RMIT’s fly-in teachers bringing knowledge to the Top End

Across the Northern Territory, Indigenous Australians have been quietly returning to the classroom to confront the triple challenges of alcohol, drugs and mental health, using online and in-situ instruction to gain formal qualifications.

Five years ago, Melbourne-based RMIT University embarked on a pioneering agenda to not only offer vocational support for communities but also bring the teaching to such remote areas as Ngukurr in southern Arnhem Land, where they speak Kriol, Ngalakan, Alawa and English.

Starting in Katherine, coordinator Xenia Girdler has rolled out a program involving fly-in, fly-out teachers who travel to the Territory one week in every four.

The advantage of teachers flying in to communities, as well as the regional centres of Katherine and Alice Springs, is that it opens the way for two-way learning, with RMIT staff teaching the students and at the same time learning from their charges.

“The principle of two-way learning underpins everything. We as educators learn as much, if not more, from our students because of the exchange of expertise,’’ Ms Girdler said.

The program is open to all comers, with its popularity stretching to the Tiwi Islands and even Nepal, but events last week were focussed heavily on the Northern Territory.

In Arnhem Land, tribal elders led locals who received their qualifications in a celebration that included dancing and music.

RMIT hopes to increase the number of Aboriginal participants, announcing through Vice-Chancellor Martin Bean the RMIT Foundation Trust, which has been established to fund scholarships for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island students.

The qualifications to handle the demands of issues such as alcoh­ol and other drugs and mental health include Certificate IV and diplomas, with slightly fewer than 90 people qualifying so far.

Of those starting the courses, up to 85 per cent of students are graduating under the fly-in, fly-out teaching system.

For Ms Girdler, it has been an epiphany, with almost 100 per cent of the clients of those qualified in drug and alcohol treatment being Indigenous.

“The program itself is aimed at upskilling community service workers to deliver complex case management in a disadvantaged, complex environment,’’ she said.

Acknowledging that it was not possible to separate addiction and mental health, she said the problems stretched across decades.

“We are looking at generational disadvantage … the thing that struck me when I first went out to a remote community 4½ years ago ... was that there was such an acute lack of hope and choice.’’

Reference: Ferguson, J (2015) RMIT’s fly-in teachers bringing knowledge to the Top End. The Australian, published 24 September 2015, page 8.

Thursday, 24 September 2015