Gifted teachers inspire kids and snap ‘war zone’ perceptions

Inspiring Torres Strait Islanders with English as a second language is part of the toolkit for a new breed of teachers trained to work in Australia’s most challenging and remote classrooms.

Brisbane-based pre-service teacher Jess Micallef wondered whether she had arrived on another planet, not an island paradise off Queensland, when she had to translate lessons from Kulkalgau Ya into English.

As she explored the nuances of the dialect spoken only on the central islands of the Torres Strait, she realised adaptation and empathy were imperative to connect with school children who had no equivalent word in their traditional language for his or her.

“The children only speak English at school so when they referred to me, they’d call me mister. Little things like that,” the Australian Catholic University student recalled of the communication challenges she faced during her month-long professional experience teaching placement on Coconut Island.

“You’ve got to get the students to write things their way and then translate back to English.”

It was there, in a classroom at Tagai State College’s Poruma (Coconut Island) Campus, a journey of four flights from her home, that the penny truly dropped. As welcoming as the island’s 210 local inhabitants were – the population can fluctuate due to island-hopping - they needed to know their teachers were invested.

Immersed teachers encourage engaged students and when that occurs, learning flourishes.

“On the first day the children didn’t want to know me, didn’t want to listen,” Ms Micallef said.

“That afternoon I took them outside to play sport and they loved it. You see them in the afternoons. You swim with them, hunt with them, go fishing with them.”

“Once they knew I cared there was a real connection.”

Literacy and numeracy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students with English as an additional language was underlined as a priority for further development in the Australian Government’s Closing the Gap Report.

Teacher quality as the most significant in-school determinant of student achievement is the key and Ms Micallef is part of an ACU initiative aimed at developing more resilient and resourceful teachers.

Ms Micallef, who will in 2020 enter her final year of study at ACU, was selected by educational sociologist Bruce Burnett to join the National Exceptional Teaching for Disadvantaged Schools Program (NETDS).

The program targets the highest-performing pre-service teachers across seven participating universities nationwide. These budding educators are then immersed into challenging high-poverty school communities or, as Professor Burnett puts it, “NETDS places some of the most talented and gifted teachers in front of kids who need them the most”.

“It puts to rest urban myths that paint some of these schools as war zones,” he said. “The kids are the same as in any other school and they are incredibly rewarding places to teach.”

Since its inception in 2010, more than 600 high-achieving teacher graduates have experienced professional experience teaching placements with ACU in low socio-economic school communities.

NETDS pre-service teachers in 2019 were distributed across Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane schools as well as scattered across more remote locations such as the Torres Strait in the far north to Jundah and Windorah in the west and Wagga Wagga and the Upper Hunter in the south. Some taught classes in one-teacher schools with as few as four students.

They develop a unique set of skills in very different settings to leafy-green urban schools with this experience not only building their resilience, but just as importantly debunking the notion that these schools are unattractive places to begin a teaching career.

“Unless you’ve been there you can’t understand,” Ms Micallef said of her Coconut Island experience. “It would be my dream to work somewhere like that.”

With funding from the Origin Energy Foundation, Origin's philanthropic foundation, to take the NETDS program to scale, NETDS participants have taught in more than 250 schools.

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