Cath Jeffery is a Head Teacher at Inverell State High School, and also works for one day a week with the Stronger Smarter Institute. We talked to her about the very successful Aboriginal Studies class that she started in 2006 with just 6 students. The class has now grown to be one of the most popular at Inverell, with 24 students in Year 11, and 18 in Year 12. They offer Stage 5 in Years 9 and 10 and Stage 6 which is HSC in Years 11 and 12. The course covers traditional Aboriginal societies and people, the colonisation process, heritage and identity in terms of Protection Policy, Assimilation Policy, and the Stolen Generations.

Cath Jeffery explains that the Aboriginal Studies course began when, as the only Aboriginal teacher in the school, she was asked to take the Aboriginal Studies elective that they offered as an alternative subject for a group of Aboriginal students who were struggling to choose an elective for Year 9. “There was an expectation that this would not be an academic course in terms of literacy and numeracy demands and that it was more so to ‘keep them busy’,” Cath says. “And to me that was a red rag to a bull. Of course I was going to challenge them academically and establish rigorous learning outcomes.”

Fifteen years on, Cath says the course has helped to change the narrative of the town. When Inverell Shire Council asked the town to vote for a local identity to be represented in a mural outside the town’s art gallery, they chose Aunty Elizabeth Conners. Cath says, “She lived to be 96. She raised 16 children in the fringe dwellers camp at Goonoowigall. The most amazing human being. And one of her grandsons said, ‘I don’t think the Inverell public would have voted for her if it wasn’t for what we’ve learned as a community through the course at school’.”

Supporting learning

Cath explains how, as well as increasing pride in Aboriginal students and improving relationships between the school and the community, the social justice and human rights content of the course supports both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students in other studies.  She also makes sure the course supports core skills.  “When you’re exploring content which is so exciting, so relevant and so engaging, it gives you a really good opportunity to sneak in those core literacy and numeracy skills and develop those,” she says. “ I call it using content as a way to get them to eat their ‘literacy and numeracy greens.”

Cath Jeffery (Head Teacher at Inverell State High School) and students

Cath says that, for her, the biggest successes are the phone calls from past students who have been empowered to challenge something that has been said at university or TAFE.  “For country kids going to tertiary education, it’s such an empowering moment for them in terms of contributing,” she says.  “Last night I got a phone call from an ex-student, non-Indigenous student, in her third year of Occupational Therapy.  She said they were sitting in a lecture, and the teacher asked, ‘how do you feel after three years about how we’ve prepared you to engage with the Aboriginal community?’  She’s quite a quiet student and she thought this is my opportunity to stand up and she stood up and said it was her Aboriginal Studies course in years 11 and 12 that has given her the skills to be very confident in understanding and working with Aboriginal people.”

A safe space in the classroom

Another benefit of the course has been building relationships across the school.  Cath describes how her class becomes a melting pot which begins with the Indigenous and non-Indigenous students sitting in separate groups.  “Year 11 starts off the same every year,” she says.  “It’s like teaching through quicksand because the kids are really reluctant to engage, and the groups wouldn’t normally socialise together. And then there’s always a moment where the class will crack up laughing at some comment, and then there’s these really innate bonds that build.”

Cath says she sets up her class with the narrative that no question is off limits.  “I find until you discuss the protocols, until you discuss what’s good and what’s bad and what’s OK and what’s not, I find that people don’t have the confidence to engage or to put their hand up and ask a certain question for fear of saying the wrong thing,” she says.  “The classroom becomes a very safe environment where they can ask questions share experiences and they have each other’s backs.”

Building relationships

Cath explains that as a teacher, building relationships with your students means being prepared to  show your vulnerabilities and share your story.  She describes a time when she surprised the class by apologising to a student.  “It was one of those moments when you’re trying to get out of the door in the morning and the poor student didn’t even say the wrong thing and I was just into her,” she says.  “And then the next lesson I said to her, ‘I want to say I’m so sorry, I was so wrong.’  And the whole class went quiet.   And one of the kids said, ‘Miss, you just apologised’.  And I said, ‘yes because I was wrong’.  And they went, ‘but teachers don’t apologise’.  And I said, ‘well this one does’.”

Cath says that as an Aboriginal teacher in a rural town, she can still encounter low expectations from her peers.  When Cath says the Stronger Smarter Leadership Program she undertook in 2016 had a massive impact. “It empowered me,” she says. “When you are the only Aboriginal teacher in a school that can be very isolating, and it can be very lonely.  It’s that cultural load that you carry in a school.  When I did the leadership program it gave me so many tools and confidence to have discussions.  And when those two are combined is really powerful.  It’s knowing when I walk into a meeting, I’ll have you guys figuratively sitting on my shoulder because I know that there’s that support there.”

Educators are everywhere

Cath recognises that educators are everywhere and not just in a school, and the role of the teacher has changed.   “We are no longer the holders or the gatekeepers of information.  We no longer deliver the knowledge … they can Google anything,” she says. “We’ve got to facilitate and navigate that knowledge.”    

Cath says that sometimes ‘educational arrogance’ can be a barrier, and it’s important to recognise the educators are everywhere, not just in the school. In the Aboriginal Studies course, Cath uses community input in every topic. “Maybe just by having a yarn to your students you can discover the expertise from their families that could help in the classroom,” she says.  “That’s such a powerful way, an authentic way to establish a relationship with your community.  Having that everyday experience in what the kids learn about from a local point of view is really powerful.” 

One of the experts she brings into the school is a former student, Josh Williams. “When it comes to traditional local content, Josh comes in and teaches it for me because his knowledge is so much more comprehensive than mine,” she says.

Cath says this helps to build relationships with families.  “They feel buy in to what the kids are learning so if you have to have those negative conversations about student behaviour that’s not the first point of contact. What I say to Principals is, that getting people on board with this course is such a positive way to establish an authentic relationship with your local Aboriginal community.  You’re saying to the community we value your expertise; we want you engaged in our curriculum, we want you to bring your perspectives into our classrooms, we want your contribution.

For more information see –  A track leading back (