Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Dr. Chris Sarra

Who is Dr. Chris Sarra?

Is he a medical doctor, or does he have a PhD in another subject?

I'm wondering why I even included his title when I wrote down his name. I don't think I usually do that.

Anyway, I shall go try and find out who this person is.

Well, he is not a medical doctor. He's involved in education.

Sarra is the director of the Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Leadership in Queensland.

Before he was the director of the organization, he was principal of a state school in Cherbourg Queensland.

Lord Wiki has some interesting information about the town. I'm going to read it.

The town was established as a settlement for Aborigines. It was part of a plan of segregation.

The Salvation Army was involved. This all happened in the first decade of the 1900's. Cherbourg was a sort of dumping ground for unwanted black people. Lord Wiki says that some people were actually forced from their own homes and sent to this town.

People in the settlement were forced to use English and not allowed to use their own languages. Because of this, some aboriginal languages died out.

Flash ahead to 1998. The state school was not doing well. They were very much below the state average in many areas. Sarra became principal and transformed the school. Truancy rates went down. Literacy rates went up. It's like one of those inspirational teacher now where a teacher or principal appears and makes life beautiful for all the students.

Here's the school's website.

Wait. First I want to look at Google Maps...see where the town is. Then I'll explore the website.

It's about two hours west of Noosa Heads. It's right next to a forest park called Wondai.

All right. Now I'll return to looking at the school.

They use a lot of PDF files. I'm not a big fan of dealing with that. Oh well.

Their school motto and vision is STRONG AND SMART. There was a documentary made about the school that has that title.

In 2008 the school had 215 students. I think there's a clue to their success right there. I'm pretty sure smaller schools are better environments for students. Although before Sarra came along and transformed Cherbourg into a miracle school, there still might have been that amount of students. So a small school doesn't guarantee a good school.

The PDF file shows the percentage of teachers with each type of degree. 57% have a bachelor's degree. 11% have a Masters Degree. 32% have a diploma. I'm guessing that means high school diploma.....

90% of the teachers returned the next year. I think that's important. Consistency. I think it's detrimental for kids to have too many changes during the school year.

That was one of the huge differences I saw in the NYC preschool I worked at and the Fort Worth ones.

At the New York preschool, we had the same teachers and students through out the whole year. At one point we lost a student teacher as planned. At another point a child moved. We had a good-bye party for him and his family. The children all had a chance to say good-bye and deal with the change.

In Texas, kids were coming and going very frequently. It seemed every time I turned around, a new child was added to the school. When children left, there were no formal goodbyes. They just kind of disappeared. Teachers left. Teachers were moved to different classrooms. I'm partly to blame for that. I quit one of the schools because I hated it so much. One or two of the parents expressed great disappointment over this. They told me their kids already had lost so many teachers. When I left, a teacher from the infant toddler classroom took my place. So not only were my students forced to endure a sudden change, the babies also had to deal with one.

I think it's bad enough for schools to lose many teachers from year to year. It happens at all schools, of course. But if teacher turnover rate is too high, I think parents should definitely take note.   It's even more alarming if a significant amount of teachers are vanishing mid-year.

I'm not going to look at this school website much longer. Since I'm not a fan of schools, it's hard for me to get excited about it. I am happy that they have high literacy and numeracy schools. That's probably a good thing. But I take schools that rely heavily on testing and test scores with a grain of salt. I begin to wonder if the children are experiencing genuine learning; or if they're just learning for the test. I think there's a big difference. As a homeschooling parent, attendance scores don't impress me. I'm not big on the idea that children have to come to school every day. Even before I was a homeschooling mom, I felt this way. I used to hate attendance awards. What about children with chronic illnesses? For about children with Cystic Fibrosis? They get sick a lot and have to stay home. They also have to go to the hospital for health tune-ups. These hospital stays can last a few weeks. Is that the kid's fault? Why should healthy children be rewarded? And what if some of these perfect attendance winners AREN'T healthy? What if they come to school with contagious diseases because they don't want a smear on their perfect record?

Oh, and then there's family vacations. If the school is so focused on having high attendance, they're going to frown down on children leaving school to travel with their families. I think children learn much more by traveling than they do by sitting inside a classroom. Test scores and attendance rates don't impress me much. What would impress me? I'm not sure. Maybe long term studies that showed the children grew into successful happy adults. How many students end up eventually attending college and getting degrees? How many students end up in jobs that give them enough money to survive? How many students end up in jobs that make them feel productive and satisfied?

One thing about the school that does look impressive to me is their focus on Aboriginal culture. I think that's very nice.

Here's a transcript of an ABC program about the school. It's from 2004.

The interviewer says But, seriously, to say the least, teaching is too often an underrated profession.

