Remote school success

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15 August 2017

Schools don’t get much more remote than Tjuntjuntjara Remote Community School, 680km northeast of Kalgoorlie, Western Australia.

“There’s nothing in between. It’s a dirt track,” says principal Wilbur ‘Charlie’ Klein. “The drive is eight hours, or 10 if you have kids on board.”

That hasn’t deterred Klein, his staff and the Tjuntjuntjara community in building a solid learning program that celebrates the local Pitjantjatjarra language and Spinifex Country culture while teaching the western curriculum.

Klein’s achievements have earned him a 2017 Commonwealth Bank Teaching Award, which recognises great teachers and principals who work in challenging and socially diverse communities.

Tjuntjuntjara RCS has about 32 students up to Year 12, from a community of 80–150 residents that can swell or decline depending on Western Desert cultural cycles.

“Right now, 12 of our students are away in other communities for family and cultural reasons,” says Klein. “If the kids are in community, there’s above 90 per cent attendance. The community supports its school.”

Driving forces

Klein is of Swiss–German stock and grew up with Indigenous people in Northam, WA, where his father was a Lutheran pastor.

He began his career as a graduate teacher in Halls Creek and has since worked mostly in remote schools in the Kimberley and Western Desert. He has also been the principal of a large regional city primary school.

He says family values and social justice have been his driving forces. “And the need for remote Indigenous Australia to close the gap through education to move our nation to full reconciliation.”

He still enjoys teaching and seeing children achieve in what is a very challenging environment.

“The school negotiates its path within community cultural activities and changes. It’s an ESL [English as a second language] environment, and the community is dealing with intergenerational trauma and rapid change. Their resilience and strength is awe-inspiring.”

Klein, three other teachers and four other staff at Tjuntjuntjara RCS counter their remoteness with a range of connections.

Bandwidth isn’t that good for interactive whiteboards, but the school has iPads for creative work, standalone computers, laptops and GoPro cameras.

“We don’t lack the tech. We lack the knowledge to run it all, so that’s where we utilise outside support.”

The school collaborates on STEM development with Cecil Andrews College in Perth, and with the Indigenous Literacy Foundation for a Spinifex Country writers’ camp.

For the fifth time, Notre Dame University in Perth will send a group of lecturers and students to Tjuntjuntjara this year to do community service and learn about Indigenous culture. Five attendees from previous years have since qualified as teachers and worked in regional and remote communities.

To those thinking of making the move to remote Indigenous teaching, Klein says: “You aren’t leaving your social network. You’re adding to it. It’s about just being normal and talking to people. Listen, learn and share.”

Margaret Paton