Tolita, Aboriginal Education Worker

“I’m getting stronger and our voices are getting stronger. We need to take every opportunity that’s opening up for becoming more confident.”

When Tolita implemented Stronger Smarter in the classroom, her students told her that her lessons were awesome and learning Maths was fun. 

Tolita is a participant in the Institute’s Teachers of STEM Initiative (ToSI) which is supporting her to gain her teaching degree.  Tolita explains that her career in education started with volunteering at her daughter’s school, leading to work as a teacher aide and now as an education officer for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. After having a family, she thought the opportunity had passed for her to become a teacher.  However, she says her Teachers of STEM scholarship has been an enabler.  “Doors are opening up,” she says.  “Its my time now I guess.  It’s becoming quite an adventure.”

STEM in everyday life

Tolita says she grew up not really knowing about her culture and her uncle has been able to answer a lot of questions for her.  “I found out who I was.  I started feeling stronger in myself and having more voice. It has all unfolded into being an education officer here for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and from that came the drive to pursue getting a teaching degree.”

In 2021, Tolita attended the Institute’s Jardibirrijba and Jardi Dadarrinyi programs as a part of the ToSI program.  These programs show how Indigenous Knowledges are linked to STEM and how that can be used in the classroom.

Tolita says she hadn’t realised how much STEM is a part of every day life.  “I love going out on Country and it’s just amazing what nature and the environment puts in front of you. You’re learning every second of every day and it’s really hands on.  I’ve realized how much more potential there is to share those Indigenous Knowledges through STEM.”

Tolita used artwork to paint her learning journey.  “It was such an incredible journey to go on and it really did impact me emotionally.”  

Building safe spaces

Tic tac toe game that Tolita created to provide Indigenous resources to use in class.

Tolita says she was able to translate these learnings into her teaching practicums for her university degree.  In her first practicum, she observed that the students in the back row were not participating.  “I sat with the back row and asked them if they chose to sit here. One student replied, ‘No, teacher puts us up here because we are naughty’. Another then said, ‘You will have to help us a lot, Miss, because we are dumb.’ Four out of five in the back row were Aboriginal.” 

Tolita started by using a check in circle every day with the students, changing the shape of the desks to a U shape.  “I explained the importance of a circle. Students had a chance to weigh in ideas about circles and what it means to be in a circle.  We concluded circles are our safe space, all can hear, all can see, all can learn and share and all are equal.”

Tolita says they discussed the values of respect and patience and found different ways to check in. “I asked students to check in a different way each time – Yarn cards, selecting art works that sing out to them, selecting animals they connect with, voicing what makes them strong and my favourite was being partnered with someone they don’t socialise with and then being asked to introduce their partner by telling the class what their partner aspires to be.”

Tolita wanted to bring students closer together, and she did this by creating a Cultural Action Plan with the students.  “The students examined the word ‘Teamwork’. What it looks like is getting along, respecting each other, and helping each other. We created a poster that we hung up and I referred to this often.”

Tolita says, “When the students were in the circle, they were completely different. Students would respect each other and wait patiently to take turns. I witnessed students speak who would never say anything in class.”

Indigenous Knowledges in the curriculum

Story rocks game that Tolita created to provide Indigenous resources to use in class.

Tolita says that thinking outside the box to see Maths in a different light enabled her to use Indigenous Knowledges in the classroom.   She describes one lesson where she brought in a kangaroo skin and used it to work with formulas for the calculation of areas of different shapes.  “Because it was an abnormal shape, the students had to divide it into other shapes and work out the whole area,” she explains. “And they just got it!”.  They went on to work with percentages, working out what percentage the skin would be of the whole kangaroo.  The whole lesson involved participation with students preoducing all the ideas.

Tolita says the she talked about estimations, no right or wrong, and different opinions. “I explained that each time we’re in a Yarning Circle we’re in the learning frame, we’re not in the performance frame. I instantly saw the students relax.  It took away that boundary of all that performance worry of failing and so everyone participated.”

Tolita was also able to help out with an English class.  She describes how students who were failing because there was no evidence they could construct a story with a beginning, middle and end, showed that they could do this when given a different opportunity.  Tolita brought in a set of Indigenous dolls and animals and asked the students to tell a story with them.  “The students told an incredible story about hunting, and gathering, fire making and star gazing. They then went on to tell me so many Indigenous Knowledges that they learnt out on Country,” she says.

The learning is fun

Story rocks game that Tolita created to provide Indigenous resources to use in class.

Tolita says the feedback she got from students was that this different way of teaching through Indigenous culture helped to make the learning fun.  Tolita says, “So, some of the feedback was ‘I think Ms D will be a great teacher because her lessons are awesome’, ‘She’ll be a great teacher because she’s creative’, ‘You make learning fun’,  ‘I now enjoy doing maths’, and   ‘Thank you for teaching me about Indigenous culture and I hope you come back tomorrow.’”

Tolita says that being involved in the Teachers of STEM initiative is opening up more avenues for her.  “It’s just unbelievable, just the strength that it’s given me not just work wise but my identity.”