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Educator Yarns Season 2 Episode 10: Interview with Cath Gillespie

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Today on Educator Yarns Jess speaks with Bandjalang resident Cath Gillespie, educator and Director at Evans Head Preschool.

Cath discusses the efforts that are made within the centre to allow children to connect with Country. Cath reflects on how this has created a deeper connection to the local Aboriginal community and has seen not only an increase in Aboriginal staff, but also in the knowledge that has been shared with the children from this community.

SHOW NOTES

Cath Gillespie:

We get to pick the midyim berries and watch that cycle from flower to berry. We're watching those beautiful seasons.

Jessica Staines:

But it's that consistency that you're there, you keep showing up, you're invested in learning.

Cath Gillespie:

What that looks like is that they're building relationships for the transition to school, so when our Aboriginal kids get to school, they already have a friendly face.

Jessica Staines:

It's a reflection of your local community.

Cath Gillespie:

Yeah, we're really, really mindful of creating spaces for time.

Speaker 3:

You're listening to the Koori Curriculum Educator Yarns with Jessica Staines.

Jessica Staines:

I'd like to acknowledge the [inaudible 00:00:40] people, the traditional owners of the land on which I am recording this podcast. I pay my respects to their elders, both past, present and emerging, and pay my respects to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander listeners.

            Hi, everyone. My name is Jessica Staines, director of the Koori Curriculum. For those of you that aren't familiar with our podcast, season two is all about our new book Educator Yarns. We're meeting and interviewing with our educator contributors from right around Australia, who will be sharing little snippets of their piece. It will be a combination of stories about why embedding Aboriginal perspectives is so important, how to connect with local community, how to embed Aboriginal perspectives in our programme, how to work with anti-biassed approaches and so much more. Make sure you listen in and enjoy the episode. Bye for now.

            Today on the podcast, we welcome [Cath Gillespie 00:01:37], who has been a teacher and educator for over 20 years. She lives and plays in the coastal town of Evans Head on Bundjalung land in the Northern rivers of New South Wales. Together, Cath and I will be yarning about nature play and pedagogy and how we can celebrate Aboriginal culture in our outdoor nature classrooms.

            Thanks so much Cath for joining me on the podcast this afternoon. I know that your [inaudible 00:02:04], Cathy is an educator at Evans Head Preschool. How would you describe your location of where you are? Because I haven't actually been to Evans Head, but my perception, Cath, is that it's like bush and sea not so far from you either, is that right?

Cath Gillespie:

No, that's right. We're in the beautiful far north coast of New South Wales. I guess we're in between say Ballina, Yamba and Lismore. Our community is only 3,100 people. Yeah, we're bush, we're river and ocean, so it's pretty beautiful.

Jessica Staines:

And I got to see some of the pictures of your context, really, of where you're working through the Aboriginal Early Childhood STEM Summit, and you and Kirby were two of our presenters. I have to say, like we said then, and I still attested, I think as soon as this pandemic is over, we need to get a tour bus. I think everyone is ready to come and visit with you for a week.

Cath Gillespie:

[crosstalk 00:03:08].

Jessica Staines:

Yeah. It's a pretty special place. Your service looks stunning, but your nature classroom is pretty special, as is your relationship with Kirby. That's really what you shared with us in the Educator Yarns book. So I was just wondering if you could just share a little bit more about your curriculum and how it's so unique.

Cath Gillespie:

So in respects to the nature classroom, that's come about just through some training that I had with Claire Warden, and it sits really beautifully with our own service philosophy about children connecting with nature. We have a great relationship with our local school. So the nature classroom itself is on Department of Ed land. So we have access to that amazing space just through the relationships that we have with our local school.

            The beauty of that is it's part of the school transition as well, even though we're not in the school itself, but the children walk through the gate and they can see from afar some children. But we have a great connection with the older students at the school. It's a K-12 school. So a lot of the older children are with my husband. He's a teacher at the school, who's an Aboriginal man, who takes a lot of the children, the senior students out, and they're creating tracks in the bush. All the work that they're doing with that to reconnect with culture is just phenomenal. We're invited to be a part of that. So the senior students take us, one of our rituals every day is to walk through that track together and point out some amazing learning and things that they're doing out there. So that's really, really special.

