Terry, a young boy from Indulkana, an indigenous community in South Australia's northern region, entered the class of a newly-qualified Adelaide teacher. He sat at the back with his head down and never spoke or made eye contact with her. His teacher's only image of him was from the side because she never saw his face full on. He didn't answer her on the few occasions when she spoke to him and she didn't know whether he spoke English or not. He left the class and school after about three to four weeks and she was relieved. Perhaps from her perspective one might say that no harm was done? From Terry's perspective, however, the situation could be seen very differently. He was living in the alien environment of a big city after life in a remote rural location. He had a teacher who knew the name of the indigenous society from which he came but nothing about it. His teacher didn't know how to communicate with him, and, while there were several other Aboriginal children in the class, they had lived much of, if not all, their lives in the city. He knew none of them personally. No-one understood him. He spent each day in an environment that was not responsive to him and didn't relate to him in any way. I was that teacher.
Now, looking back, I ask myself, did Terry feel genuinely respected or valued? Did he sense that his culture of origin was recognised and incorporated by the education being offered? Did Terry think that the school was, in any sense, a place belonging to him? The answer to these questions is likely to be no, so harm may have been done. At the very least a huge opportunity for everyone was lost. At worst, this experience perhaps demonstrated to Terry his position in a society in which racism is often expressed, and gave him the message that school was not for him. What can be learned from Terry's story?
The price of acculturation
Many children who enter early childhood settings in Australia, such as long day child care, kindergarten/preschool and schools present with cultural heritages that differ from those of the staff at those services. When children enter those settings, early childhood professionals may not be aware that families whose cultural values are not consistent with those currently practised there may, in enrolling their child, have to give up goals of child development that they value. Two examples of such values are respect for elders, and the importance of the group as opposed to the individual. Greenfield, Quiroz and Raeff (2000) call this relinquishment 'the price of acculturation'.
A very obvious example is the price paid by the indigenous peoples of Australia. They have been forced into a system that, as Sheena Coleman D'Angelo, a Kothatha woman from South Australia, states, 'was set up to assimilate them and to make them someone else, with different values, perceptions and understanding of the world, indeed the whole universe' (Haseldine & D'Angelo, 2000, p. 7). Sue Haseldine (Haseldine & D'Angelo, 2000), also a Kothatha woman, adds, '... some of our families have chosen not to send them (their children) to an educational service because they want to shape their children to be Aboriginal' (p. 4). Such families are saying that, if they enrol their children in a current early childhood service, the children will lose their culture and identity as Aboriginal people. A similar point about childhood as an apprenticeship for children's place in their cultural community, and the loss of that education when children attend school, has been made by the Scottish gypsy community. As one adult male gypsy said, 'If they spend too much time at school on book learning they fall behind in their learning for the family business' (Jordan, 2001, p. 62). A further price is paid when children learn at school that what happens at home is of lesser worth than what is taught at school. In summarising her experience as an Aboriginal child at school, Terry Ngarritjan-Kessaris (1994, p. …