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INDIGENOUS

Sally Mackander’s transformation of her Indigenous students’ attitude to school started with a novel way of getting their parents on side. BY ROM ROGERS

Happy snaps

PHOTOGRAPHY BY ANTHONY MCKEE

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s a teacher with an allIndigenous class at Clyde Fenton Primary School in Katherine in the Northern Territory, Sally Mackander was aware from previous experience that going out into the community and getting to know the students’ parents would be crucial. But many parents had only ever heard from teachers when there was negative feedback about their children, and many were reluctant to deal with school staff due to their own experiences as children. Whenever they saw the school bus coming, “they’d run a hundred miles”, she says. Mackander used a simple but ingenious method to break the cycle. She bought a mobile phone, took photos of the children’s work and texted it to their parents. “When the children got home, they were able to talk about what they did at school in a positive light, rather than how they got into trouble that day,” Mackander says. Parents loved receiving the texts so much, it wasn't long before they were chasing Mackander to make sure she had their phone number. Now that there was a dialogue between the teacher, the kids and their parents, relationships and attitudes became more positive. The school started seeing marked improvements in attendance, behaviour and academic outcomes. “If you have a good relationship with parents, they're going to send their kids to school,” says Mackander, who followed up with a creative approach to teaching that made the children feel welcome and excited about coming to school.

Award winner

Song of pride

Mackander, who was recently appointed principal at Wugularr School in Katherine, is the 2016 recipient of the AEU’s Arthur Hamilton Award for an outstanding contribution to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education. Sandy Bennett, a colleague at Clyde Fenton Primary, says part of Mackander's success was that she centred the lessons on the interests of the children and made them feel proud of their achievements. For example, during literacy lessons, the children relished the opportunity to talk about local stories they knew from their families. “You say to them, 'I don't understand this story, what's the purpose of it?' and they'll be able to tell you. It gets them talking and sharing ideas,” says Bennett. Mackander also taught students and staff to understand that the ability to speak Katherine creole and other local languages is an important and legitimate part of the children's identity.

With the guidance of Mackander and a colleague, the children wrote a song using a mixture of English and local language words, and performed it at a school concert. “You could see there was so much pride,” says Bennett. Mackander went further, teaching staff about cultural awareness and conducting night classes for parents on how to help their children with numeracy and literacy, and building on their technology skills. Now in her new role as principal at Wugularr School, she says she’s getting to know the community again. “It’s about getting yourself known and becoming part of a bigger picture, so we can accelerate kids' learning.” l Rom Rogers is a teacher and freelance writer.

If you have a good relationship with parents, they're going to send their kids to school.

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Educator winter 2016  

http://www.aeufederal.org.au/application/files/1014/6605/8391/Educator_Winter_2016.pdf