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Submission to the National Inquiry

into Children in Immigration Detention from

Rose

O'Connor


I taught a small group of students

(approx.12) for 3 and a half weeks at Port Hedland Detention Centre during March

2002. I am a qualified secondary E.S.L. and English teacher and have taught

since 1987. I've taught mainstream English up to Year 12 and E.S.L to European,

Asian and Middle-Eastern students in Melbourne and Darwin and I've taught on

Aboriginal communities and have some understanding of Primary curriculum and

the needs of younger students. I hope you find the following information relevant.

The students in my class ranged from

about 7-16 years old. It was a mixed ability group also and included basic beginners

to intermediate level students. This made teaching difficult despite the small

number of students.

It's hard to teach E.S.L effectively

with such variables. In a normal program, older students are separated from

younger students as, educationally their needs are different. Due to the size

of the room I was working in it was very difficult to accommodate the needs

of both groups.

Also effective E.S.L requires a lot

of oral work followed directly by reading and writing. It was impossible to

teach in what I consider the most beneficial way to both groups-actually there

were roughly three levels-in such a confined space and with only one qualified

teacher.

It is possible to provide a reasonably

effective program in such a situation, but it takes time to develop. E.S.L.

is very much a specialist area and requires proper training and a carefully

developed program. The conditions under which we worked in the Centre did not

allow for the aforementioned.

There was no program to follow or

evidence of any curriculum development.

There were no student records in

any form ie. academic or any background information of the type which is readily

available in all Australian schools and is particularly valuable to new teachers.

I was not given a proper 'hand-over'

from the previous teacher as she was sacked on-the-spot, something that never

occurs in any other school in Australia.

There was no teacher accountability

or monitoring from outside as is the case in other such 'isolated' teaching

situations. The usual liaison with other schools did not exist. Hence there

was no support either.

There was no parental input into

education because of the detainee status of parents and parent-teacher exchanges

were not formalised or expected.

There was very little opportunity

for variety in the everyday teaching situation. The school lacked the usual

facilities at most schools e.g. library, gym, proper outdoors play area. There

was an unshaded outside area for games which the climate rendered useless for

sustained play.

There was therefore, very little

relief from the classroom environment.

I taught in a small, enclosed room

under fluorescent lights. Not much light filtered into the room because of the

way it was constructed. Bars on the windows added to a feeling of confinement.

Plus the constant presence of officers passing up and down the narrow corridor

outside the classroom added to the sense of being hemmed in. The blare of the

officers walkie-talkies was an ever-present background noise.

Because all the students were still

in the Detention Centre when being taught, there was a sense of imprisonment

in the school itself. Students were ushered over to and back to the school by

guards and gates and doors were locked and unlocked behind them.

As a teacher and member of staff

I had to lock and unlock doors for students and the residents who were our assistant

teachers. This never felt comfortable for me.

Students were also referred to by

their numbers by guards rather than their names. So it was not a very relaxed

atmosphere to work in or for children to be taught in.

There were some clearly disturbed

children in my class. One boy of about 9 was continuously undermining the lesson

through hyper-active behaviour. He was in need of more stimulation than the

school could provide. Most of the kids were either badly or apathetic and it

was difficult to motivate them even though my lessons were well worked out and

suitable for their level.

There was a marked lag between the

oral skills of some students and their reading and writing skills that showed

to me a lack of a proper English program. The education provided by the Centre

lacked continuity, a factor essential to effective teaching. It takes time for

a teacher to plan and implement a program suitable for their particular class.

The nature of the contract system at Port Hedland did not allow for that time.

The contracts were for 6 week rotational blocks and I opted for 3 and a half

weeks and, surprisingly, was accepted. The previous teacher had been sacked

as I already stated. The abrupt dismissal of that teacher had, I believe, a

detrimental effect on the students I inherited as they had come to trust her

and were very attached to her.

They constantly referred to her in

my class, especially some of the little boys, and they wrote her name whenever

they had an opportunity. The children were not allowed a chance to say good-bye

to her in person.

The rationale behind the 6 week contract

was to discourage attachment on behalf of teachers to residents. This policy

contradicts an essential element in teaching ie. the build up of trust from

students over time and the time needed to develop an adequate program to suit

individual student needs.

I noticed students becoming very

attached to teachers. In a normal school environment this attachment would not

have been so intense. One little boy became extremely attached to [name removed],

the other teacher and had great difficulty letting her out of his sight at times.

In the Centre the kids do not get

away from the other kids. They are limited to the same group of children at

the time so the sense of variety and wider experience that goes with attending

school was somewhat limited. One girl in my class did not have any other teenage

girls to sit next to. She sat alone and was the focus of the 2 or 3 teenager

boys in the classroom. The presence of other girls would have diffused such

an intense situation somewhat.

My experience of working in a regular

ESL classroom has been quite different. The students are usually highly motivated

and genuinely want to learn. They are generally very well behaved also. Education

seemed secondary to those students and there was difficulty making it seem relevant

in the face of their everyday reality. The main focus was getting a Visa and

the "fallout" from DIMA decisions often encroached on the classroom.

I also had 2 mentally disadvantaged

children in the classroom who were in need of specialist support.

I taught with 2 untrained assistant

teachers (detainees) who did their best under the circumstances. I did not have

the chance to plan lessons with these residents because they were not given

the time. In fact there was a feeling of being watched in how we related to

these residents by the guards. So again the chance to develop a properly implemented

program was hampered somewhat by restrictions on time with assistant teachers.

I was in a team teaching situation and yet was not given a proper chance to

go through material being taught and to develop ideas together.

These residents also taught alone

for stints when teachers were not available, something that is illegal elsewhere.

One resident taught the pre-school students on regular basis for a long period

of time.

In the time I spent there a number

of students left the Centre. Some of the families were not given a chance to

say good-bye to anyone ... this caused upset in the classroom on occasions.

In a normal school at least there

are some permanent fixtures and far more variety and sense of continuity and

a much broader community to relate to. At least attending a regular school as

the students at P.H now do, affords the opportunity to escape, albeit for a

short time from the unhealthy deadening atmosphere of the Detention Centre.

The school in the Centre did not come close enough to a normal school environment

and even working for a short time in such an environment has a depressing effect

on the psyche. I can't even begin to imagine the long-term effects such an experience

can have on a child.

I hope my comments have

been useful.

Last

Updated30 June 2003.