Unlearning as a first step to transforming the classroom

When Joe Hewett (OM 1993) and his wife Meg first moved to the small community of Nganmarriyanga, 500km south west of Darwin, they could never have imagined that 13 years later, they’d still be teaching in remote Australia. Passionate about equity in education, Joe entered the teaching profession hoping to make a difference in the lives of young people.

Life in Nganmarriyanga was a big adjustment for the young family, and it quickly became apparent that they had much to learn, and that “unlearning” would enable the deep listening and building of relationships central to life in communities.

A new perspective on learning

Having relocated with the intention of staying for just one year, Joe became principal of Nganmarriyanga School in 2013. Five years later, in 2018, he and the family moved to Elcho Island, when he took on the role of Principal of Shepherdson College*, in Galiwin’ku Community —the role he still holds today.

Galiwin’ku, home of the Yolŋu people, is strong in cultural knowledge and language. Shepherdson College recognises and celebrates the cultural strengths of students and families. The school has a history of strong local leadership, evidenced by, amongst other things, its bilingual program, which will celebrate 50 years of two way learning in 2024. “English is not our students’ first language, and they bring significant cultural knowledge with them to school,” Joe says. “Asking students like ours to step into a Western model of education requires a big adjustment for them, and a lot of flexibility in their educators.”

The context of education delivery in remote communities provides additional challenges; inadequate housing, chronic health issues and limited employment opportunities all impact on student attendance and readiness to learn. In a teaching environment like this, what does success look like?

“We know the value of starting with the students’ strengths,” Joe explains. “The fact is, talking and telling stories is the method through which people here have passed down knowledge for thousands of generations. We’ve tried to recognise and celebrate that our students come from a well-established and strong educational system— and it looks different from our conventional Western model.”

The rewards of staying flexible

In his role as principal, Joe currently oversees initiatives including a cultural knowledge archive, a Learning on Country program, and a “Sunset School” that allows students to attend school at a time that better suits their needs. This teaching context is a long way away from his experiences at Melbourne Grammar, and has been a deeply enriching and rewarding opportunity both for him and his family.

“One of the things I learned at Melbourne Grammar was that it’s really important to do something with the good fortune we have, and to share that with others,” he says. “For teachers thinking of an opportunity like this, I’d say that while it is a big learning curve, the rewards are incredibly rich.”

“It was my experience at Melbourne Grammar that encouraged me to get into teaching in the first place,” Joe adds. “Reading about the School now, I can see a developed sense of social justice, and an outward-facing perspective. I think that’s a very positive thing.”

*Shepherdson College is a Birth- Year 12 school of around 750 students. It is one of nine bilingual schools in the NT. The school is located on Yolŋu land in Galiwin’ku, a small island off the coast of East Arnhem Land which is home to a large First Nations community strong in traditional ways of hunting, living, art and law.