How to set expectations higher for Aboriginal students: Chris Sarra

Setting expectations higher for Aboriginal students can make a real and powerful difference to their education and to their expectations of themselves, teacher delegates at the Federation Annual Conference were told today (Sunday) by Professor Chris Sarra, a prominent Aboriginal educationalist who is Founder and Chairman of the Stronger Smarter Institute.

“As an educator you can collude with mediocrity or you can nurture greatness,” he told the audience.

Taking an analogy from State of Origin football, he related a conversation shared with former Queensland team coach Mal Meninga on how setting expectations for performing higher was one reason why the Queensland team had been so successful.

“[Mal said] I used to tell my boys that when they go on the field they just need to give me 110 per cent if you can and that’s all I care about. If you can just do that then the scoreboard will just take care of itself.”

This approach is “the perfect analogy for the challenges that we face” in Aboriginal education, Professor Sarra told the Annual Conference. While NAPLAN is just the scoreboard, “what we should be focused on is giving 110 per cent at the most sacred place in our schools and that is where teachers stare children in the face” in the classroom.

In everyday ways, this may mean teachers working harder to change whatever negative perceptions they have of Aboriginal students and not colluding with low expectations stereotypes.
In day-to-day terms, this can mean applying the same expectations they have of other students to Aboriginal students. This may mean having “robust” conversations with parents about their kids not going to school, or about not letting the kids get away with swearing at teachers or running around the classroom.

In his own life, Professor Sarra put the Strong and Smart philosophy into action. At Cherbourg State School in Queensland, he was appointed as the first Murri or Aboriginal principal and he made a big difference to educational outcomes and attendance rates of Aboriginal students by raising expectations and communicating this to students. Attendance rates rose from 62 per cent in 1998 to 94 per cent in 2004. “We found some keys to success and we wanted to share that around,” Professor Sarra told the conference.

In 2006, with the support of the Queensland government, he established the Indigenous Education Leadership Institute, the forerunner to the Stronger Smarter Institute, which trains Aboriginal leaders.

“As educators, we either pursue a stronger smarter Aboriginal student identity or we collude with the negative stereotypes. So as educators, it is worth knowing that this negative stereotypical view of Aboriginal students exists. We as teachers in classrooms, we as principals, we as union members or Federation organisation, [should know that] our day-to-day actions and beliefs and behaviours will either collude with this perception or set about smashing it to bits.”

With the help of positive messages from his own Aboriginal mother, Professor Sarra says he had a positive mindset about his identity, despite racism when he was growing up in Bundaberg.

“I have actively rejected that kind of negative Aboriginal stereotype and I got kids at Cherbourg to reject absolutely the negative stereotypical view.”

Chris Sarra is Professor of Education at the University of Canberra, teaching and researching on school leadership, Indigenous education and educational equity.

There are now more than 57,000 Aboriginal students in NSW schools and 26 Aboriginal teachers attended this year’s Annual Conference, the conference was also told. In a separate address to deliver the Aboriginal Education Report, Federation Aboriginal Education Coordinator Charline Emzin-Boyd said there are now 1,289 Aboriginal members of Federation.