A teacher at St John’s Auburn, Helen saw first hand the struggles the Sudanese children faced going to school for the first time. A longtime supporter of the community, Helen also runs a Bible Study & Life Education program for the teenage girls.
Can you tell me a little about your background?
I have been a teacher and principal all my working life. In the last few years of my career, I was doing Special Needs teaching. I met the Sudanese when I was working at St John’s, Auburn. I was asked to set up a special class for them because a lot of the senior primary children were unable to settle into the mainstream class.
What year did you come across the Sudanese?
By 2002, several Sudanese families had enrolled at St John’s and their numbers increased very quickly after that.
'It was a really difficult time for them. They couldn’t settle in because they hadn’t been to school. They didn’t know how a classroom worked or what was expected of them.'
Is that where you met Anna?
Yes. Anna came to work as a teacher’s aide to help with the Sudanese children in 2003.
How hard was it for the Sudanese children to adjust to school life?
It was a really difficult time for them. They couldn’t settle in because they hadn’t been to school. They didn’t know how a classroom worked or what was expected of them. They were running around the classroom because they found it hard sitting down all day and not moving until they were told. There was also a lot of fighting because the other kids would tease them to get them to fight. It was quite chaotic at times. Because they had never been to school, they had no foundations in reading, writing and Maths as well as no English.
Australian classrooms are very good at integrating children who come to the country not speaking English. These children usually already have the foundational skills for ‘school’ learning and they learn spoken English very quickly. Reading and writing skills take longer but given time they achieve these skills and catch up to the other kids in their class.
The Sudanese children were put into classes based on their age with no English AND no experience of school. It took a while to realise that these children were not typical English Second Language (ESL) learners but were preliterate meaning they first needed to develop the skills to learn at school. So while the debate raged as to what to do for them, a special class was created so everyone could survive.
Which years were having the most trouble?
It was the older ones who couldn’t settle at all. It was easiest for the Kindergarten children who were starting school with the other children.
What did you do in the special class?
We did a lot of hands on activities. They loved me reading the Bible to them. They loved the Bible. If I ever wanted peace, I would just get the Bible out and read a story. Even though it was in English, they already knew the story so they could engage with it. They had a deep respect for the Bible and had a greater knowledge of it in comparison with their Australian peers. They learned spoken English at an amazing speed because they already spoke two or three languages. They were quite talented in this area.
When teaching ESL, especially to children, it is important to use lots of visuals and what is called ‘building the field’ to ensure an understanding of what was being studied. We did lots of cooking and we did things like visiting the supermarket and exploring through visuals how everything came to the shop. We did a lot of games especially a lot of Maths games. Also during the day, especially in the beginning, we included their dancing, games and drama so they could maintain self esteem doing things where they felt capable and in control.
I had some lovely African stories that I rewrote to their level of learning. We would all sit around and read together. Then we would do lots of activities. As their English improved, we would do stories like Charlotte’s Web that I would rewrite so that the language was simple enough for them to understand. I believed strongly that they needed to be reading simplified texts at their age level not texts written for children who were starting school.
Why is that?
I strongly believe that older children, who have not yet developed appropriate reading skills, should be given the opportunity to engage with texts that look like they are intended for their age group and are interesting and enjoyable. They find it embarrassing to read texts that are written for Kindergarten children and usually have little interest. It is important to have phonic and word knowledge programmes that begin at the beginning but there are many good programmes written for older children so there is no need for them to be using programmes written for little kids.
Did it make a difference when Anna came?
That made an amazing difference. Anna could explain things to the children. She could explain to them about listening and about sitting down, things that they couldn’t understand. And if there were problems in the playground, she would sit down with them. She would tell them not to start fighting and help them to manage their interactions with other children. They knew they could go to her when they had problems.
How did they progress over time?
After about two to three years, things started to settle down because the families were settling down. They were watching television and learning more about Australian culture. It did become easier but it took a few years. The younger ones were far better off. In time, more educational support was put in place and there was a better understanding of the particular challenges the Sudanese children faced.
Unfortunately, many of the older children struggled throughout high school. It was extremely difficult for those who started school in late primary to catch up because they didn’t have the basics. Even a child starting school in Year Three was a long way behind his / her peers.
Did they have different ESL needs compared to past refugee groups?
This was a big part of the problem; the schools needed to recognise the specific needs of the Sudanese children who were preliterate learners as opposed to ESL learners. In the past, I had taught the Vietnamese refugees when they first came to the country. But these children had been to school and had educated parents. They settled into school as typical ESL learners.
It took quite some time to come to terms with the fact that the needs of Sudanese and Vietnamese learners were completely different. Everyone was sensitive to the past traumas of the Sudanese children but had difficulty understanding that this trauma was being continued because they did not have the skills to cope with their new life. School can be a familiar place that enables resettlement except when you haven’t been to school before. So this experience was proving highly traumatic for them.
How did you become involved at St Bakhita’s?
I knew a lot of the Sudanese families from the time I worked at St John’s. About six years ago, I was asked to become an Assistant Pastoral Care Worker and take over the programme with the young women that had been started by Sister Maria and Anna. It was wonderful to be working with Anna again and I met some of the girls again who I had had in my class when they first came to Australia. I also worked at the church on Sundays. These days I help with a number of things from doing the bookwork to maintaining the computers but my favourite job is working with the girls.
Can you tell us about the girls’ programme?
In the beginning, I worked with Anna. The programme is called ‘Bible Study’ because Bible Study is an important part of Sudanese culture. It was started because the mothers needed help with their teenage girls. It gave the girls something to do on a Saturday morning. The other huge positive was that it created a support network for the girls themselves who were all at different schools. The first groups were aged 14 to 16 years old. The community bus collected the girls on Saturday morning and brought them to St Bakhita Centre. We study the Bible through drama and the use of cameras and computers; always trying to draw on their strengths and interests. We also run holiday programs.
Since the time I became involved in this program, I have seen a huge change in the girls. The good thing is that they are much more involved doing other things now. Many have weekend jobs and are doing Saturday sport. They are also more confident with school and doing homework. These days, I work with Nyanut and our program includes girls from Year Five to Year Nine.
What has been the most rewarding thing about working at the centre?
The people! They just lift your spirit. And being part of the community is a privilege.
What have you learnt from working with the community?
As a teacher, I had to rethink my teaching and create programs to fit the needs of the students. That was very stimulating. I have gained a lot from the spirit of the people. There is something very special about the Sudanese culture. I have also been very lucky to visit South Sudan twice with Anna.
What are your hopes for the community?
One of the biggest difficulties for the young people is racism. I hope that as they integrate, Australian people will get to know and accept them. It seems that any new group coming to Australia has to go through this barrier. I hope this time will pass quickly. I also have great hopes for the contribution Sudanese people will make to Australia as citizens of this country.
What would you say to people considering volunteering?
You will get more out of it than you give. St Bakhita Centre creates wonderful opportunities to get to know extraordinary women from another culture and place. There is also a wonderful group of volunteers here. You will gain a lot of new friends.