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Managing nine schools, hundreds of kilometres apart, in two time zones

Updated February 03, 2017 11:05:30

Back to school for one remote principal involves coordinating nine schools across multiple time zones over an area as big at the United Kingdom.

Sandy Robertson is the executive principal of the Ngaanyatjarra Lands School, a federation of remote schools across the Western Desert region of Western Australia.

"It is like going to another country and I couldn't believe that I was still in WA," said Ms Robertson, remembering when she first started work in The Lands as a graduate teacher in 2003.

The desert communities stretch for hundreds of kilometres across an area 1,000 kilometres from the nearest two towns of Kalgoorlie to the south, and Alice Springs to the east.

Isolated from mainstream Australia, the transient Aboriginal people of the region have a rich, traditional culture.

Ms Robertson said this meant the school population and enrolment varied.

"It's very changeable [and] sits about 340, but in any year we can get a significant number more than that as we get a lot of visitors and a lot of movement," she said.

Overcoming language barriers

The first language for people born in the Lands is Ngaanyatjarra while further east it is Pitjantjatara or a combination of both.

Ms Robertson said the immediate challenge for new teachers was adapting to a classroom where children spoke no English.

"When they come to kindy, they're not speaking English," she said of her students.

"You're not understood, you're standing in front of students and you're babbling away, you're talking about yourself and doing all your introductions, and they're not really connecting with that."

Currently the school is trialling the concept of having parents or guardians join classes to help translate and act as cultural consultants.

"There's conceptual difference between teachers and the kids out here, about the way you see the world," Ms Robertson said.

"The way that we think about water and the way that an Aboriginal person from the Lands thinks about water, they may instantly go to rock holes for survival or [after] big rains."

Ms Robertson said depending on the time of year and cultural business that might be happening, people from the communities regularly travel throughout the region.

To factor this in, all kids across the Ngaanyatjarra Lands School are on individual learning plans, and teaching programs are coordinated between the different community campuses.

"So as our kids move around a lot, when they go from place to place, now they're seeing something familiar," Ms Robertson said.

Same region, different time zones

The vast region also has two different time zones.

Warburton, Jamieson and Wanarn, are in western standard time while further east, Blackstone, Irrunytju, Warakurna, Wanarn, Kiwirrkurra, Tjukurla are on central standard time.

Apart from a four year break, Ms Robertson's entire teaching career has been spent working in the Ngaanyatjarra Lands.

"It has been something that's certainly got into my blood [and] it's an important job I feel we are doing out here," she said.

"We are very welcomed here by community people [and are] trying to do what we can to give the kids of the Ngaanyatjarra Lands a good life ahead of them."

Ms Robertson said she enjoyed the ongoing challenges and professional development, and that she never saw the sense in moving on after investing time and effort to understand the people and the place.

"I've learned all this here, I am invested here," she said.

"I really enjoy that personal learning, and seeing things progress.

"I can see the potential, I can see where we've come from and where we're going to and I just want to be part of it, it's exciting."

Managing nine schools, hundreds of kilometres apart, in two time zones

Topics:regional, aboriginal, aboriginal-language, indigenous-aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander, education, access-to-education, community-and-society, children, primary-schools, indigenous-culture, kalgoorlie-6430, alice-springs-0870

First posted February 02, 2017 14:07:32

Read more http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-02-02/remote-school-principal-manages-nine-schools-across-time-zones/8230584