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Jean-Illingworth-Speech by xusuqin


									Whatever it Takes: Turning Rhetoric into Reality
Jean Illingworth

At the beginning of 2001 I started working as the Principal of Djarragun College. In those
days the College was called Emmanuel College. It was at the crossroads of a new
beginning under the ownership of the Anglican Church. Previously it had belonged to an
Assembly of God organisation whose administrators had run the school like their own
personal fiefdom. The Principal was a Pastor in his church and as the Chairman of the
Emmanuel College Board he had appointed himself as the College Principal some years
previously. The fact that as a fibre glasser with no formal educational qualifications he
felt justified taking on such a role defies logic but explains how a school could end up in
such a sorry state. The school was a total disaster. Mismanagement, outright thieving of
school funds, lack of any educational direction and nepotism had all contributed to the
abysmal state the school was in. Mismanagement and stolen money led the school to a
point of bankruptcy. One of the school’s financial lenders visited the school with great
concern about the continued pleas for more loans. At that stage the financial lenders
believed the story they were fed about government neglect of Indigenous kids,
discrimination and lack of equity in educational funding. However, further financial
investigations revealed the truth and the administration of the school were persuaded to
leave. The financiers were alarmed at the possibility of loosing the money they had
loaned to the school over the years and set about trying to persuade someone to take the
school on. The Catholics, the Lutherans, the Christian Schools and the State all turned
down the offer. Thus it was that the Anglicans ended up with the school largely by

The school had been run out of a roller skating rink in Manunda. Over a ten year period
dodgy partitions had been squeezed into this space cutting out all outside light and
turning a huge hall into a warren of thin ply boxes which were the classrooms. The
playground was an overgrown carpark with a broken basketball hoop in one corner.
There was no urgency to improve the playground because at break times the students
would leave school and go into town, shoplift at the local shops, steal, vandalise, smoke
drugs and deal drugs. They would generally not return to school that day but often some
did in an inebriated state and fights and threats to teachers would happen. There were
four toilets for approximately 60 students and 12 staff. The graffiti on the walls was
indicative of students total lack of respect for their school as well as their general
frustration. Students had to queue at the office counter for a piece of toilet paper when
they needed it because if toilet paper was put in the toilets it would be stolen or
vandalised. Literacy and numeracy levels were non existent but prayer and pleas for
forgiveness and salvation consumed a considerable amount of time each day. The
Christian rhetoric that dominated the discourse of the administration and teachers did not
manifest in reality with the students.

It was discovered that most of the government funds that the school had been allocated
had been used to buy several boats including a forty-foot ocean going cement hulled

yacht, which belonged to the Principal. The two bus drivers cum groundsmen also
happened to be boat builders who spent their days carrying out renovations to these boats.
The school of course paid for all the New Guinea rosewood timber, the brass fittings and
the expensive motors, sails and other paraphernalia that luxury ocean going vessels need.
My favourite bit of corruption that was uncovered was discovering that the school had
paid for the Principal’s eyelid lift surgery as well as for a hair transplant! The corruption
and thievery of money was at a scale that was beyond belief and would take a separate
paper to list it all. However, the fact that access to ‘free’ money was the main reason for
the school to exist manifested in a population of students who were the real and lasting
victims of this outrage.

The students of those days had an educational experience that was hell, but it was a
familiar hell and offered a degree of comfort for students who had spent many years
there. This comfort by another name could be called apathy or submission; submission to
the will of someone else making decisions for them. Students had become immersed in a
school culture of corruption, where the needs of the powerful few were the main visions
of the educational institution. Students were pawns in an evil game being played out by a
few. Classes did happen and some students did attend these classes, but sadly the
information and values they picked up were the dominant values of that institution.
Indigenous students are experts in the field of unspoken messages. They knew what the
values underpinning the school were in spite of the rhetoric about Christian living.

Students were treated as objects and not even valuable ones at that. Educational resources
were abysmal and again gave an unspoken message of the low worth of the students.
Students must have compared themselves with other schools around them. They must
have wondered, even at a subconscious level, why it was that they had no books, no
sports equipment, no flashy buildings and no educational outcomes. They would have
known all too clearly that they were faced with an uncertain future of no jobs, no money
and no worth. They probably thought it was because it was an Indigenous school. Even if
they did not think this at a conscious level, the unspoken message was there. Mainstream
schools have everything and students walked away with certificates that opened doors
and Indigenous schools had nothing and students end up with nothing.

The disgrace and the shame of it all is that substantial amounts of funding flowed into
that school year after year. Where did it go? The shame is that all the hoops that schools
have to jump through to meet the criteria laid down by funding bodies were met by the
administration of the school. Again words empty of reality, but this time the written word
rather than the spoken one. Other checks and balances are needed to make sure that this
kind of corruption never happens again.

