At our Tuesday staff PD session, we had the privilege of hearing from one of DECD’s African Community Liaison Officers (CLO for short) who had worked briefly at my school earlier in 2012 as a Bi-Lingual School Support Officer (BSSO for short) before being snapped for a much broader role. His name was Abdullahi Ahmed and he gave us an informative presentation that highlighted some of the issues that characterise a large number of students from an African background who are currently in South Australian schools. He spoke passionately and was hugely insightful in showing us what we need to know as educators. We have about 80 students of African background here at my school, and that is a broad stroke in itself because they represent a broad range of cultural backgrounds, religious beliefs and experiences that led to their arrival in Australia. There is no typical African kid but using the acronym CALD (students from a Culturally And Linguistically Diverse background) he explained that the majority of students and families that are supported by his role have a refugee background, and that is what he unpacked for us. [My questions as they occurred in bracketed italics.]
He described to us the two different scenarios between an African village where there might be one water pump for the whole village, and at the same time that South Australians are getting their kids ready for school, children would be with their parents helping to fetch the water for the day. [What do we need to think about as educators about these students and the way they make a start to the day? What might we need to consider about the responsibilities older children might have in helping with chores and running the household before they get ready for a day in our school?] Now we know that many people in Africa live in larger towns and cities but Abdullahi pointed out that is typically vulnerable people who became refugees and many of these came from a rural village setting. When fighting or civil war broke out, many people walked very long distances to escape persecution and killing. Males were often targetted for this, so families separated in order to escape. It is not uncommon for a mother and children to be here settled in Australia while a husband or older male family members may be missing – and not necessarily dead, but just unaccounted for and impossible to trace.
He talked about the perception of race and impact of racism on CALD families. In the African experience, many people born after the 1950′s were born in the era of many modern African states gaining independence. Therefore, people from other cultures that they would experience from a day to day basis were from outside agencies helping to get things running in the newly independent state – aid workers, planners, developers – and these outsiders were viewed by many Africans as “helpers”, with much of the hatred that fuels the violence and civil war in the hotspots of the African continent coming from tribal hostilities. Therefore, Abdullahi pointed that CALD families generally have a positive attitude towards other races, but newly encountered and quite unexpected racism from non-African kids in the Australian school settings can quickly alter this positive attitude.
Another complicating factor for many kids who have spent time in refugee camps is the form of education they receive there is geared towards repatriation. Schools there have very little to no technology, overcrowded classrooms in very basic structures. Housing in refugee camps is in the form of tents, which is very different to the housing left behind in their home village or town and also very different to the housing now in their country of resettlement. He pointed out the countries that Australia has received refugees from – at my school they include but not limited to Liberia, Somalia, Burundi, Togo, Ivory Coast, Sudan, Ethiopia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. If you encounter students from countries like Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Ghana or Mozambique, they are likely to be the children of scholarship holders here to study, and not from a refugee background. In many parts of Africa, physical punishment is still part of the school experience so in Australia, so some students find a situation where poor behaviour only leads to discussion with counsellors and maybe a suspension [a few days off from school, hooray!] to be nothing to fear.
Abdullahi used some social research terminology to tie a lot of his talk together, and this was used in his description of the disparity between neighbourhood settings here and in the family’s country of origin. There is a big difference between a village setting where everyone know each other by name and where kids were free to mix and spend time unsupervised together, compared to the Australian suburban experience where one can live for years next door to neighbours who are unknown and not part of their social fabric. He talked about the need for “social capital”, the connections to people of similar backgrounds or interests (Fukuyama, 1997) and the building of a social network [not the digital kind] of support to strengthen those connections. Other issues that hindered students’ progress within our schools include the high illiteracy rate among refugee parents who may speak a first language but not necessarily be literate in it. Add English as the new language and the propensity of schools to communicate a lot through text based mediums, and you have a lot of newsletters and notices lying around the house that are not able to be read. Using an interpreter is not always the best answer as the education system has its own sub-language of code words and acronyms that need someone trained, like a BSSO or CLO, in order for communication to be effective at times like parent teacher interviews. The illiteracy of some parents causes another side problem insofar that seeing their own child become proficient in English for communication has them feeling that their child has surpassed them educationally and that therefore their child is viewed as more knowledgeable than the parent, leading to an inability to set proper boundaries for their children at home. Educators therefore need to work hard to open lines of communication with these families so that they see the need to be in control of their child’s routines and expectations, that mastering English is not a guarantee of success in Australia and that a lot of hard work is required to get through to Year 12, and possibly tertiary or VET in order to secure a future of meaningful life choices. A perception of “School does everything” for many parents hinders their direct involvement in their child’s learning, and educators must work hard to show the importance of engagement in their child’s learning. Simple things like showing an interest in a family’s cultural background during interviews or conversations can go a long way towards making them feel welcome and less threatened by the school environment. Reaching out to families to build a partnership will mean that CALD students have a greater chance of being successful within our education system, and going on to making meaningful and important contributions to our society – or if they ever wish to do so, be able to return back to their home country one day and contribute there.
Abdullahi’s talk held everyone’s attention for the entire hour, and in conversation with many of my colleagues afterwards, they were constantly mentally referring to students under their care and making connections about why these kids act the way they do, and how things might be tackled differently now that our own awareness has been raised. I hope that my reflections here are accurate, do not read as patronising in any way, and can be useful for anyone else who might even only have one CALD student in their classroom.