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Written By

Bianca de Loryn


Indigenous Education and Research Centre

Publish Date

13 June 2023

Researching ‘academic buoyancy’

High school teacher Tammy Sam knows first-hand how brightly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students are capable of shining. However, with much of the research in this area focused on identifying gaps and challenges, she was determined to take a different approach.

“There has already been a lot of research that concentrated on failing students,” Tammy says. “For my Master of Philosophy (Indigenous), I wanted to focus on what Indigenous students were doing well, and how we could further support all students based on the experiences they shared with me.”

Tammy identifies as a descendent of the Bwgcolman people, with ancestral ties to the Kuku Yalanji and the Kalkadoon traditional owner groups. As an Indigenous woman teaching within a community populated primarily by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, Tammy recognised the need for research into how Indigenous students in remote area schools are motivated to find success.

Tammy particularly looked at the concept of ‘academic buoyancy’. “Academic buoyancy is a construct of educational resilience. It is interested in the ability of an individual to adapt and cope within the school setting and bounce back from everyday ups and downs to do with school,” she explains.

Academic buoyancy is shaped by a number of individual factors; however Tammy’s research indicates that there are also ways for educators to play a role in encouraging students in remote areas to find their own personal success.

Tammy and Darylle Sam (supplied)

Understanding and celebrating success stories

Supporting success requires an understanding of the combination of factors that can work to prevent it. “Indigenous students in remote area schools face different and unique challenges compared to children in other schools, and there are Indigenous students performing well at school,” Tammy says.

"Successful students are displaying academically buoyant behaviours by building individual capabilities when drawing on both individual and resource strengths at school. I think it's something that we really need to be looking at.”

Tammy notes that many Indigenous students in remote area schools do not speak standard Australian English at home. “For students to be able to speak standard Australian English in class, they need to leave behind one way of being and speak another person's language when they are at school,” she says. That can be more difficult for some than for others.

“At the same time, students may feel they are judged by others, making this a unique challenge that they need to overcome to be able to find success at school. That's something that I myself and many Indigenous people can identify with,” Tammy says.

Empowerment through encouragement

Tammy’s research for her Master of Philosophy (Indigenous) indicates that the support and encouragement of teachers plays a vital role in overcoming these challenges, especially in cases when students are putting too much pressure on themselves.

“For the Indigenous students in my study, identity was also a common theme, and how people saw them as a learner. They wanted to be seen as successful learners," Tammy says.  “To be acknowledged, or to have some sort of recognition that they were successful, gave them that motivation to go back and actually keep doing the tasks and building up their capability."

Little things make a difference

“There are also little things that make a difference, such as recognising the students’ achievements, telling them they did well and providing feedback so that they understand what is working," Tammy says, "so, they will return to these successful moments—essentially all the basic things that teachers do all the time, I'd say. But in remote contexts achievement recognition needs to focus on developing individual resilient capabilities.

“I think that we teachers are sometimes too busy doing our job that we forget about these little things that students need to build that academic buoyant capacity.”

Powerful role models

Tammy says that the interviews were not only useful for her research project, but they also helped her to grow as a teacher. As Tammy herself has much in common with her students, she noticed that she also serves as a role model for them.

“Over the course of this research project I realised how important it is to consciously be a role model as an Indigenous teacher,” she says, “and to let your students know about the challenges that you've come across as a person, and how they, too, can overcome them, what strategies to use, what resources to draw on.”

The support of the staff at her school was also integral to her research, making it relatively easy for her to find students who were willing to participate in the project. Tammy is also pleased that not only local students from the main school have participated in her research, but also students from further away in neighbouring Indigenous communities including the Torres Strait.

Beach in northern Cape York

Moving from the Cape to Townsville

Tammy’s recent move back to Townsville, after eleven years working in a remote community, has also provided further opportunities to compare how students experience academic buoyancy in different settings. Her role as a district relief teacher in several Townsville schools has provided Tammy with the opportunity to differentiate between students in remote and regional locations.

She highlights that the biggest difference between students in more traditional and remote centres and Townsville is how they appear to experience the 'shame factor'.

“In a school like Townsville, students seem to be socially performing well, and they don't seem to be bothered by being embarrassed or feel ashamed to just be out there, or to get up and speak up in school.”

Setting up students for success

Tammy says that students from remote area schools can do well if they overcome such obstacles. She has been in contact with a former student who is now studying at JCU in Townsville. “I had a conversation with her when we met here at JCU, and she told me she was studying nursing,” Tammy says. Stories such as these are a reminder of the importance of schools and communities engaging with systems to empower students to succeed in their unique circumstances.

Tammy plans to go back to her old school later this year to share some of her research results, she says, “and I'm also hoping to find out how some of my former students are doing.”

Working on her own success story

Her wish to enable students to stay afloat and equip them for success in school and beyond has inspired Tammy to continue pursuing educational research and start her PhD next year.

“I may be looking at a larger scale approach regarding this topic. I want to have a look at the mainstream setting in a larger city and then compare it to the rural and remote settings, maybe in three or four different schools,” Tammy says.

Tammy’s PhD project is also exciting news for her students, some of whom may also embark on their own PhD journeys in a few years, simply because seeing Ms Sam do it means they feel that they can do it, too.

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