The power of truth telling


16 May 2024

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have been truth telling for generations. Shouting it from the streets, debating it in parliament and media, writing it in petitions and books, recording it in royal commissions, depicting it in art and acting it out on stage and screen. Education administered by colonisers has historically assimilated First Nations peoples, erased histories, cultures, languages and spirituality, and caused harm,

suffering and conflict for generations. Bidjara/Birri Gubba Juru author, historian and activist Dr Jackie Huggins believes that the teaching profession must play a major role in preparing future generations for a more just and honest country. “Teachers are a vessel for truth telling, and it’s their responsibility to take up the gauntlet, and tell the truth no matter how unpalatable it is,” she says. “Australia is only at the beginning of the truth-telling journey.” Like many others, she believes the solution is a compulsory and inclusive curriculum that includes truth telling throughout school and in teacher training. “Surely it’s as important as maths and English, in coming to terms with the history of our country, and where we all sit within that – where our soul is,” she says. Aboriginal histories and Torres Strait Islander histories are not a key learning area and instead fall under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures cross-curriculum priority. Some topics, including secondary students learning about Stolen Generations, are compulsory but, for the most part, teachers are expected to figure out how to

integrate the priority. Unless there is a systemic approach, teachers and school leaders are isolated in attempting to respond to this imperative. Despite the lack of systemic leadership, some schools excel, and such best practice can provide concrete guidance for all schools.


Warumungu Luritja woman Dr Tracy Woodroffe, a senior lecturer and researcher at Charles Darwin University, and teacher for more than 30 years, says teachers need better education about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia, and professional development to ensure comfortable and, therefore respectful, teaching. “For example, some people come to university not knowing about the degree of inequality that we have in Australia. When they learn the more uncomfortable truths about our history, they are quite distressed because it is so terrible,” says Woodroffe, who is the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education’s 2024 First Nations Fellow. “If they feel uncomfortable about delivering particular content, they’re going to steer away from it and choose a different topic to talk about because that’s the nature of our curriculum, there are many other things to choose.”


Woodroffe believes learning about Australia’s First Peoples should be a foundation that the curriculum is developed around. Wiradjuri woman Dr Christine Evans, an associate professor of practice at the University of Sydney has worked on incorporating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representations into curriculum. She says while Aboriginal teachers and Torres Strait Islander teachers are often best placed to teach the subject area, it can create extra workload and there are simply not enough to take on the task. “They bring with them the advantages of lived experience, they understand all too well the histories affecting their communities and themselves, the legacy of the colonial project,” she says. “We need to support non-Indigenous teachers to feel safe to engage in this content, but need to recognise this material cannot be picked up quickly. Teachers are time- poor, overextended and largely under resourced, as we know.” Evans says time and resources should be allocated strategically for additional professional development, led by Aboriginal Peoples and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. She encourages teachers to tap into the ever-growing, high-quality resources offered by organisations such as the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), Reconciliation Australia, the Australian Institute for Teaching, and School Leadership (AITSL). They can also use the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies’ (AIATSIS) guide to evaluating and selecting education resources, and connect with their local Aboriginal community or Torres Strait Islander community. The Ngarrngga Project (education. is another source of support for primary and secondary teachers and provides culturally responsive resources for each learning area. Another resource is the National Indigenous Youth Education Coalition (NIYEC).


NIYEC co-founder and CEO, Darumbal woman Hayley McQuire, says truth telling should be considered for its constant effect on the present, rather than treated as history content alone. “I think one way that teachers can feel more at ease about approaching truth telling is starting with their own story and their own relationship to this place,” says McQuire. “Building off that relationship and getting to know where you are in the history of your place, with a critical lens, that’s something that you can bring in. “I see it more as an opportunity to be creative and to connect, rather than another task that has to be done.”

McQuire says that as Treaty discussions progress among some states, teachers will be critical in helping students become future Treaty partners. “We need school systems to be brave,” she says.


NIYEC’s Learn Our Truth campaign encourages principals, school leaders and teachers to pledge to teach First Nations histories. “You might have one or two really good champion teachers, but it really relies on good leadership, supporting and backing them to make it across the school,” she says. “I think it’s the school leaders’ role to also be thinking about how they build relationships with their local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community. "There's an opportunity to really think about creative ways that Mob in local communities can take charge of what they want truth telling to look like in their local schools." To support this, she says NIYEC is building community relationships and developing a resource for schools on truth telling, which will be released later in 2024. Truth telling is essential in decolonising practice and processes in the education system. Teachers need to understand how the colonial narrative informs their current practice. Reflective pedagogy and practice developed in initial teacher education and via ongoing professional development could address this.

Teachers make a difference Dr Jackie Huggins, who is now in her late 60s, says her schooling did not include any reference to Aboriginal cultures, histories or perspectives, aside from one significant exception. Her Grade 3 teacher, Mr East, asked everyone in the class who thought they were Australian to stand. He then told everyone but Huggins to sit back down. “He said I was only the real Australian in the room, and I just remember the kids not reacting to that at all,” says Huggins. “He built his whole history class around this story that we were the First People, that we’d been here for thousands of years, and that we cared for the environment. And I was so proud. “The kids came up afterwards and patted me on the back and said ‘good on you Jackie’. “So, thanks to that teacher who restored my faith in my identity. I think the power teachers can give to their students for the affirmation of identity and who they are can change their lives forever,” says Huggins.

By Jillian Mundy

This article was originally published in the Australian Educator, Autumn 2024