Teacher Feature – Geraldine Atkinson, Victoria
Geraldine Atkinson with students during the Narragunnawali Award school visits
Narragunnawali's Esma Livermore and Zoe Cassim were able to catch up with the very hard working and very busy, Geraldine Atkinson. Geraldine is a Bangerang/Wiradjuri woman who has devoted her career to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education in Victoria and across Australia. She is the current President of the Victorian Aboriginal Education Association (VAEAI) and the Deputy Chairperson of the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care (SNAICC), and was one of the judges for Narragunnawali's inaugural Reconciliation Excellence in Education Awards.
Esma: You have had a strong, positive influence in education for over 30 years. Specifically through the inclusion of Koorie perspectives in schools and early learning services across Victoria. Can you tell us a bit about your work with SNAICC and VAEAI?
Geraldine: SNAICC is the national non-governmental peak body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. SNAICC ensures that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff have opportunities to access training and have the space and support to do so. We also engage with both mums and dads to be involved and are able to be involved in their child’s education. A lot of my work with SNAICC is around early learning programs across the nation and directing and implementing policies, particularly involving our SNAICC members. This requires lobbying government and ensuring that there is adequate funding and infrastructure to have culturally appropriate resources and learning materials, particularly around early learning and education and that these resources are available to communities.
VAEAI is the peak Koorie community organisation for education and training in Victoria. With VAEAI we not only work with the government to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education, we encourage schools and early learning services to engage with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families so that they can be actively involved in supporting schools and early learning services. We advise teachers and educators about respectful and culturally appropriate ways of teaching Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives in the classroom.
Zoe: Why do you think programs and organisations such as SNAICC and VAEAI, are so important for schools and early learning services across the country?
Geraldine: I have always believed that we want better outcomes for everyone in all of our communities. I believe education is key to that. If we want to beat the cycle of poverty, then education, from early learning through to tertiary, is so important. Having that will allow for jobs. Having jobs provides the incomes for families. What we have learnt in our work is that kids have to want to be at school. They need to engage with the curriculum. So creating that culturally safe space, educating educators and having curriculum content like languages are really important in building up that self-esteem. Those cultural aspects are tools for the young ones to feel as equals when they get to universities and being proud of who they are as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Esma: In addition to SNAICC and VAEAI, what role do you see programs like Narragunnawali playing, in the supporting of schools and early learning services?
Geraldine: It has been important. We have to make sure that we are educating and building relationships with non-Indigenous educators and the wider community to want to deliver important cultural and historical truth-telling in our curriculums. It’s about learning the protocols and supporting non-Indigenous educators to want to and to see the importance of engaging with local Elders and community members. So that they can learn the local histories, but can see the true value of those relationships and possible shared learnings.
Esma: We were very lucky to have you as one of our judges for our first Narragunnawali Awards in 2017! What was that like for you?
Geraldine: That was awesome! That was a massive highlight for me last year. What was so wonderful was how schools and early learning services wanted to do it right by their First Nations People in their local area. The children were taking their learnings home and I discovered on those visits that these kids were changing the perception of their parents. It showed me the work that has been happening around Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education was paying off. It was like a validation of the importance of reconciliation, but also the growing maturity in schools and early learning services around our cultures.
Zoe: SNAICC and VAEAI really have a strong focus on supporting our families and communities. Especially for our young ones to grow strong. As a national program, we [Narragunnawali] strongly encourage schools and early learning services to build respectful and genuine relationships with their local communities. On the flip side of that, how do you think communities might build relationships with schools and early learning services and why do you think that’s important?
Geraldine: It’s so important, it’s bringing families and parents along on the journey so they can see the importance of education. And they can almost learn with their children. Reconciliation is about relationship building. So it’s important that this journey isn’t just for non-Indigenous, but for our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and communities as well.
Zoe: In recent times, Victoria has stepped up and is now leading the way in state-wide treaty negotiations with Victoria’s First Peoples. What does this mean for schools and early learning services, and reconciliation more broadly?
Geraldine: I’m on the treaty working group. We’ve ensured that community understands the process and are aware of what a treaty is. Looking into the truth and histories, and recognising that there was a sovereign people here prior to colonisation, redressing the injustices of the past, and that our communities are coming along, and making sure that we are able to, and entitled to, uphold our cultural practices. And education is really important in that.
Zoe: Women who have inspired you?
Geraldine: My mother. She always instilled in us the importance of education. She always wanted us to do better and to succeed. She was an amazing woman. Another woman, is my sister Mary. She was the president of VAEAI for a very long time, before I was. She had such a strong impact on my life because she would make sure I went to school and got my education. She worked so hard on a national level in education. And I was influenced by her to follow in her footsteps. Supporting me and making sure that I was learning all of the time. Because of her, WE can! Is such a truism! It really was because of them, that I can and that I have.