Connection to culture the key for Indigenous education

Courtney Glazebrook at  Towri Multifunctional Aboriginal Children’s Service with a preschooler.

Courtney Glazebrook is creating new beginnings by treasuring the past. Passionate about Indigenous education, she is driven to make a difference in the lives of young Aboriginal children by giving them the best start to their educational journey.

Her mission to create a world worth living in for the youngest members of our Indigenous communities began with her Bachelor of Teaching (Birth to Five Years) at Charles Sturt University in Bathurst.

“I really engaged with the content which supported my work and, importantly, I was able to take theory into practice. I can’t imagine doing it online through any other university.

“After I graduated, I became the director of Towri Multifunctional Aboriginal Children’s Service (Towri). I was attracted to working in an exclusively Indigenous-focussed service like Towri because research shows there is a gap in Aboriginal families accessing mainstream childcare.

“Importantly, Towri focuses on the holistic service and helps to close that gap. It encompasses health, education, community engagement and family support. It’s quite a different model of early childhood education and learning compared to the mainstream.

“It really sets the platform in terms of embedding Indigenous perspectives in an early childhood curriculum. And that should be celebrated.”

The power of strong connections

Early childhood services tailored for Indigenous children like Towri are unique, and while there is a wider industry and government push towards inclusive education, Courtney is a steadfast advocate for a customised approach in the preschool years.

Many factors impact an Aboriginal child’s chance for educational success. However, Courtney believes the foundational ingredient for Indigenous pre-schoolers is connection.

“Aboriginal children need to be brought up strong in their identity with strong connections to their culture – and it needs to happen from a very early age.

“When Aboriginal children become lost to their culture they become lost to themselves and lost to their community. We know that the first five years of a child’s life really shape and define who they will become. So, having Aboriginal-focussed services cannot be undervalued.”

Anchoring Indigenous children in their culture

Courtney tries to anchor children in their culture so that, as adults, they are strong and capable and ready to make their own positive impact on the world they will live in. And that is why she wants services such as Towri to survive – and thrive. She lobbies governments for funding to enable Towri to return to its roots and provide the holistic service she sees as vital to the long-term prosperity of Indigenous children and their communities.

The ‘multifunctional’ in the Multifunctional Aboriginal Children’s Service (MACS) title is the most valuable word because, Courtney says, it allows them to access Aboriginal health such as eye sight and dental check-ups, immunisation requests, post-natal check-ups, and register Aboriginal children for birth.

“Unfortunately, the government changed our funding to mainstream, meaning there’s no longer the multifunction component to services we provide. We still continue to offer ancillary services, such as our transport bus and healthy meals each day; however, I’m unsure of what the future holds in terms of long-term funding for these core services. Our community engagement days are at risk, and we no longer are able to have the Aboriginal health nurses come up here for free check-ups – there’s no longer funding under the new service provision.

“We are now expected to provide purely childcare and MACS services were never meant to just provide childcare. Our scope was much larger and was designed to encompass a holistic approach to child-rearing practices. That included targeting Indigenous health and education from birth to adulthood.”

When our children thrive, so do our communities

Courtney hopes people will understand that a small investment in our children becomes a large investment in our community.

“Early childhood care has such great flow-on effects for families. While we’re providing care for children we’re also building platforms for parents, giving them the opportunity for employment and better health. We are building the capacity of whole communities. It is incredible the work we do.

“When children thrive so do communities.

“Towri is also a meeting place for all our families to share aspects of their culture and come together to celebrate their children’s engagement. We bring together the community in what you could describe as a ‘hub’. We reconnect families and strengthen their partnerships with other Aboriginal health and education services in the community.

“Our service is an example of exercising self-determination rights from an Indigenous perspective because we are governed by an Indigenous corporation which employs Aboriginal educators. So, it is a culturally safe and appropriate place that enriches our children’s overall sense of belonging in the community. Children feel welcome and comfortable when their culture is visible and celebrated. And that’s what we do here at Towri.

“The community at a grassroots level heavily influence the design and delivery of our educational program. We can really tackle the issues our community is experiencing and need support in. It enables change and brings to the forefront the voices of our community. They tell us what they are needing and wanting. Then we design our services around addressing those issues.”

Whose voices are heard and whose voices are silenced

Towri is home to Courtney. So it’s the ideal place for her to begin creating a world she knew would be worth living in. She grew up in the Towri community, did her teaching practicum there and returned in 2017 to lead the service through its greatest period of change – significant alterations to the program’s government funding.

“Growing up on Wiradyuri Country, particularly living on Towri land – my family and connections have always been here. I feel like I have been guided back to lead them through one of the biggest challenges they will face and I couldn’t sit by knowing this service was at risk.

“I have the opportunity to create tangible change. What we do, what we teach and what we advocate for directly impacts upon the community and everyone in it. I have learned, through my Charles Sturt University studies and through my career, to question different regimes of truth.

“I often think of whose voices are being heard and whose voices are silenced.

“When you’re teaching young children you constantly reflect on your position as an educator, your position in the wider community and how you can make change. I am always reflecting on current practice to ensure it is respectful and inclusive. I’m able to engage in thoughtful conversations with community groups and lead a path of change.”

Looking forward with fresh eyes and a new perspective

Each day, when she opens the Towri doors, Courtney makes practical progress in her quest to cultivate a strong, connected and inclusive community. But she knows there is more to achieve, more to change.

“While I believe that early childhood education really does set the platform for socio and cultural change, I would love to see more Indigenous teachings implemented right throughout schooling. It’s vital in terms of changing the way people view Indigenous people – to reflect contemporary ways of Indigenous knowing and doing – because at the moment there is a gap in knowledge and therefore understanding.

“I’d really like to see a shift. I’d like us to move away from seeing Aboriginality as problematic or vulnerable and move towards a strength-based approach that embraces contemporary Indigenous realities.”

Courtney says we do not need to look far for inspiration. It’s right on our country’s doorstep.

“In New Zealand, Maori culture is taught all through primary and secondary school, and their language is celebrated equally. We could learn a lot from that.

“We have so much to gain from Indigenous culture and it’s frightening to think that every second of every day the traditional owners – and the knowledge they have for country – are dying.

“If we’re learning about our local Indigenous culture and celebrating that, it will have a flow on effect in terms of reconciliation. We need to have a reciprocal relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, we need knowledge sharing and two-way partnerships.

The key to a bright future for Indigenous children

“Aboriginal culture is the oldest civilisation on the planet and it holds the key to the future. Western culture has to adopt Indigenous perspectives and world views for us to move forward. We have made a lot of progress in the last 10 years, but we still have a fair way to go. That’s why services like Towri are so important.

“We need to focus on our strengths. Celebrate our resilience, our solidarity and our advancement and progression over the last 30 years. Then we can create a visionary approach with Aboriginal culture at the forefront.

“Aboriginal people are strong. We are connected. We are progressive.

“And at Towri we are creating new beginnings for those who come through. That really excites me.”

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