching the commonly used Dewey Decimal System. Considered a "quiet revolution", it arranged books according to key cultural aspects of Aboriginal life and are categorised in language. Instead of categories like fiction and non-fiction, the Aboriginal system uses art, language, culture, customs, natural environment and true stories, among others.
  • Know your books. Read your books. Understand the diversity of Aboriginal literature which in turn shows the diversity of Aboriginal people. As you engage with the books, you will be able to engage others.
  • Watch out for bias. How do you approach Aboriginal books? Do you see them as ‘issues’ books, or as books that are only relevant to Aboriginal people? Check yourself for internalised biases and assumptions that may affect the way you look at the books. Are the narratives you’ve unconsciously absorbed about Aboriginal people affecting how you view their books, and how you talk about them?
  • Promote Aboriginal books. It's easy to draw attention to Aboriginal books and incorporate them into student learning during NAIDOC week or National Reconciliation Week. But think of other opportunities to engage your students with the reality of a diverse world, including Aboriginal stories. A significant Aboriginal day? A particular season or topic?

Bruce Pascoe's book Dark Emu has been the most popular recommendation from my community. He's also published a version aimed at upper primary students called Young Dark Emu.

Marcia Langton’s Welcome to Country: Schools Edition which covers prehistory, post-colonial history, language, kinship, knowledge, art, performance, storytelling, native title, the Stolen Generations, making a rightful place for first Australians and looking to the future for Aboriginal Australia. It also has a handy teacher’s guide for how to use it for years 7-10.

Beware of the 'halo effect'

Did you know that you are very likely to favour certain students? And that this happens totally unconsciously?

As a teacher you are most likely more positive towards good-looking students and those who you know to work hard despite the challenges they are facing. This is called the 'halo effect'.

Students you think have unfavourable characteristics can receive up to 5 marks less (out of 100) which could mean the difference between a pass or a fail, or a distinction and a high distinction.

This unconscious bias also works against those considered less gifted or having a learning disability, and many teachers put Aboriginal students into this category.

The only way to combat the halo effect is anonymous or blind marking where students' names are taken off their assessments and marked by teachers from different classes.

Prepare yourself for where you teach

If you are teaching in remote communities it is vital that you prepare yourself for that environment. Governments across Australia struggle to find trained teachers willing to live in some of the most remote corners of the country. Many arrive unprepared, with no experience of working in Aboriginal communities.

It takes a long time for them to understand the context they are working in and the turnover is high.

The average stay of teachers in remote communities is only between 8 to 15 months.

On average, teachers posted to a remote community stay only about 15 months.

— Brenda Keenan, Deputy Director of Teaching, Catholic Education Office, Melbourne

Find out your local Aboriginal Land Council and ask for advice and how you can be culturally sensitive and respectful.

Poem: Djhuma

She sat there with a dumb look on her face,
She really didn't understand the class,
She didn't know the answers,
And she was too afraid to ask.

In the back row is where she sat,
Away from the teacher's eyes,
'Cause she always seemed to get things wrong,
No matter how hard she tried.

Then one day she thinks what the heck,
I don't belong here anyway,
So she left school at just 12 years old,
She never looked back that day.

Alcohol, drugs, became her friend,
Then she met the drug Mr Ice,
It made her feel like she belonged,
It made her feel warm and nice.

She then had her 14th birthday,
And instead of playing with her toys,
There was no cake, no party
Instead she gave birth to a baby boy.

When baby got taken away by the police,
She gave up all her dreams and hopes,
And instead of growing into a beautiful person,
They found her hanging by a rope.

No one cared and no one cried,
And I think would she'd be here today,
If only she didn't sit in that back row,
If only the teacher looked her way.

Poem by Colleen Kitchener. Read more Aboriginal poems.


View article sources (22)

[1] [1a] 'Mandatory training a welcome first step', Koori Mail 440 p.60
[2] 'Inclusion gets a tick at preschools', Sun Herald 14/10/2012
[3] 'System under attack', Koori Mail 421 p.55
[4] 'Selective schooling might not be lifting anyone, study finds', SMH 23/3/2018
[5] 'Parliament's gaudy scandal eclipses quiet achievers', SMH 3/9/2016
[6] 'For Mick Dodson, the work goes on', Koori Mail 468 p.21
[7] [7a] 'How Dr Close became a winner', Koori Mail 525 p.21
[8] 'Alliance hosts Parlt seminar', Koori Mail 520 p.10
[9] 'Look back on'08', Koori Mail 441 p.21
[10] 'Liberating Digital Possibilities', Jason Glanville, in: Making the Connection: Essays in Indigenous Digital Excellence, Telstra Foundation, 2014, p.35
[11] loc. cit., p.37
[12] 'Our time now!', Koori Mail 456 p.21
[13] 'Reading program a winner in Cowra', Koori Mail 499 p.14
[14] 'Spark that ignited', Koori Mail 506 p.35
[15] 'The Gentle Warrior', Koori Mail 474 p.21
[16] 'Jharny defies all the odds', Koori Mail 407 p.55
[17] 'What teachers and school librarians can do to support Indigenous books', Ambelin Kwaymullina, guest post on, retrieved 22/5/2017
[18] 'Galiwin'ku library closes book on the Dewey Decimal System to prioritise Yolngu culture', ABC News 22/8/2018
[19] 'The 'halo effect' that helps beautiful students get better marks', The Age 1/9/2016
[20] [20a] 'Plan to target more remote area teachers', Koori Mail 447 p.28
[21] 'Get the children to school: Garrett', Koori Mail 516 p.14
[22] 'If only...', Koori Mail 500 p.25

Cite this page

Korff, J 2021, How to prepare yourself to teach Aboriginal studies, <>, retrieved 20 May 2024

Creative Spirits is a starting point for everyone to learn about Aboriginal culture. Please use primary sources for academic work.

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