I strongly disagree with that. I think teaching is an underPAID profession. I think it's way overrated. So many mothers have told me that they'd like to homeschool, but they're just not good enough to do it. We've been given this idea that teachers have some kind of amazing inborn talent and extensive training that could never be replicated by a lowly plain old parent. It's bullshit. Teaching is not rocket science or brain surgery. The same talent one uses to guide their children in learning to talk, walk, hold a spoon, and use the toilet can be used to guide children in learning to read, count to a hundred, and memorize all the state capitals. If you're a a fairly good parent, you can be a fairly good teacher. If you're an excellent parent, you'll be an excellent teacher. If you're a horrible parent, you'll be a horrible teacher.

I like what someone said in the program about Sarra.. He took a lot of knocks, he took a lot of backstabbing, if you want to put it that way, but, uh, he rode the wave. The bigger the wave, the better he rode it. I feel I get a lot of knocks and backstabbing. I have to ride the waves. Do I ride them well? I don't know. Maybe sometimes. And sometimes I probably fail. I find myself drowning in the deep water.

Sarra talks about how the community provides a very rough life for these children; alcoholism, domestic violence, and abuse. For some of these children school can be a place to escape to.

Ah! Here's some stuff about Sarra's childhood. He grew up in Bundaberg. There were ten kids in his family. He was the youngest.

Sara's guidance counselor wanted him to go into gardening. It seems that's what was expected of Aboriginal people. But instead he ended up in education.

When Sarra first came to Cherbourg, everything was a mess. Children were going in and out of classrooms. There was no control. Teachers weren't doing much teaching. Children weren't doing much learning.

What I'm getting from reading this is that Sarra BELIEVED that these students could do well. I think that's his magic. I'm betting a lot of children end up failing in school because there is this feeling that no one believes in them.

At one point in the beginning of his Cherbourg adventures, Sarra had a staff meeting. He says, And I sat in this room here a long time ago and said, look, what I believe, what the elders in our community believe, is that our children can leave here with academic outcomes that are just as good as any other school in Queensland. And that they can leave here with a very strong and very positive sense of what it means to be Aboriginal. And if you don't believe it, then it's time for you to go. And half the teaching staff got up and left.

Well, that would make for a very dramatic scene in a movie. I'm having a slightly difficult time buying it though. I can't imagine a bunch of teachers leaving after hearing that. Who would have the guts? I'm guessing if half the teachers really did walk out like that; Sarra said something a bit more controversial. I can't imagine so many teachers doing something as dramatic as exiting, just because a principal said he wanted them to have faith the students could do well.

I could be wrong though.

The classrooms were awarded for low absentee rates. The children were given iceblocks and trips to McDonalds. Again, I'm not happy with this. What if a class really wants that iceblock and a little boy's aunt dies so he has to go to the funeral? Then all his classmates miss out on the treats?

Now students at this school probably didn't have the most legitimate reasons for being absent. I'm not naive. I just think there should be a better way of dealing with the problem. How about rewarding individual students for being there rather than the whole class. Then you won't have the sickly kid ostracized when he makes his classmates miss out on McDonalds. And how about not penalizing students for excused absences: illness, funerals, visiting their cousin in a mental hospital, going on a pilgrimage, etc.

Sarra talks about bribing in the interview. He says some people say it doesn't work. He disagrees. I disagree too. I used to be against bribing kids. Why? I was brainwashed by my graduate school. I was so brainwashed that when my sister asked if she could use treats to keep Jack happy when I was away, I said in a bitchy tone We don't bribe our children.

I've since come to my senses. Now I think some people go too far with bribing. One of the schools I worked at in Fort Worth overused bribing. They would give children a sticker at the end of each day to reward them for being good. I saw one teacher coaxing a child to come back inside. Please come inside. If you do, I'll give you a marshmallow. That's just pathetic. Now sometimes we adults get desperate and are forced to use such tactics. But this school used those tactics on a regular basic.

The kind of bribing I believe in is the spoon-full-of-sugar type. It's not saying if you do this, I'll give you a reward. It's more about making an unpleasant thing more pleasant. I know you hate going to the doctor, but afterward we'll go get a donut together.

I think bribing is good when you're trying to get a child to do something they don't want to do. I think it's ridiculous to use bribing to get a child to do something they already like to do. For example, I don't think it would be a good idea for me to reward Jack with a prize each time he wrote a story. He already LIKES writing. If I rewarded him for each story, he'd probably end up losing his love for writing. Instead he'd focus on the prize.

I used major bribing to toilet train Jack. At three and a half, he was perfectly content to stay in diapers. He had no interest in becoming a "big boy" and using the toilet. I had tried to avoid bribing earlier because I had been taught that's morally reprehensible. As soon as I decided it was okay to do it, he toilet-trained pretty fast. I also used bribing to get Jack to wean. If I hadn't, he'd probably STILL be breastfeeding.

The show transcript talked about how there were allegations of abuse against Sarra-stuff about him physically restraining students. I'm not sure what to think of that. I'm against teachers hitting students...definitely! But I think there's a difference between striking a child and physically restraining someone who is out of control.

He used loud discipline with students. He uses the term growled. He expressed anger. I support this to a point as well. I've used loud angry discipline with Jack. Now I still feel horrible amounts of guilt for some of the incidents. I have overreacted at times. I have had bad parenting moments. I've apologized profusely for these times and I still feel horrible about them. But other times, I think I did the right thing. I think sometimes kids need to know that their parent, teacher, grandparent or whatever is angry.

