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Aussie teacher hopes to put aboriginal experience to use

BILLINGS, Mont. – For Glenda McCarthy, working with urban area indigenous students has been a story of success.

In her teaching career that started in 1989, she was instrumental in helping her school raise their retention rates from 50 percent to 80 percent; graduation rates among indigenous students rose from a dismal 9 percent to 66 percent in one year.

This happened in Alice Springs, Australia, however.

Alice Springs, referred to as the “belly button” of Australia because it’s in the middle of the continent, is where McCarthy taught before moving to Billings, Mont. almost two years ago.

She hopes to use the lessons she learned helping aborigine students to develop plans for American Indian students at Billings Senior High, where she teaches English and is the faculty advisor for the district’s only high school American Indian Club.

“Similar to what I’m starting to understand about Native American culture, there was just a lot of historical reasons why aboriginal families weren’t accessing education.” -Glenda McCarthy

The Australian school system is similar to the U.S., with grades seven, eight and nine separate from grades 10, 11 and 12. Students graduated after exams with a Northern Territory Certificate of Education in Alice Springs. McCarthy taught on both levels.

A 2004 Australian government policy attached school funding to education success and the dropout rates for aboriginal population, who were about 60 percent of the public schools’ population, needed to be addressed.

The principal approached McCarthy and others, and told them to work out a way they could make school more interesting and relevant for aboriginals so they’d be motivated to graduate. McCarthy was close to all of the aboriginal families, and had already introduced a popular dance and drama program that incorporated indigenous culture and brought together students of all races.

“It seemed obvious to me that we needed to have a culturally inclusive curriculum,” she said. When aboriginal studies were made more important, “That became a cornerstone for aboriginal students succeeding on the secondary level.”

McCarthy said they had mentors that aboriginal students trusted take an active interest not only in their schooling, but in their personal lives as well if they were having trouble at home.

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“We trained those mentors in how to teach those kids how to self-advocate, how to mediate conflicts they might have with unsympathetic teachers, how to organize themselves, and just be that voice in their ear that they needed to hear to say, ‘Don’t give up, you can do it! We can solve whatever problems you’re facing.’”

McCarthy said for herself and other people from white-middle class families, educational encouragement was automatically part of the culture. “But similar to what I’m starting to understand about Native American culture, there was just a lot of historical reasons why aboriginal families weren’t accessing education. There was a dysfunctional relationship there. Here it was the boarding school era, and in Australia it was the Stolen Generation.”

The Stolen Generation refers to the 1910 – 1971 Australian government “cultural genocide” policy in which up to 100,000 aborigine children – mostly under the age of 5 – were forcibly taken from their families in an effort to make them more “civilized.”

“There was a lot of pain in families, and a lot of mistrust of mainstream education, and understandably so,” McCarthy said.

One of the things she did was have a former aborigine student come in and explain to faculty what his life was like.

“It wasn’t a sob story, it wasn’t a blame story, it was just an eye-opener for a lot of teachers to hear,” McCarthy said.

She explained the “tall puppy syndrome” in Australia, where it’s frowned upon for people to stand out from the crowd – unless one is an athlete – intellectually. But the rise in aboriginal graduation rates convinced younger family members that graduation was the norm. Prior students who had distanced themselves from their communities and succeeded academically became prouder to claim their aboriginal roots.

McCarthy acknowledges she has a lot to learn about Montana tribes, but knows there are plenty of similarities between aborigines and American Indians – including high dropout rates – that can be helpful to her teaching dedication.

“I want to be part of a group that closes the achievement gap. I don’t want to be known as the ‘white girl from the other side of the world’ who forces others to do everything her way.”

McCarthy related a story about how she had the aboriginal school liaison talk about her three children to the faculty at her former school. “Smart, good boys,” she called them. The oldest had dropped out, but other two were still in school.

“She talked about what she hoped for her kids, and you could have heard a pin drop,” McCarthy said. “You know, when a mom talks about what she wants for her child, it’s the same no matter what color your skin is.”