Connections to history, family and culture run deep for this Indigenous educator with her eyes on the future of community education.
5 July 2021
Kayla White says her mother’s gifts were the lessons of selflessness and how to care for others, while her father taught her about culture, connection to local lands and identity.
These strong foundations helped to build a career in education that has had a lasting effect on countless students within the Camden Haven on the lower-north NSW coast for the last five years.
Kayla, who grew up in Laurieton on the mid-north coast, began working at Melville High School in South Kempsey in 2010 as the first Indigenous School and Administrative Support Staff (SASS) member in the school’s front office.
“I met community and took phone calls and I loved this time, but I found myself drawn to the kids and the classroom,” says Kayla. “I spoke to our AEO (Aboriginal Education Officer) about her role and what it entailed. Before I knew it, I was enrolled at the University of Sydney undertaking a Diploma in Aboriginal Education, which then turned into a Bachelor of Education, Aboriginal Studies.”
Today, the mother of six and proud member of the Birpai Nation, is a classroom teacher trained in Aboriginal studies and a joint winner of the 2020 AEU Arthur Hamilton Award for Outstanding Contribution to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education.
“The power of education is immeasurable, it is what we do with this power that changes lives,” says Kayla. “This is why I do what I do.
“Being a teacher is something I am very proud of, I love setting a good example for my children, nieces, nephews and community. I am proud to say that I, too, struggled in school with reading and writing, but look at me now.
“I think it is important for our youth to learn that your limitations do not define you. You can be anyone you want to be.”
Mentors have helped to shape Kayla’s career and her culture has been a constant source of pride. A teacher in Year 11 and 12 was an initial inspiration. “She believed in me and she is one of the reasons I am teaching today” and another early influencer once told her “it was important for Aboriginal people to be leaders in our own culture”.
“This is something that has always stuck with me,” she says. “I reflect on this statement regularly and continue to challenge myself to do better, to do my bit to help ‘close the gap’ for our people.
“In my early career of teaching, I was supported by a mentor through the Department of Education. Kim Hogan is a non-Aboriginal woman who has continued to support me, not just through my first years of teaching, but every day since.
“In schools where you are the minority, having someone understand you as an individual is the difference between ‘fight or flight’. Kim helped me to grow my wings and now she is watching me fly,” she says.
Kayla is an executive member the Hastings Aboriginal Education Consultative Group (AECG) and a regional AECG representative and advocate for the Aboriginal Community viewpoint to “walk together and work together”. She describes this role as “improving relationships, understanding and educational outcomes for our students, staff and communities”.
Kayla was the 2018 Hastings Aboriginal Education award winner and the 2019 Aboriginal Education Council/ Prime 7 News Young Achiever award winner.
In 2018 she worked on the NAIDOC Road Show, a program developed for students studying via distance education. Her role involved working with local Elders, community members and organisations to localise each program to students’ local nations.
In 2019 she received a $5000 sponsorship from her local op shop to provide the Hastings education network with access to the NAIDOC 2019 Star Planetarium. “The highlight for me was seeing our Aboriginal Elders enjoying the Aboriginal Stories in the Stars program, mixing with our youth and discussing how we could develop our own community stories,” says Kayla.
In 2020 the op shop provided a $10,000 grant for a Sky Stories event that aimed to build on the Planetarium experience, using local knowledge and local people. But this event was put on hold due to the COVID-pandemic, so Kayla worked with the Hastings NAIDOC committee to create a Sea Life event that would allow people celebrate culture in a virtual way.
She contacted nine local schools in the area and, although COVID-19 again had an impact, up to 10 students from each school were able to participate.
“Each school was gifted a sea animal significant to the Birpai Nation and they created it on the beach from sand or seaweed. When the animals were done, we sifted coloured sand over each student’s hand to connect them to the project,” says Kayla.
Drones were used throughout the event to unite the wider Hastings community and a video was created so it could be shared. “In a difficult year, where we felt the isolation, we held each other close in spirit through a virtual platform.”
Teacher and mentor Kim Hogan says Kayla has also initiated a preschool wellbeing program for the Camden Haven community of preschools as part of an emerging leaders’ program helping to build cultural connections for secondary school distance education students.
“She aimed for achievable goals such as reading dreamtime stories aloud and face painting. Each term, Kayla increased the capacity of her students and by term four they were leading workshops and becoming leaders in their own communities. Some have started traineeships,” says Kim.
Kayla balances her teaching load with family duties, which include supporting her extended family, while also studying for her Master of Education Leadership through the University of Sydney. Much of her community work is voluntary and “sometimes this means before school, staying back later in the afternoon or on weekends”.
“I am hopeful that I will lead Aboriginal Education within my community one day soon,” she says.
“People often comment that I am a young teacher and have a lot to learn. Buy they overlook the 30 years’ experience I have in my culture and my connection to local lands, in which I still live and teach.
“I am a proud Aboriginal woman, and my culture has always been at the forefront of my life.”
This article was originally published in The Australian Educator, Winter 2021.