by Mayrah Sonter
Professor Juanita Sherwood is an accomplished Wiradjuri woman and academic who has overcome a difficult start to her own education to become the Professor of Australian Indigenous Education in the Faculty of Arts and Social Science at the University of Technology, Sydney.
“Schooling wasn’t a great space for me and it was the last place I wanted to go,” she says. “Growing up, my literacy wasn’t great and we moved all over the country, making schooling difficult.”
Professor Sherwood began her career as a nurse at St Vincent’s Hospital during the time of the discovery of the human immunodeficiency virus infection/acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS). After a mass exodus of other staff at the hospital due to fear of contracting the virus, she found herself working double shifts and managing multiple wards in her early 20s. It led to burnout.
Wanting a change, she thought she would like to work with children and so went back to university to study teaching.
On graduation, she found there were limited jobs for teachers so she began working as a child health nurse in Redfern and Central Sydney where she was responsible for health screenings at schools. During this time she discovered many of the Indigenous children had hearing issues.
“Out of every 100 kids tested, 86 had an educational significant hearing loss that hadn’t been picked up, and was impacting on their learning and their literacy,” she says.
This finding was also significant because, as she says, learning to hear is “really critical from the age of nought to three as that’s when you learn to listen; if you’re not necessarily tuned in to hearing the right things, you miss consonants, you miss vowels and you miss intonations that make sense of what you’re trying to listen too.
“If you can’t hear, you have great trouble learning,” Professor Sherwood says.
The identification of this health issue was significant for the education of Indigenous children across the country.
“Health service providers did not link hearing loss to education, or talk to parents or teachers about the students with hearing loss and so nobody was acknowledging poor hearing as an issue in learning.”
The local Aboriginal community in Redfern, the NSW Aboriginal Education Consultative Group and colleagues encouraged Juanita Sherwood to research the serious middle ear disease known as otitis media that can cause permanent hearing loss and inhibit language and literacy development.
The research lead to funding from the then minister of Education to undertake further research regarding the development of educational strategies to address Otitis media and these included, the development of a book for the Board of Studies, and an educational film for schools in NSW through to ear, nose and throat clinics. The work became part of both State and Commonwealth policy.
“It’s a really big outcome that started from something really small,” she says.
The Indigenous Literacy Foundation (ILF) acknowledges that otitis media is one of the barriers to achieving good literacy but there are others.
“Poor self-esteem, learning issues and dyslexia are things I’m starting to see are pretty common,” Professor Sherwood says. “Children’s self esteem is the core of how a good school should work at building and supporting and promoting of identity and that is so vital to our kids learning.”
“If you’re confident about yourself and you’re comfortable about learning then all the other bits and pieces fit around,” she says.
Language is also a key issue according to the ILF in improving the literacy of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.
Professor Sherwood believes that in order to improve literacy “every child should be taught their first language – we know from research that children learn best in their first language and then you build on and teach another language.
‘We have the oldest living languages in the world and they should be promoted. They are important, they’re our sustainability, they’re our signs, they’re our language that meets with country, they’re our story of things that English will never be able to speak to and it’s vital that language is maintained and sustained”
Other key factors to Indigenous success at school include strength in community, respect, engagement and connection. While Professor Sherwood acknowledges there are many programs that help Aboriginal succeed, there are some that are yet to be introduced.
“It is important to be aware of the institutional racism that remains within the society. For the last 20 years we’ve been teaching mandatory Aboriginal studies to primary school teachers and now high school teachers. This has been a big shift, but if people still believe Aboriginal people are a ‘problem’ as promoted through the media and government policy namely the Northern Territory Emergency Response and Intervention they’re setting up a whole cycle of misinformation again which can undo the knowledge development provided within the schools.
As the new Professor of Australian Indigenous Education at UTS, Professor Sherwood is in a unique position to influence how Indigenous education is perceived and linked with the curriculum.
There tends to be a “silo ideology around how we get Indigenous education across the curriculum and there’s a belief that Indigenous education and issues don’t fit into departments other than education or health.
“My working history has shown that we need Indigenous education on every level, that Indigenous housing and engineering issues are really diverse and we can actually explore curriculum that needs to be more relevant to our communities,” she says. “There are lots of avenues for building Indigenous issues into every aspect of university faculties.
“There’s a big agenda to push and the university here has taken it on – yes, we’ve got a policy, a program, and yes, we need to support that and we need to take it seriously; so, too, does the Department of Education, so do the schools – they need to back up this process.”
Having worked in universities as an Indigenous person, Professor Sherwood has realised the need for dialogue.
“We need to appreciate people are sometimes fearful of how to approach Indigenous education. There needs to be some time and space for dialogue around how to do this safely.
“Literacy is very important and education is the most important gift we can give a child. But we’ve got to make sure that education is given and provided in a safe way because a lot of people turn kids off by being culturally unsafe, rude and disrespectful of the kids and their families and that doesn’t make for a positive learning environment.
“We’ve come a long way and we’ve got a long way still. The more of us who support each other and realise that we’ve got a long way to go and that we need to do it together, the more we’ll achieve.”