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Principal Speaks: Determined to decolonise our teaching approaches

Embedding a culture of continuous improvement, looking both inwards and outwards as a system, ensures that Thornbury Primary school will achieve excellence in teaching and learning for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.

We value and utilise the knowledge and skills within the school of the Language and Culture Teacher Aunty Terri, Tutor Aunty Mel, Wellbeing support Aunty Lee, alongside teacher Kim.

Thornbury Primary has a long history of trust and connection to the community, with third generation children now enrolled at the school. Celebrating our families and their stories connected to the school builds a collective spirit of dedication to making a difference for all students in our community.

Creating networks and partnerships is a key element to being a changemaker, to ensure we understand the real needs of the community, deeply value their input, and ensure we are culturally aligned. Beginning with our Koorie Education Support Office and the Department of Education Koorie Outcomes Division, we have built strong relationships that guide us to meet the outcomes of the Marrung Education Plan.

Photo courtesy of Thornbury Primary School

Our learning begins locally by linking closely and taking guidance from the Wurundjeri Council Education Team, amplifying their deep knowledge and connection to Wurundjeri Country. My role is to build and foster connections with all staff supporting them to being culturally safe and responsive in their approaches to teaching and the curriculum.

As Acting Principal, I have supported system change within key networks of Darebin Council, VAEAI, Principal networks and the wider Indigenous community. We are able to focus on the role of mentor and coach to other colleagues across the network and state, and we also have an ongoing partnership with Monash University, ensuring that we are building skills and understanding for new teachers entering the profession.

The current focus on improving the use of Koorie Literacy and Numeracy Program funding is having an educational impact on students this year. This is improving outcomes in reading and numeracy. It also influences decision-making around how to enact the program in other school settings.

Photo courtesy of Thornbury Primary School

Culturally Safe and Proud Environment for Learning

Continuous improvement of learning outcomes for our Koorie students is the core characteristic of Thornbury Primary.

This is achieved by continuing to connect with our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community, which provides a culturally safe environment of pride in identity. A family described it to me as the DNA of the school. Every staff member completes Community Understanding and Safety Training (CUST) and is provided with ongoing learning throughout their time at the school. Pride in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture is evident as you walk into the school: there is a native plant weaving and food garden, shadowed by the Aboriginal Flag and a wooden carving of Bunjil. The playground proudly displays murals, mosaics and Wurundjeri Woiwurrung words, and each classroom has a totem animal and displays flags, images, colours so students can see their culture in the teaching and learning that takes place every day.

Even our school uniform, which is designed by students and the community, incorporates red, black, and yellow in Aboriginal-inspired designs. Using the Koorie English term, ‘Deadly’, to mean ‘excellent’, has been key in our school values and vision. The community knows that we have Deadly Learners who can demonstrate our school values every day, supporting wellbeing and engagement.

Marrung Education Plan at Thornbury Primary

In our strategic plan, we identified that a deeper focus was required to continue to ensure that we achieve excellence in teaching and learning so that all “Koorie students engage fully throughout their schooling years and gain the knowledge and skills to excel at year 12 or its equivalent,” as said in the Murrange Education Plan Strategy.

We developed a theory of action, which is a strength-based approach and shows our belief that children need to be both strong in culture and strong in learning: “If, the students set meaningful goals, personalised to their interests, strengths, and ambitions. The student in collaboration with teachers will identify their learning needs to achieve that goal.

“Then, working together with their coach and teacher to achieve that goal. We facilitate communication regularly with the teacher and family to update the learning progress of each student.

“Which will result in a transference of learning confidence to classroom settings and across the curriculum. The student will be empowered to articulate their learning growth and success.”

The school improvement plan began to inspire a shift of thinking. We moved to a culturally responsive teaching approach that integrated both a socially and intellectually safe space for “Deadly Learners”. Some important elements of this approach includes:

  • Building confidence in learning—mindset, independence, resilience, and agency—with a focus on positive relationships and experiences in the classroom.
  • Developing partnerships with parents/carers through Deadly Learning Plans that balance care and push.
  • Increasing challenges and expectations in areas of strength to increase engagement by using strength-based pedagogies such as the Stronger Smarter Approach developed by the Stronger Smarter Institute and the 8 Ways Framework, which is Aboriginal Pedagogy that came from country in Western New South Wales. Baakindji, Ngiyampaa, Yuwaalaraay, Gamilaraay, Wiradjuri, Wangkumarra and other nations own the knowledges this framework came down from.
Photo courtesy of Thornbury Primary School

Improved Teaching and Student Outcomes

We deliberately used a whole-school approach to change as it occurs at multiple levels and one size does not fit all students, staff, or families. High levels of differentiation in teaching and learning are key to ensure that the needs of each child are understood and addressed, and their capability and growth are extended regardless of the starting point. At the same time, we direct resources to those students who have additional learning needs to improve their literacy skills with 1:1 intervention.

To think evaluatively, we created and monitored success using both qualitative and quantitative data. Teacher feedback reported less time was spent out of class and there was more active participation in the tasks. There has also been an increase in families’ engagement and collaboration in developing learning goals for their children. Students have become more engaged in developing their own learning plans and celebrating their successes by showing their learning to the Principal.

Teacher judgments have found that fewer students are scoring below the expected level and NAPLAN data also shows improvement in both reading and writing from Year 3 to Year 5 in the top two bands. There is more structured and dedicated accountability of Professional Learning Communities and the KLNP coaching program also tracks and monitors data through the online platforms and teacher created spreadsheets as well. This displays great indicators of academic success for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students at our school.

Photo courtesy of Thornbury Primary School

Get Up! Stand Up! Show Up!

Thornbury Primary is dedicated to decolonising our teaching approaches, lesson structures, and whole-school curriculum delivery to ensure that Aboriginal perspectives are our first priority. If we include and meet the needs of Aboriginal learners, we build strength in our teaching practice, raising outcomes for all students. All staff and community members view themselves as allies. We know that we have a lot to learn and research, watch, read, and deeply listen to and hear the perspectives of our community. It is our role to amplify Aboriginal voices and perspectives but not to speak on their behalf.

Collaboration and consultation are essential in everything.


Author: Megan Noy, Acting Principal, Thornbury Primary School

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