Jessica Staines:

That's pretty incredible that they're able to join you and really to have that community, because I imagine being sort of a smaller population where you guys are that a lot of the children that attend your preschool may end up in that secondary school. Is that right?

Cath Gillespie:

Yeah. That's the norm.

Jessica Staines:

Beautiful.

Cath Gillespie:

Yeah, last week we... The last two weeks, because whenever we go out into the bush, Annie Simone and we go for a walk and Annie Simone says, "Grab a stick because there could be snakes." We tap on the ground as we walk. So these students made special sticks for all of the children, and they've cleaned them up and they oiled them and they carved their names into them. So we all have our own special walking sticks to walk through the bush with.

Jessica Staines:

That's pretty special. That's really thoughtful.

Cath Gillespie:

Yeah.

Jessica Staines:

So how has this relationship and how did the programme evolve over time? Because I think what tends to happen is I know when educators see a service like yours, I think they can get the impression that you're really lucky. You're the exception to the rule, and that these things, you're fortunate to have them but they're not applicable to their context of where they are because they don't have those relationships or they don't have that setting.

            I think sometimes our contexts can be different, but the principles and the process can be really similar. I don't believe that what you have is through... I think look, well, you're fortunate to live where you are, but I don't think it has to do with... I think there are a lot of things that you've actively engaged in and work towards over a number of years to achieve the beautiful pedagogy and practise that you have today. Would you agree with that?

Cath Gillespie:

Yeah, totally. We just didn't wake up the start of last year and say, "We're going to do a nature classroom and have all these amazing relationships." Bang! It's been a long time evolving, and I think the most amazing thing we did is to employ Kirby as our Aboriginal educator, and that was done through consultation. So I went to a summit about seven or eight years ago in Terrigal.

Jessica Staines:

[crosstalk 00:07:10].

Cath Gillespie:

Yes, yes. Did the [negru 00:07:14] training. And then I come back, I was all fired up because that was really missing in our service. We were trying to start, to embed Aboriginal perspectives, but we didn't know how. All I can say is there are so many pathways to employing Aboriginal educators. So we went and spoke to Annie Simone who is an elder [inaudible 00:07:32] the AEO at the school, and she said, "Well, my daughter Kirby is really interested." So from there, that's where the relationship started.

            So little steps as we went along, and then we developed a programme called the Cousins Programme where the Aboriginal students from the higher primary end, so year five, six, would come into the preschool along with Annie Simone and mentor our preschool children. So what that looks like is that they're building relationships for the transition to school, so when our Aboriginal kids get to school, they already have a friendly face. It might even be one of their cousins, and they can support them in the playground.

            But that's so reciprocal because we've got so much language. We've got a really great relationship with Annie Simone, and that programme has been going for seven years. And this is the first year that it can't happen because of COVID. So it's really, really disappointing, but kids from preschool up until year 12, this year 12 that are graduating with a first cousin mentor, so that was one part of our journey, to build those relationships within the community. We also then aligned ourselves with the [inaudible 00:08:46] land holding, which endangers the traditional owners. So we've worked alongside those. We go and visit out there when we can. I've had professional development out there. So it's that whole community making links and inviting people in and going out.

Jessica Staines:

Yeah, and I think those relationships is something that a lot of educators really struggle to develop at their service. I think they hit lots of challenges and obstacles, but there's a few things that you've mentioned and the AEO is one. So for people that don't know, that's an Aboriginal Education Officer, and sometimes they're at primary schools or secondary schools. So that can be a good place to start if you're looking for that community connection. I mean, we also have our AECG. You're part of your AECG, Cath?

Cath Gillespie:

We were, but unfortunately our AECG has folded, but it's something that we're looking to do as part of our reconciliation action plan.

Jessica Staines:

Yeah, fantastic.

Cath Gillespie:

Yep.

Jessica Staines:

The AECG is the Aboriginal Education Consultative Group. And in New South Wales, they sort of act as a bridge between your school or your preschool and your local Aboriginal community. They tend to meet quarterly, and what you mentioned before the conference at Terrigal, Cath, that was ATSIEAG. So that was the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Early Childhood Consultative Group. They unfortunately lost their funding a few years ago. The AECG sort of took on early childhood after that happened.

