Schools Be the change you want to see

Tanna Draper. Photo: Meredith O’Shea

She may only be in her second year of teaching English and Humanities, but endlessly enthusiastic Byellee and Kanaka woman Tanna Draper Nagas is already making a big impact at Lilydale Heights College.

The Aboriginal and South Sea Islander educator didn’t expect to step into a leadership role so soon into her freshly minted career, but she couldn’t say no to the newly established position of First Nations Advocate at the school.

“I would have loved a little more time to focus more on my actual teaching practice, but I was like, ‘Well, if I’m not gonna do it, I don’t feel comfortable with anyone else doing it’,” she says of stepping up. 

“I’m so excited, but I have a bit of imposter syndrome. I’m 23, so it’s weird having the responsibility to implement First Nations perspectives and culture in curriculum and within the community – and having that responsibility to guide staff members who are older than me, or have been in the game a lot longer, can be daunting. Some days I feel like I’m supposed to have a wealth of knowledge, but I’m like, ‘Actually, I don’t even know how to do my taxes’.” 

A few minutes listening to her speak, though, and there’s no doubt that Tanna is up to the job. Even though she only joined the school last year, and has spent a great deal of that time teaching remotely, she has already achieved a lot in the role. Welcome to Country plaques have been installed in every classroom, and she arranged the school’s NAIDOC Week celebrations. She sends out digital newsletters and has also set up a new club, Mob Mondays, which is open to all First Nations students and their allies. 


“I didn’t see anyone that looked like me in front of the classroom. One of the biggest recruitment strategies in higher education is Indigenous kids being taught by Indigenous teachers, so that’s why I wanted to become one.”

“Obviously it’s been hindered by the fact that we haven’t been able to meet in person, but I think the club is really important, because non-Indigenous students are in the majority at the school, and we need to show them that these issues are a priority in our classrooms and in society,” Tanna says.

The club is already helping to reshape the school, quite literally. “When other teachers want to implement First Nations perspectives into curriculum ideas, they tell me and then I ask the [Mob Monday] kids what they feel about it,” she says.

“We’ve also recently received funding from the state government for new works at our school, and it’s really cool, because even the architects have consulted them on what they would like to see in their new corridors, in terms of art and naming things. So I hope that it empowers them.”

Tanna is committed to being the change she wanted to see when she was at school. “I didn’t see anyone that looked like me in front of the classroom. One of the biggest recruitment strategies in higher education is Indigenous kids being taught by Indigenous teachers, so that’s why I wanted to become one.”

There are just 76 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teachers in Victoria’s public schools. “I learned that at the AEU First Nations Forum. So it’s really cool that I’m able to have that exposure to over 600 students.”

Achieving her dream means a lot to Tanna’s family. “My dad died when my mum was pregnant with me, and most of the Indigenous side of my family live near Country in Gladstone, but as a non-Indigenous woman, she was able to raise me with so much knowledge and care for culture.”

When we speak, Tanna can’t wait to get back in front of students, post-lockdown, and continue paving the way for even more positive change. “It goes back to the eight ways of Indigenous knowing. It’s very similar to storytelling. Being face-to-face is a really important step, not only for me building relationships with the Mob Monday members, but also for students being able to express themselves.”

And another thing…

The most important things I take into the classroom every day are… Passion, enthusiasm, and my laptop.

The most important things to leave at home are… I know some teachers have an in-school persona, but I don’t. I try to be as authentic as possible in front of everyone.

The best advice I ever received was…  The first thing that comes to mind is: ‘Be yourself, because everyone else is taken.’ But is that too corny?

My top piece of advice to someone starting out in education would be… Take everyone’s advice with a grain of salt. Find your own way. Everyone’s going to give you a million different opinions and preconceptions. You’re not actually going to know until you’re doing it for yourself. 

My favourite teacher at school was… My English teacher Mrs Schlueter. I was lucky enough to have her in Year 9 and then again in Year 12, and she was amazing. I don’t think I would have wanted to be an English teacher if I hadn’t had her, because she showed me how to develop a passion for it, and that was because she was so enthusiastic. She’s a legend. To this day, I always run into her at the shops.

The people I admire most are… My mum. She’s incredible. People say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but she’s a lifelong learner. She’s so intelligent. She’s a nurse and the passion that she has for her field, I think that’s really worn off on me.

The music or book that changed my life was…  When I was in high school, I was embarrassed about my Aboriginality. I wasn’t as proud as I am now and I think that was because I didn’t see it represented in my classroom. So when I read Talking to My Country by Stan Grant, I was like, ‘How is he looking into my heart right now?’ I’ve read it a million times. 

In my other life, I am… An interior designer. I think teaching will be a forever job. But I’d also really like to play around with houses all day.

If I met the state education minister, I’d tell him… To employ cultural educators in every school across Victoria.

The most important thing the union does for its members is… Create a safe environment that is supportive, where we all stand together in solidarity.

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