In a sense, the education that students received served to make them become more
dependent than ever. And this is a crucial point. The dependency complex creates a sense
of non-being in individuals. Students became alienated from the sense of being part of
Australian society. In order to gain a sense of power and independence they embraced
sub cultures like drug and alcohol cultures. The false sense of power it gave them
manifested in disruptive and antagonistic behaviour at school. This is what made them

feel alive. This is what made them feel important. It is this culture that has been our
biggest challenge to overturn in the last five years of our existence.

The first weeks of school in 2001 were a nightmare. Students ruled and anarchy reigned.
Teachers could not teach as students refused to stay long enough in classrooms to learn
anything. They ran riot around the muddy school grounds that one year previously had
been a cane paddock. They yelled, screamed, threatened teachers and generally behaved
like wild things. Slowly we worked at bringing some order into the school but the
progress was slow and painstakingly disheartening. I phoned up a teacher I knew from
my days in the Northern Territory and offered him a job as the Dean of Students. To my
enormous relief he accepted and semester two saw students feeling less confident as they
confronted a large brown Samoan man with a no nonsense attitude towards students and
discipline. Although used to wild and challenging behaviours in some Northern Territory
Indigenous communities, our new Dean of Students confessed to me at a later date that he
wondered on several occasions whether he had made the right decision in moving to

At the beginning of 2001 we had an enrolment of 60 students. We had been led to believe
from past rolls that the enrolment would be around 180 students. The huge discrepancy in
numbers put immediate pressure on the school as we had budgeted for a number three
times that which we actually had on the books. We desperately recruited new students
from anywhere we could; our IT man was dispatched to the Islands to recruit boarders
and teachers literally looked around neighbourhoods for Indigenous kids who could be
potential students. If we didn’t get the students we wouldn’t get the money to run the
school let alone get out of all the debt we had inherited. Slowly the numbers increased
but as the school had a terrible name we unfortunately only managed to fill our school
with students no one else wanted. Behaviour management became a full time occupation
for all staff and the intensity of this style of management meant that no creative and
strategic plans could be made as we were continually in crisis mode. The first year passed
in a nightmare blur. Somehow we actually managed to get some remedial programmes in
place to improve literacy and numeracy skills. We managed to improve the students’
behaviour although by today’s standards it was still abysmal. We furiously applied for all
government grants we could and embarked on a building programme that has seen the
school grow from very humble beginnings to the lovely campus it is today. Boarding
moved on site and out of run down, grubby homes where students had been parented by
desperate people who were as broken down and sad as the houses they lived in.

I wanted to paint a picture of the school that we took over as remembering our sad
beginning highlights the efficacy of the policies, protocols and strategies we have put in
place to rise out of the ashes. In the second year we had time to start thinking beyond
surviving the following day. We were able to contemplate what our vision was for the
school and to translate that vision into an action plan. 2002 saw us focus mainly on
seriously making an attempt to upgrade literacy and numeracy skills. Most of our
students were barely literate, many had hardly ever attended school for any length of time
and most found being disciplined a new experience. We devised ways of seducing them
into liking school. We quickly noticed that on sports days attendance was exceptional and

that on days when more academic subjects were offered the majority of seniors stayed

Since an initial enrolment of 60 students we have grown to our current enrolment of 450
students and new enquiries come in every day. In 2003 we introduced school fees of
$20.00 per fortnight and this has now grown to $30.00 per fortnight and still the
enrolments keep coming in. We have a strict discipline policy and implement all the
consequences for unacceptable behaviour. Students do not get away with anything and
yet instead of minimising our enrolments this seems to just be an incentive to new
students who when asked ‘why Djarragun?’ reply “because I’ve heard it is a good school
where the staff care about students.” These responses give us the feedback we need to
continue along the path we have taken.

In any reconstruction effort, truth is of paramount importance in designing and
implementing a new educational culture. The past has to be examined for what it has
been and for what it has done. Forgiveness and reconciliation has to form part of the new
culture. Dwelling on the past and apportioning blame is of no benefit whatsoever and just
consumes energy and optimism. In dreaming of the future it is essential to remain
positive, to expect the best and set about achieving the best. One of the most difficult
challenges to face as a member of staff in such an environment is to retain the level of
commitment, energy and enthusiasm for achieving the dream. It is so easy and tempting
to slip into the world of rhetoric and pretence where our actions do not match our talk;
where the rhetoric is a far cry from the reality. It seems to be part of the human condition
to talk up big and to loose the energy and commitment to match the big talk with big
actions consistently day after day.