I've seen parents who refuse to show their anger to their children. When their children do wrong, the parents use this eerie calm loving voice. They use the exact same voice when their children behave well. Honey. We do not throw our dishes across the room. Okay? That's not a good idea. Right? You know it makes mommy unhappy. Let's not do that again. Please?

I think when parents do that they

a) confuse the child
b) teach the child that it's never okay to express anger

But you know...each family is different. Some people do believe that anger is unhealthy and should be avoided at all cost. I come from the belief that anger is natural and should be expressed (in moderation, of course).

Anyway, I'm not for a school in which the adults have sex with their students.
I'm not for a school where the adults hit the students.
I'm not for a school where the adults inflict emotionally abusive labels. (you're too dumb to go to college, you're worthless, you'll never succeed)

I don't think I'd have a problem with a school where teachers loudly and angrily discipline students who are acting like complete shits. Now I might be a bit weary of this happening with very young children, but I think with older kids it's fine.

Here's an editorial written by Sarra. I'm going to read it and then quit for today.

It starts with an awful story. He says when he was in high school a teacher announced that he had gotten a good grade on his test--75%. Then the teacher said It must have been an easy test!

Sarra believes the teacher might have been trying to joke, but it's still a cruel thing to say. Actually, I'm not sure how it could be funny.

I read somewhere once that we shouldn't tell people a task is easy. You know how we say it. Come on. Try it! It's easy. But when we say that we create a lose-lose situation. What if the person tries it and they fail? Then they'll feel like a double loser. They failed at something that was EASY. What if they succeed? Well, no great win. It was easy. Right? They can't feel they accomplished much.

I'm sure I forget and use the term easy with Jack. I shouldn't though. It would be much better to stress my faith in him rather than the nature of the task. Instead of saying Come on. Let's learn division. It's EASY. It's better to probably say. Come on. Let's learn division. You're smart enough to learn it.

Sarra said people had limited expectations for his academic success. That gave him limited expectations of his own abilities. I do believe expectations play a part in our abilities.

 Now I don't think we can make a child a genius simply by believing in them. But I do think our attitudes have SOME effect on motivation and abilities.

I think that goes back to discipline. If a parent and teacher occasionally yells angrily at a child, it can be interpreted to mean they BELIEVE in the child. They believe the child has the capability of behaving. It can be a way of saying I have higher expectations for you and you're not meeting them. You're not doing as well as I know you can do.

Of course some adults have expectations that are way too high. We've all heard those stories. And I've been guilty in this regard occasionally. We get angry at children for acting appropriately for their age and abilities. But I think it's equally destructive to have expectations that are too low.

I pity the child who is punished for not getting straight A's on their record card.

I also pity the child who gets all C's on their report card. Their parents pat them on the back and say Don't worry, Son. We know that's the best you can do. Our family has never been that good in school.

Anyway, that's about it for today. I'd love to end with a clever conclusion, but I can't think of anything pretty enough.


  1. Hi Dina,
    I think the biggest problem for Aboriginal kids is they lack confidence, but Sarra shows with a little discipline and a lot of encouragement you can make a hugh difference.
    I was very lucky in that I had grand parents and a mother who were very proud of there Aboriginality and reinforced it into me.
    I remember when i was in high school my biology teacher called me an idiot and stupid, but i saw it as a challenge, its pretty funny cause now i work in biology.

  2. Matt,

    I just finished reading My Place by Sally Morgan. You read it, right? Are you one of the people who recommended it to me?

    I loved it. It dealt with all that stuff--being ashamed of your heritage. I felt so sad that Sally grandmother and mother were ashamed of being Aboriginal. I hope that happens less often now.

    I'm glad your mother and grandparents were proud of who they are and who you are.

    Sorry about your biology experience. My husband had a guidance counselor tell him not to go to college.

  3. No i haven't read it yet, so it wasn't my recommendation, but going to get out of the library now and read it this weekend.
    I was very lucky as it was my careers adviser who recomended i go to uni and helped with my application. I had not even thought of going as no one in my family had ever been to uni before.

  4. Matt,

    I think you'll like the book. Out of all the Australia-related books I've read, this one is probably my favorite.

    That's great about your careers adviser suggesting college.

    I don't think we have careers advisers...or maybe we do. Maybe we just call them something different--guidance counselors. I don't remember them helping much though. I don't really even remember talking to one. I probably did though. Maybe it's just that unlike yours or my husband's...mine didn't say anything profoundly cruel or helpful.

  5. I know this is a few years late, but for anyone that comes across this page now, in Ausralia a Diploma refers to a post-high school qualification. Where a bachelors degree would normally be 3 years, a diploma is normally 2 (or sometimes 1). The 2 mains ways of becoming qualified to teach in Australia is to completed a bachelor degree in teacher, or copmlete a another degree and then complete a post-grad diploma in education. I believe this is what the diploma qualified teachers in this case would have had.