The disparity in educational outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students in Australia reflects that quality teaching and learning can have particular impact for Indigenous students. Quality teaching plays a significant role in improving educational outcomes, and research has indicated that teachers play a key part in influencing Indigenous students’ enjoyment, engagement and success at school (Craven et al, 2005). The NSW Quality Teaching Model outlines several intersecting elements comprising quality teaching that include intellectual quality, the relevance of the curriculum to students, and the nature of interactions in the classroom (DET, 2003, p.9). Focusing on the impact of supportive student-teacher relationships teamed with ‘high expectations’ thinking highlights the specific and individual impact that teachers can have in shaping Indigenous educational outcomes.
The impact of supportive relationships among teachers and students
The impact of supportive relationships between teachers and students is prioritised here first, as relationships give structure and meaning to a high expectations discourse within the classroom. Researchers have seen that the voicing of a commitment to high expectations does not always translate into its enactment (Stronger Smarter Institute, 2014, p.1). This can be attributed to ‘out of awareness’ beliefs that can be held by teachers, and that are underpinned by a deficit view of Indigenous students being less able to learn than their non-Indigenous peers (Stronger Smarter Institute, 2014, p.2). Supportive and inclusive relationships between teachers and Indigenous students have been characterised in the literature by a range of indicators. This includes teachers showing genuine care for Indigenous students as culturally located learners, valuing their experiences and cultures, and demonstrating that the school values Indigenous culture (Byrne & Munns, 2012, p.309). However, these relationships are also shaped by micro-interactions, such as how much a teacher smiles or makes eye contact, whether they talk to Indigenous students in the line for class, and how interested they are in student developments (Perso & Haywood, 2015, p.19).
Reflecting further on these indicators of inclusion and support, Byrne and Munns highlight that productive relationships between teachers and Indigenous students operate on two levels. The first plays out within the socio-cultural curriculum, recognising that the classroom can be a terrain for the transmission of sociocultural values, while the second focuses on the pedagogical relationship between teachers and students (2012, p.304). Classrooms deliver messages through these two levels, which strongly shape student perceptions and consciousness (Bernstein in Byrne & Munns, 2012, p.321). Accepting professional responsibility for the learning of all students requires productive student-teacher relationships at both the curriculum and pedagogy levels. Building close relationships with Indigenous students through social support and a relevant and inclusive curriculum can increase engagement and provide quality-learning experiences (Perso & Haywood, 2015).
High expectations of students, teachers and parents
Intertwined with supportive teacher-student relationships are high expectations. The expectations held of students, by teachers, can play a significant role in influencing engagement and outcomes, as “students pick up on their teachers’ low expectations for them…this can lead to lowered motivation” (Perso & Haywood, 2015, p.20). Through historically low expectations, education has been dominated by a view that has repeatedly failed to acknowledge and honour the strengths and abilities of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (Sarra, 2011a). In holding high expectations of Indigenous students, viewing their strengths as value-added to a classroom, schools can play a powerful role in nurturing a positive sense of cultural identity and educational achievement in students.
The role of high expectations is not; however, confined to simply expecting more of students, but is also about expecting more of teachers and parents. According to Sarra, teachers and parents ‘collude with high expectations’ when they challenge regular student absences or disruptive behaviour and engage in authentic dialogue to minimise these events (2011a). The expectations of the teacher-parent relationship should be, where possible, one of collaboration and inclusiveness. Indeed, one report found that when schools and Indigenous families work in partnership, students achieve better results (What Works, 2012, p.27).
Furthermore, when teachers believe they can make a difference in educational outcomes for Indigenous students and draw upon a ‘culturally responsive pedagogy’, they can challenge social inequities rather than reproduce them (Bishop & Berryman, 2010, p.178). One study looking at education in New Zealand demonstrated that deficit thinking by teachers meant they often couldn’t provide realistic solutions to problems, minimising their responsibility to improve educational outcomes for Maori students. Redesigning the teacher-student relationship and increasing expectations of teachers and students resulted in increased attendance rates, and improved student engagement and achievement (Bishop & Berryman, 2010, p.178).
As stated in the Quality Teaching Model, “research has consistently shown that, of all the things that schools can control, it is the quality of pedagogy that most directly and most powerfully affects the quality of learning outcomes” (DET, 2003, p.4). At the core of this dynamic is the teacher-student relationship, which plays an integral role in influencing engagement, with particular potential impact for Indigenous students. Teachers must recognise that Indigenous students enter schools from a sociocultural context that is different from theirs (Sarra, 2011b, p.108). Without tailoring pedagogy appropriately and working hard to build supportive relationships characterised by high expectations, teachers risk failing to deliver a relevant program and quality educational outcomes for Indigenous students.
- Bishop, R. & Berryman, M. (2010). Te Kotahitanga: Culturally Responsive Professional Development for Teachers. Teacher Development, 14(2), 173-187.
- Byrne, M. & Munns, G. (2012). From the big picture to the individual student: The importance of the classroom relationship. In Q. Beresford, G. Partington & G. Gower. Reform and Resistance in Aboriginal Education. Crawley, W.A.: UWA Publishing, p. 304-334.
- Craven, R., Tucker, A., Munns, G., Hinkley, J., Marsh, H. & Simpson, K. (2005). Indigenous students’ aspirations: dreams, perceptions and realities. Canberra: Australian Government Department of Education, Science and Training.
- Department of Education and Training NSW (DET) (2003). Quality teaching in NSW Public Schools. Sydney: Professional Support and Curriculum Directorate.
- Perso, T. & Haywood, C. (2015). Cultural Competence and Cultural Responsiveness in Schools. In Teaching Indigenous Students: Cultural Awareness and Classroom Strategies for Improving Learning Outcomes. (pp.1-25). Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin.
- Sarra, C. (2011a). Keynote Address: Time for a High Expectations Relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia. Darwin: Strong Start Bright Futures Conference, Oct. 18. Retrieved from https://chrissarra.wordpress.com/2011/10/19/time-for-a-high-expectations-relationship-between-indigenous-and-non-indigenous-australia/
- Sarra, C. (2011b). Transforming Indigenous Education. In N. Purdie, G. Milgate & H. Bell (Eds.) Two Way Teaching and Learning: Toward Culturally Reflective and Relevant Education. Victoria: Australian Council of Educational Research Press, pp. 106-117.
- Stronger Smarter Institute (2014). High-Expectations Relationships: a foundation for quality learning environments in all Australian schools. Stronger Smarter Institute Limited Position Paper. Retrieved from http://strongersmarter.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/SSI-HER-Position-Paper-Final-lowres.pdf
- What Works. (2012). Success in remote schools: a research study of eleven improving remote schools. Melbourne: National Curriculum Services. Retrieved from http://www.whatworks.edu.au/upload/1341805220784_file_SuccessinRemoteSchools2012.pdf