After the initial emergency reconstruction effort the foundation on which we set about
rebuilding our school and our relationships with our students were largely based on
Mazlow’s hierarchy of needs. We believe that it is impossible to effectively teach
students who are hungry, neglected, abused, ill or emotionally distraught without first
addressing their basic needs. In order to do this the following are some of the strategies
and actions we have put in place:
     Acting on our commitment to do whatever it takes to support each and every
        student who is at our school. Students trust us and know that when they have a
        problem that overwhelms them they can come to us for support and we will do
        whatever it takes to provide that support. This commitment has manifested in a
        hundred different ways from finding accommodation for homeless students, to
        sending home packed dinners when we know the student will get no dinner at
        home. We have taken students in need into the boarding hostel even though we
        have not been able to obtain any money for them from ABSTUDY who have a
        rigid set of rules to stick to. Three children who attended out school were
        regularly absent for one to two days a week. We discovered their sole parent
        father was going into hospital for dialysis on a regular basis. He would make the
        three students stay home to care for their little brother while he was in hospital.
        We took the three year old boy into school and he happily spent his days in grade
        1 gaining invaluable early learning experiences.

    Providing counselling support, medical help on site, transport and support for
     medical visits that must necessarily occur off campus. We run preventative health
     care lessons, ensure all students have regular medical check ups, dental check ups
     and treatment and we supervise their medication needs when necessary. Our bill
     at the local pharmacy was over $1,000 last month. This is because many students
     have not got their health care card numbers. The school pays as we believe that it
     is important for students to get well.
    Providing free healthy meals to the hundreds of students who never have a decent
     meal either the night before school or a decent breakfast in the morning. We have
     a huge commitment to health and have steadfastly resisted the temptation to raise
     money by selling junk foods and drinks. Many students are mal nourished and we
     continually preach about the benefits of healthy food and exercise. It would be
     hypocritical to then sell junk food in the tuckshop.
    We provide free bus transport for all our day students. Although the majority of
     our students receive ABSTUDY payments, this money does not go far when you
     have to support younger siblings who are not yet eligible for ABSTUDY
     allowances. Once the money has gone within a couple of days of it hitting their
     bank accounts there is very little left for food, sports’ equipment or bus fares to
     school. If we did not provide this transport at least half of our student population
     would be absent on any one day.
    We provide counselling support for all students and what we can’t do ‘in house’
     we arrange for students to meet with a person from another relevant organization.
     We then transport the student to appointments at any time of the day or night or
     during holiday periods.
    Staff happily publicise their phone numbers to students to use in case they need
     help in school holidays. Teachers have rescued students from scenes where the
     student was feeling their safety was being threatened. One phone call ensured the
     teacher was on their way to collect and then take home the student to spend some
     time out with their family.
    Staff take students and their families on picnics, beach visits and other outings
     during school holidays just to stay in touch with students we know live in
     vulnerable situations.
    We have a strict yet fair discipline code, which is based on the notion of ‘tough
     love’. We do not support victims and work hard to dispel any would be victims
     from pursuing such a negative path. We concentrate on the positive and while
     acknowledging that some people have a really tough time, we give them a very
     brief moment of sympathy and time to wallow in their misery but very quickly
     help them to move on at an emotional and intellectual level. The
     acknowledgement of their pain often seems enough and the support to deal with it
     and to move onto a more positive future is what really clinches it for our students.

The intense level of support we provide to our students serves to build deep and
meaningful relationships between students and staff as well as between staff members.
The “we’re all in it together” feeling engenders loyalty and support for each other and
for all who are sharing in this educational journey. As the level of the relationship is
strengthened so our discipline problems become negligible. Students want to please us,

they want us to feel proud of them and we take every opportunity to celebrate their
achievements no matter how small. Students connection to the school is evident at the
end of each term as many of our boarders weep as they get onto the buses that take them
to the airport. They genuinely love the school and the staff who work in the school. And
at the other end of the scale I have seen staff shed tears unashamedly as we celebrate
another achievement milestone of one of our students. The loving, caring and respectful
environment at our school makes it a happy place of mutual enjoyment for both staff and

Feeling more confident that we were adequately taking care of as many basic needs of
our students as we could, we then set about implementing the next level of the hierarchy
table. We worked hard to put excellent, stimulating and relevant educational programmes
in place. We consulted students and genuinely attempted to negotiate the curriculum with
them. It has paid off because the students know and have experienced our interest in their
needs, their interests and their lives. They feel ‘heard’ and so are more willing to listen
when we speak. It was in response to their needs, their requests and interests and their
academic levels that we made a decision to run a Vocational programme in the senior
years for the initial five years of the College. We were striving to make school relevant,
exciting and enjoyable for our students and we needed to build up our students’
confidence in themselves as learners before we could move into a more academic
curriculum. This move has paid off with many students returning at the end of year 12 to
complete a post schooling vocational education year where they spend their time
completing any Vocational qualifications and certificates, where we help them to find
traineeships, work placements or entry into university bridging courses.

