14 October 2020Share
Chrissy Monteleone, course coordinator for the Bachelor of Education (Primary) (Away from Base), has been highly commended in the Vice-Chancellor’s Staff Excellence Awards for her work progressing the spirit of reconciliation among ACU staff and students.
Over the past year, Chrissy has brought her positive energy to the Away from Base (AFB) program by collaborating to foster a culturally safe space for all.
She has worked to ensure students and their voices are front and centre, highlighting the importance of a collective, mutually respectful journey.
The AFB program is designed for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students who mostly live in remote and rural communities around Australia.
As well as studying the same units as a standard degree, these education students take specialised units that look at identity, perspectives, and being an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander teacher. The five-year degree is delivered in intensive mode, with four week-long sessions held at Strathfield each year.
It’s a commitment – particularly since, as Chrissy explains, many students are mature age, have families, work in school-based roles already, and hold significant positions in their communities.
“We need to consider each individual student and at our first meeting, the enrolment interview, we emphasise the commitment to a course like this and what it means to leave family, work and community,” says Chrissy.
“Students need to step away and travel and be present for an entire week at a time. When they return home, there are still university commitments, like assessments, that they also need to do.”
Support services are important for this cohort, and this is where the Indigenous unit at Strathfield – Yalbalinga – comes in. Among other supports, Yalbalinga staff reach out to students at strategic points in the academic year to help reduce the disconnection between university and home life.
“We get to know our students well,” Chrissy says. “We communicate in various ways and are committed to supporting students in their undergraduate journey.”
One way the team has sought to embed cultural perspectives into the learning and teaching experience for AFB students is by inviting academic staff to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander garden on the Strathfield campus. Led by an Aboriginal artist, staff co-planned an Aboriginal artwork and story about education and the journey undergraduate students take, then painted it together.
Other learning opportunities Chrissy shares are similarly creative.
“On the final Friday of our last intensive session [these are currently online], I brought together a group of students to talk about just that: culturally safe environments,” she says. “What we provided was a platform for discussion and dialogue.
“One of the students asked, ‘Is there a way to work with the academic staff around not using the acronym of ATSI?’ I need to consider this feedback and take it on board to look at ways we can communicate that with the academic staff.
“And, soon, we’re bringing all NSW academic staff together to weave baskets. When the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are weaving, it’s an opportunity for dialogue as well, so we’re going to try to embed weaving into a staff meeting. We’ll see how that goes!”
An ACU alumna, Chrissy started as Curriculum and Teaching Lecturer with the university nine years ago. She has taught in the Bachelor of Education (Primary) (Away from Base) program since 2015 – and says she’s continually learning.
“I’m a huge advocate for reflective and reflexive practice. And for me, personally, it’s changed my mindset about how we work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander pre-service teachers and what it looks like in a classroom setting. I learn every single day from students and colleagues.
“What’s happened is we’ve formed a community of learners. All of us – students and staff – work together; we’re all in a collective, almost non-hierarchical space of learning.”
Chrissy says collaborating to embed cultural perspectives in practical ways allows benefits to flow into the classrooms as well, where our AFB students will soon be teaching.
“What I’m envisaging with children in primary schools is that we are sharing the right message in the right way,” she says.
“If my work is supporting pre-service teachers to really consider what it means to engage in the culturally appropriate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ways, knowings, perspectives, and embed it into what we do in our practice, then I believe I’m working towards that spirit of reconciliation.”
Chrissy wishes to acknowledge the staff she works with collectively and collaboratively, both in the National School of Education and Yalbalinga.