            I think they sort of had a restructure, they were [Axle 00:10:17] for a little while, but they're not operating the same way that they once were. So in Victoria, they have their LAECG, which is their Local Aboriginal Education Consultative Groups. So I think your local lands councils are really good, and cultural centres. So these are all places that you can contact if you're looking for that community connection, and of course Aboriginal liaison officers at your local council.

            So there are many avenues that you can take to find that community connection, but I think educators need to be really clear on what it is that they're wanting from developing that relationship. Then sometimes that can guide who the correct person is for them to talk to. So it makes sense that you're developing the Deadly Cousins Programme with the school, because that's part of your transition to school programme. It wouldn't make sense for you to be developing that relationship with necessarily someone from the Aboriginal Lands Council. You need to do that with the school. So I think that's useful.

Cath Gillespie:

It's a natural progression.

Jessica Staines:

Yeah, that's right. Because we're not looking at Aboriginal people as being generalists. You're really specific about who these key stakeholders are in your community and how you can work with each other.

Cath Gillespie:

Yeah, absolutely. So it just says today, we've had one of our deadly young Aboriginal educators, her mom is an amazing artist and we're about to start a Aboriginal Residency Programme... Resident Programme? What's the word I'm looking for?

Jessica Staines:

Yeah, [crosstalk 00:11:49] residence.

Cath Gillespie:

So we've just had that initial contact meeting today about how we're going to get the children involved. And that's really, really exciting. That's come from family connection. That's one thing I find, is that [inaudible 00:12:05] families when you are an employee in an early childhood service, particularly a community-based preschool, you usually get everyone's family. Husbands will help out. My children have always come to Working Bees and they went to that preschool. So that's the beauty of it. So we have Aboriginal educators there, and they bring along their family and those really beautiful, authentic relationships. They take time. We don't just say, "Give us, give us, give us, give us," they take time and respect and respectful conversations. We're really, really mindful of creating spaces for time.

Jessica Staines:

Yeah. I think that's that idea of these things that happen over time, it's things that I can see with you in your own individual professional development, that these are other things that you've done over the years that I think has made a big difference, anyway, the way that I feel towards you and your service. Is that I know that you're genuine because this isn't just a flavour of the month sort of thing. So to explain to people that Cath and I have known each other, I guess, from different conferences for a long time. I don't even remember the first time we met, but I was at all those ATSIEAG conferences up here on the Central Coast years ago when they were happening. Then Early Childhood Australia's reconciliation symposiums, and you came to the workshop that Koori Curriculum did. [inaudible 00:13:39], I can't-

Cath Gillespie:

[Cara Kai 00:13:39].

Jessica Staines:

Cara Kai, the Aboriginal Childhood Collective Conferences. So even though we leave hours apart, from me I think you're probably about an eight-hour drive North from me, I've seen you around in the Aboriginal early childhood space, both online and in-person, for a very long time. I think this is what is meaningful for me, is that I see a lot of non-indigenous educators, they sort of pop up and they're there for maybe a couple of weeks because it's NAIDOC Week or they've just signed up for a rap, but it's that consistency that you're there, you keep showing up, you're invested in learning, you're going deeper. I know even outside of things that we've done together, you've done a lot of things with the Stronger Smarter Institute, isn't it, with Chris Sarra?

Cath Gillespie:

Yeah, yeah. So Chris Sarra started the Stronger Smarter Institute. Yeah, I'm a co-facilitator with their Jarjums programme, that we're having a lot of trouble trying to run at the moment with COVID. So it's been postponed a few times now. So, amazing if there's any training you want to do, that's amazing. It's life-changing, the Stronger Smarter Jarjums Programme.

Jessica Staines:

And Dr. Chris Sarra, I'm pretty sure he won a NAIDOC award last year or the year before. I'm sure it was maybe for academic of the year or something, he's an amazing man. So people should definitely, A, do the training, and at least if nothing else read about what he does, Dr. Chris Sarra.