At the same time we set about improving our educational outcomes we implemented a
Values Education programme. We have integrated a number of programmes to come up
with a holistic and meaningful Values Education programme that has had a noticeable
impact on our students’ behaviour, beliefs, values and competency at dealing with
dysfunctional and challenging behaviour from other people. The Virtues Project and the
Rock and Water programme both give substance and context to our Values Education
programme. The important point I want to make here is that we have a whole school
approach to Values Education. Every class implements this programme for half an hour
every day. The language of the Values programme has become part of the students’
discourse in the playground and on the sports’ field. Bullying has largely been stamped
out at our school and when it does arise on occasions it is recognised by all students who
are quick to inform the right people to deal with it immediately. High expectations of
behaviour, manners and interaction with others is now part of how we see ourselves. The
students are as proud of the culture we have developed as we are.

Finally I would like to talk about the staff in a school like ours. The mix of nationalities
at Djarragun has whole staff meetings looking like a United Nations convention. We have
people who originate from all corners of the globe. While this has the potential to be a
disaster in terms of misunderstanding and discrimination, we have turned it into a
positive at every level. We state unashamedly that we do not target any one ethnic group
to work at this school. Instead we target people who have the commitment, energy and

enthusiasm to do whatever it takes to make the school work. We look for staff who have
the relevant qualifications but who also have the right attitude. People who are looking
for a job but any job will do, will not last at our school. Qualifications without
commitment and without the heart for the job are not enough. As a staff struggling to
understand each others accents, each others cultural mores and each others fears and
dreams we learn to stretch our tolerance and acceptance of all other cultural groups. For
those who have little previous experience of Indigenous culture and people, the
experience of working as part of the Djarragun staff expands their capacity for tolerance,
understanding, compassion and interest.

Most of our students dream about what they will do in their adult lives. They have the
same dreams as most other non Indigenous children. They dream of a great job, of
owning a car, a house, of going on holiday. Many of their dreams are dreams that our
society’s values has imposed on us all. They are dreams born out of a capitalistic society.
This is the reality. In order to realise their dreams our students need to be able to integrate
confidently with the global community. With the cultural mix of staff they are already
learning to do this at school. They in turn are learning tolerance, compassion and
understanding. They are learning to be peace makers in their own daily lives. With a
peaceful world view, a good education, a great attitude and a ‘can do’ attitude our
students have the most important attributes they will need to be successful members of
the community in which they choose to live.

So what do we offer for young people coming from remote areas like the Cape York
communities and the Torres Straits? We offer them exactly what we offer all of our
students no matter where they come from. We offer them a promise of a commitment on
our part to do whatever it takes to help them realise their potential and their dreams. If
they come from a background of neglect and abuse we will implement support
programmes to turn their experiences into more positive and meaningful ones. If they
have missed lots of school for one reason or another we will put an Individual Education
Programme in place to ensure they can catch up with their peers and become literate and
numerate in the shortest possible time frame. If they are good at sport we will channel all
their talents and enthusiasm in the right direction. If they have academic potential we will
put programmes in place to ensure their future place at university. Each year for the last
three years a number of our year 12 graduates have gained university placement.
Although our main focus at the moment is a vocational one because that is where most of
our students are at, we do not neglect students with a more academic bent. For two years
running our students have been part of a joint initiative between the university and
schools where selected students from many schools have participated in a weekly
educational programme that focuses on higher thinking skills in maths and science. While
students from other schools have parents who pay for them, we have made the
commitment to pay for our students to take part in this initiative. So far Djarragun
students have excelled in these activities.

Higher order thinking is something we focus on throughout the curriculum. One of the
ways higher order thinking manifests is through our Enterprise Education programme.
Within the school we have many mini business enterprises. All students are involved.

Lower Primary students paint pictures which the Construction students frame. These
paintings are sold to raise funds for their camp. The enterprising focus of the school
manifests itself throughout the campus with year 12 students taking on the business of
hosting different groups of visiting Japanese students. Up to 200 students will visit the
school at any one time. The senior students plan the day of entertainment, organise
different groups within the school to perform, cater, entertain, teach and host the Japanese
students. The feedback we have had is overwhelming in praise. We have become the
most popular school for these students to visit. The money they pay goes into the year 12
bank account to pay for their ‘Formal’ at the end of the year. Students make furniture,
weld an amazing variety of goods, bake cakes, renovate houses and offer a mobile
hairdressing service. All of these ventures are businesses in their own right. We believe
the skills and attitudes students develop about their ability to make money even in their
own communities is invaluable. We have also noticed an increase in the number of our
students obtaining part time work around Cairns. Even our boarders have become part
time workers in various businesses around Gordonvale.

The formula for success is simple and often difficult to implement in its simplicity. All
the strategies, actions and goals we have for this school can be reduced to one statement:
we do whatever it takes to make each and every child realise their potential. A small
statement with massive potential! We have to strive every moment of our lives to turn the
rhetoric into reality.


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