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10 May 2019

Teacher Feature – Jo-Ann Proctor, Howard Armstrong and Steve Van Nus, Victora

Jo-Ann Proctor, a proud Gunditjmara woman; Steve Van Nus, a proud Noongar man of the Bibbulmun peoples


Julie and Sarojni from the Narragunnawali team recently had the pleasure of meeting Koorie Education Support Officers (KESOs) Steve Van Nus, Jo-Ann Proctor and Howard Armstrong at a Stronger Smarter Leadership Program in Cherbourg, Queensland. KESOs play an important role in supporting Koorie children, students and their families with assistance to make the journey through primary and secondary school as seamless as possible. As knowledge holders and teachers, KESOs also provide support to Victorian teachers through professional development opportunities. Steve, Jo-Ann and Howard told us about ‘Cultural Understanding and Safety Training’ (CUST), a professional learning program facilitated by KESOs, which aligns with this year’s National Reconciliation Week theme Grounded in Truth: Walk Together with Courage. They shared their thoughts on how Australian teachers can become grounded in truth, and what it means to walk together with courage in the education context.

Steve, a proud Noongar man of the Bibbulmun peoples who works in the Hume area in Victoria, emphasised that “the CUST program is about truth telling”. Steve explained that he and his colleagues present history from Aboriginal perspectives to groups of teachers who they work with on a regular basis. Themes that are addressed during the training include impacts of colonisation, the Stolen Generations, missions and reserves, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural practices, cultural protocols such as Acknowledgement of Country, and sharing resources such as the Narragunnawali platform and creating a culturally inclusive environment within schools. Steve believes that teachers being grounded in truth means “knowing and sharing what Blackfellas have been through and acknowledging that.”

As part of ensuring that content is delivered in a way that is safe for them and accessible to teachers, they told us that KESOs often use personal stories to connect with teachers to help them to understand the ongoing impacts of our shared history as well as the impacts of intergenerational trauma on Aboriginal families today. Steve gave an example of a story he shares with teachers, “my Grandmother’s child was taken from her at birth against her will and given to a white family… from that moment on, the family moved every 3-6 months to keep out of reach of the government to prevent them from removing their six remaining children.” Jo-Ann, a proud Gunditjmara woman also told us she shares personal family stories during CUST sessions. Jo-Ann says that she tells her stories when it feels right because “teachers need to understand Aboriginal people and their history.” This story sharing takes strength and courage, and each KESO shared with us a similar wish for teachers to be courageous too.

Upon reflecting on how teachers receive these stories, Steve said that “Some are shocked, some emotionally moved, 90% tell us they love hearing the personal stories.” Jo-Ann told us that “it can be heavy and there’s lots to absorb, we ask people to let us know how they’re coping and to take a break if they need to. We constantly check in.” It seems that it also takes courage to hear and accept stories that challenge some teachers by presenting a different version of history to the one they may have learnt during their own education, one that is typically left out of text books. Steve highlighted that some teachers are more receptive to these stories and content than others and said, “when we reach a few people and change their attitude, it’s worth it. All we are asking is that teachers be more proactive, with integrity and respect.”

Other than respectfully listening to personal stories, we asked how teachers can demonstrate walking together with courage. Howard, a Ngadjonjii man who works in the Echuca region, said teachers should “go out of their way to build relationships.” Jo-Ann said “teachers need to be courageous by not being scared to ask questions.” She encouraged teachers to get involved in community events, to “go to the footy or come to community celebrations, they’re not just for Koorie people, they’re for anyone!”

So far, the CUST program has had a positive impact in the schools throughout Victoria. Teachers have gained insight into the experiences of Aboriginal people by listening to their stories. “We see more of a commitment to wanting to put truths within their teaching in their classrooms and more commitment to making the school culturally safe,” Steve commented. Howard believes that all teachers should engage with similar training because “they can’t know what they don’t know until they learn it.”

If you would like to plan professional learning that includes an element of truth telling through sharing of personal stories in your school or early learning service, take a look at the following resources: Cultural Competence for Staff and Elders and Traditional Owners Share Histories and Stories for ideas. Big thanks to Steve, Jo-Ann and Howard for the work that they do, and for chatting with us about their experiences as KESOs.