Teaching on country crucial in remote communities

In Wujal Wujal, we use our language and the children speak the language back to us as we live our culture here every day

There are many Indigenous community leaders around Australia who work tirelessly to put their experience into early childhood education in remote areas. Coraleen Shipton, a proud Kuku Yalanji woman, is one of these people working as director of Wujal Wujal C&K community kindergarten in far north Queensland. Here she shares her story with Bedrock journalist Alex Leggett.

Wujal Wujal is a small community about 30km north of Cape Tribulation and 70km south of Cooktown, where rainforest meets coral reefs. During the wet season, road access to the community is cut off by flood water - a fitting name as Wujal Wujal means “place of many waterfalls”, with water playing a significant part in everyday life. There are three main tribal clans in the area: the Kuku Yalanji, Kuku Nyungkal and Jalunji-Warra.

An ardent IEU member since 2009, Coraleen believes living on country is important in order to teach children how staying within your community brings about positive change at a grassroots level. However, when decisions are made at a national level about early childhood curriculum she said it can be difficult to convey in small communities with diverse cultural backgrounds.

Part of the National Quality Standard, a key aspect of the National Quality Framework (NQF), refers to “enhancing a child’s learning and development” through “connection to community” and “each child’s identity and culture is a foundation to the program.”

“What frustrates me at times is that under the NQF there are some issues in the area of how to teach culture,” Coraleen said.

“In Wujal Wujal, we use our language and the children speak the language back to us as we live our culture here every day.”

She said there is also the physical barrier of being isolated during the monsoon season.

“We are remote so we can’t go to the local shops when we want to build on children’s learning resources and tools.

“We are limited to what we can access and the government doesn’t take into consideration that we are cut off during the wet season nor the diversity of cultures in one area.”

Despite the frustrations, Coraleen believes teaching local culture and language is the key to continuing communities like Wujal Wujal and preserving heritage.

“For me personally, teaching our local culture to our children is important because we are telling them where we really come from,” she said.

“We show them that if you care for your environment then country will care for you, by providing things such as food and fresh water.

“We also teach them about where their ancestors came from and how they came to be in this classroom, in this community.

“There are three main clans in Wujal Wujal so I try to explain to the children how their families came to the area and what their grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ stories are.”

Community spirit

Coraleen says that everyone knows each other in the community and it is good when there are changes within the education system, that parents can talk to her directly about how it affects their children’s learning.

“They put their trust in me and trust my opinion about changes to the curriculum and how it will affect things.” She said closing the gap is achievable if all Australian people and cultures understand one another.

“It is important to teach children about equality from a young age and help them grow in learning to respect each other’s different backgrounds and cultures.”

“It is about creating a sense of identity and connecting them from our landscape, cultural heritage and people to the rest of our nation and its many peoples.”

Coraleen said it is important to live and teach on country and have a sense of giving back to her community. She was a kindergarten student in the same building she now finds herself teaching in.

After working her way up from a Certificate 3 she went on to complete a bachelor degree at Deakin University in Melbourne.

“I first went to high school in Brisbane and then to Cairns to do my Cert 3 and diploma in children’s services,” she said.

“Afterwards I went to Melbourne to study a bachelor degree in early childhood education. At first, it was a culture shock for me after growing up in Wujal Wujal all my life.”

She said she did a few different jobs before becoming an early childhood educator.

“I explored different areas and back in those days there was a program called the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) where I was working 16 hours per week.”

The program was developed by the Federal Government to encourage Indigenous people to find work in regional and remote communities through training and education.

“I came to the kindy when my last son turned three, so I started doing some voluntary work and further work through the CDEP for two days per week,” she said.

“Then it went from filling in for people and doing extra days to becoming full time.

“Every day is a new day for me and there are many opportunities to teach our local culture, language and history from an early age.”

Challenges of teaching remote

She said there had been a high turnover of staff coming to the community to teach at the kindy, and for many teachers, working in a remote area is a challenge.

“We see different people coming and going from the centre but not staying for very long periods of time,” she said.

“Just when you start getting used to someone they leave and you have to begin all over again.”

Coraleen said it is about building trust with everyone in the community, no matter what their background is, as this helps young Wujal Wujal children to grow into respectful adults.

“It is often hard for families to make connections with people who are originally from outside the community,” she said.

“But there are some families who have close relationships with the teachers, some of whom have been here for 20 years and have been welcomed into local families as one of their own.”

Coraleen said a lot has changed in the years since she went through the kindy.

“I think it’s changed a lot in terms of curriculum and teaching style. Today there are a lot more educational resources available but documentation takes up more time and we spend more hours on this after kindy finishes,” she said.

“There has been a lot of positive feedback from the local school who said that if the kindergarten was not here there wouldn’t be a lot of children who are school ready.

“At the end of the day my passion is to look after children and their wellbeing, their families and generally support the community.

“It is important to support our children in the early learning years, which are essential to their educational journey.”