Schools Postcard from Arnhem Land

Preschool and primary teacher Louise Cooke in her classroom. Photo: Supplied.

Preschool and primary teacher LOUISE COOKE has built a career working to change lives in some of Australia’s most remote Indigenous communities.

I have always believed in education as a key mechanism to achieve social justice. My earliest career aspirations included teaching in areas where children experience disadvantage and to use my training to provide opportunities for change.

Yes, I was one of those university grads – I wanted to change the world. When the opportunity came up for me to complete my final teaching practicum in a remote Indigenous community school, I jumped at the chance. After only a few weeks, I was hooked. I knew this was the kind of teaching I wanted to do and I was ready to pursue it.

Fortunately, one of the perks of teaching in the Northern Territory is that opportunities abound. One week prior to completing my placement, I was offered the preschool teacher position at the very same school I had fallen in love with. Ramingining was going to be my home for the next five years.

Louise with fellow educator Hagar at Gunbalanya. Photo: Supplied.

I would not have had the opportunity to pursue these exciting and fulfilling opportunities if I wasn’t living and working in a remote Indigenous community.

During my time at Ramingining, I dived into a number of extracurricular activities, including running the healthy dog program (which helps community members care for their canine comrades), tutoring a group of passionate and hardworking Indigenous assistant teachers in their further education studies, and coordinating the community music sports and arts festival.

The Ramingining community festival I coordinated was the first in many years and, as it turned out, the one that propelled the Chooky Dancers to international fame. I was also able to start a facilitated playgroup with support from the Smith Family, and was promoted to senior teacher in the primary program. I am certain I would not have had the opportunity to pursue these exciting and fulfilling opportunities if I wasn’t living and working in a remote Indigenous community.

Five years and many opportunities and experiences later, it was time to move on. I was fortunate enough to secure an Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development volunteer placement working with Karen and Karenni refugees on the Thai and Burmese border. I spent the next 12 months living in a remote part of Northern Thailand, travelling in and out of the refugee camps to support women’s organisations within them to strengthen their early childhood programs.

I think my most successful work during this time was facilitating meetings between the organisations that ran the primary school and those that ran the early childhood programs, to help them develop a strong transition-to-school policy. Often when I spoke during these meetings I would need to be translated into Burmese, Karen (or Karenni) and sometimes Thai as well. I learned very quickly how to say what I needed to say as quickly and as simply as possible. This was challenging and exciting work – and to top it off, I was living in paradise.

Louise enjoying painting with her young friend Linitisha. Photo: Supplied.

While I was in Thailand, an early childhood colleague of mine was leading the initial implementation of a new program in the Northern Territory called Families as First Teachers (FaFT). This program would be rolled out in very remote communities across the territory, aiming to empower families to give their children the best possible start in life.

When she contacted me about potentially working with her on this program, I jumped at the opportunity. Returning to Australia, I spent the next nine and half years working to support the implementation of the FaFT program. I was even fortunate enough to be paid to complete my Master of Education at the University of Melbourne, working with highly respected academics to examine the program’s effectiveness.

Facilitating a meeting refuge camp Thai Burma border. Photo: Supplied.

I feel I have been incredibly privileged to work in some of the most rewarding, challenging and fulfilling education positions over my almost 15-year career. I have lived and worked in a number of very remote Indigenous communities, working with incredible children and families in Arnhem Land.

Although a number of these positions have allowed me to pursue my passion for parent and family empowerment, early childhood and Indigenous social justice, it is my work with the FaFT program that has been the most rewarding. This work allowed me to travel across the Northern Territory, Victoria and Western Australia to follow career paths I never thought possible.

Most importantly, it has allowed me to witness and reflect on the strength and resilience of Indigenous children, families and communities and develop deep relationships with people for whom I have enormous respect.

I believe that every one of us teachers, wherever we teach, has the power to change lives. Ultimately, that is what makes me most proud and most grateful to call myself a teacher.

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