Schools ‘Deadly’ doors to reconciliation

A trip to New Mexico was the spark for one primary teacher to connect with First Nations culture back home and develop her school’s Reconciliation Action Plan.
She spoke to RACHEL POWER about the process.

Each year, a small group of staff at Elwood Primary School travel to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to take part in a study tour run by relational learning specialist George Otero. In 2015, teacher Chloe Lumsden, then in her second year as a graduate teacher, took up the opportunity, and it was there – on the other side of the world – that she was inspired to make connections with First Nations people back in Australia.

“We were watching an Easter ritual, and saw these ancient principles come into play, and my colleague and I thought, ‘We want to go to the Northern Territory and see how we might incorporate Indigenous practices’ into our teaching. Then we thought, ‘Why would we go to the NT when we’ve got First Nations people in Victoria and in Elwood?’

Initially, Chloe wanted to set up an ‘Indigenous Team’ at the school. First stop was the local council to find out the best way to approach First Nations leaders and elders in the area. “I spoke to [Indigenous Policy Officer at City of Port Phillip] Todd Condie. He asked, ‘Is there anyone Indigenous on your team? If not, why are you calling yourself the Indigenous Team?’ That was my first realisation!”

“Why would we go to the NT when we’ve got First Nations people in Victoria and in Elwood?”

Todd introduced them to the Boon Wurrung Foundation, the local land council preserving and protecting ancestral lands, waterways, practices and stories. (The school now also works with the Bunurong Land Council.) Chloe started attending Boon Wurrung events and focused on making connections with the local First Nations community. “That first year was about building relationships and respecting that they were the ones with the knowledge and we were not sharing knowledge without them.”

The ‘Indigenous Team’ became the ‘Reconciliation Team’ – helping staff incorporate First Nations history, knowledge, and perspectives into their lessons, and ensuring the recognition of Indigenous culture and practices at school events. Members take turns to be ‘team lead’. “It’s rare that the work becomes excessive, but you’re in that role because you’re passionate about it,” Chloe says.

Next stop was developing a Reconciliation Action Plan for Elwood Primary. “I felt this could be something I could take to school council, have it referred to on policies; it was a document for departmental purposes and to demonstrate the ideas to some of our staff.”

“We worked really hard on developing the school as the ‘second teacher’, so being a safe environment for families and students and for discussions about those topics.”

As an ally and not a spokesperson, Chloe sought the advice of Caroline Martin, a Boonwurrung, Wemba Wemba, Barapa Barapa and Trawlwoolway woman, and a Senior Custodian of Boonwurrung Country. Having those connections meant there were people they could consult on any questions that arose, such as the appropriate names for buildings. “That couldn’t have happened if we hadn’t focused on forging those relationships first,” says Chloe.

As part of its plan, the school installed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags, displayed a framed copy of ‘The Apology’ in the school office, and ran a competition for students to create the ‘Deadliest Door’ for their classroom, so everyone would “know straight away that this was a safe place”.

All Year 3 students started doing a term-long unit investigating Bunurong history, culture, perspectives, and traditional practices, and looking at what the word ‘reconciliation’ means. “We do a 65,000-year visual timeline – one metre for every thousand years, and 235 years since colonisation, or just 23.5cm in the timeline.”

“You almost always see some of the grandparents saying, ‘I didn’t know any of that!’”

The students then present their knowledge at the school’s annual Reconciliation Assembly. “Every Year 3 level gets excited that it’s their turn to host,” Chloe says. “Students get to choose what part of their learning they want to share with the broader community, along with a song by a First Nations artist (Briggs was the most recent choice), and present that along with their own interpretation.

“Every year is a little bit different. But you almost always see some of the grandparents saying, ‘I didn’t know any of that!’”

Now, reconciliation is on the agenda for every team, and often the focus for staff professional learning, with some undertaking courses in art or play-based investigation with a First Nations focus. Having the support of the leadership team has been central to making the Reconciliation Action Plan work, says Chloe.

“Both of our principals across the time we were developing the plan were on board. They are not on the Reconciliation Team, but they have always facilitated staff meeting time, budget, and PD, which allows you to embed all those learnings across the staff.”

However, the process needs to be driven by the team, she adds. “The team meets twice a term for an hour, but we often have lunchtime chats or catch-ups to discuss the focus for that term.

“Everyone knows they can contact anyone on that team to find the correct resources or know the best language to use. Now, when these issues come up, even the principal can say, ‘Go speak to the Reconciliation Team’.”

The greatest challenge to incorporating First Nations perspectives is the fear among some staff members of “getting it wrong”, says Chloe. “Then there are those who feel like it’s just another thing on their shoulders – and we well and truly understand that feeling. We work really well with teachers who are fearful but engaged and want to get it right.”

Her advice to others who want to establish their own Reconciliation Action Plan is not to get too focused on achieving all the actions and deliverables within 12 months on top of an already heavy classroom load. “Don’t think you’re not having an impact if you can’t do all of them. They’re all important but it will take a while.”

For Chloe, it’s been especially gratifying to see the plan continue to flourish throughout her periods away on maternity leave. “I’ve gone back into teaching Year 5, and those students would’ve been in Prep when we launched the plan, so to see what they know – straight off the bat – they just assume it’s what we do.”

Resources for creating your Reconciliation Action Plan

Reconciliation Victoria

Reconciliation Australia

Victorian Department of Education

Federal Department of Education

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