            I think the reason that I'm trying to share a bit about our relationship is to really reiterate to people that you have this great programme, which we're really fortunate that you've shared with us in the Educator Yarns book, but it didn't happen overnight. These are things that you've been working on for, well, 10 years that I've known you. Known of you. You're still working on them, and so these relationships have really taken time. I think that's one of the most important things that I can say to people, and they've developed. So you had to sort of wait to make sure that you got funding for your artists and residency. So once those relationships are established... and even with COVID, you have these setbacks that there might be a lack of funds one year or a pandemic happens the next year, just normal, everyday setbacks. But those relationships are there and you keep that rapport happening, and you pick them back up when you can. People know that you're genuine, they're always there.

            So with your nature classroom, what are some ways that you embed Aboriginal perspectives into that part of your curriculum?

Cath Gillespie:

Most of our curriculum at preschool is guided by the [inaudible 00:16:44] season's calendar that we have access to. So it was developed by the midyim rangers. I mean, we use that as a tool to teach the children about nature. So what's happening in nature. So we were able to take one of those big signs up at the school, but we have a smaller version. So we look at the seasons and what's happening in the seasons and the changes in the season.

            So for example, usually when we first arrive at the site, we only go for a couple of, well, for two terms, because it gets too hot and it's really snaky. So the midyim berries are usually starting to berry. So for quite some time, we get to pick the midyim berries and watch that cycle from flower to berry. Then we can find out about the interconnection of what's living on those berries, what's eating those berries, or what birds are coming down.

            At the moment, the Grevillea are stunning. At the school they're dripping with nectar and we get to squeeze the nectar and lick it off our hands, but we can [crosstalk 00:17:48]. Yeah, oh my goodness. It's like no other taste in the world. They run up to them now [crosstalk 00:17:54]. Yes.

Jessica Staines:

Sorry, I was always told that Grevilleas were nature's first Red Bull. So you put them in a jug of water and you drink it, yeah.

Cath Gillespie:

Yeah. So we sit and watch the birds and we're listening to the birds. It's a really great way to make sure to calm and quiet, let's listen to the birds. We're using apps so we can pick up what birds are around. We can listen to that sound. We have one little fellow who loves to replicate bird sounds, and walking through the track, he can just see the seasons changing. There's one particular tree or bush, and I can't remember the name of it, but as we're walking up to it you can hear it and you can smell it because it smells like honey, and just covered in bees. All different sorts of bees. So watching those beautiful seasons evolve, and even the clouds, [inaudible 00:18:48], the clouds are changing. It's just noticing nature and then finding out how we can connect that.

            So Kirby is a language holder, so she speaks language. So we can give the plants and the animals the correct name. There's a koala in the tree where we are at the moment, it's insane. So we can just sit there and watch the [inaudible 00:19:12] under the tree for as long as we like and find out those stories. Annie Simone will come up to say, "Look up, look up." And there's a [inaudible 00:19:21] nest, and she can tell stories, or tawny frogmouths. Yeah, they always come in pairs, or there's actually three, there's always three of them. She comes and shares those stories with us. So we're really-

Jessica Staines:

Are there always three of them?

Cath Gillespie:

Yeah, there's always three of them.

Jessica Staines:

Is that a thing? I just thought it was two. After the fires, we had three tawny frogmouths that were sort of a little bit displaced. They were in one of my acacia trees out the back, and I was looking at them and there was three, and now come to think of it I do tend to see, there must be chicks, do you think?

Cath Gillespie:

Maybe. I think so. I'll have to ask and let you know. [crosstalk 00:19:57], the echidna out at the moment, we've got these really cool cameras. They're infrared cameras. You put them up at night. I hate to say they're hunting cameras.

Jessica Staines:

Are they like motion detectors?

Cath Gillespie:

Yeah.

Jessica Staines:

Yes. So cool.

Cath Gillespie:

They have been detecting the echidna, and they've caught kangaroos on them and we've found tracks. We clean up the space with a big branch, and then when we come back the next time, we'll have a look and see what tracks are there. I must remember to take some plaster because I remember on one of the-

Jessica Staines:

Oh, Donna does that.

Cath Gillespie:

[crosstalk 00:20:38].

Jessica Staines:

[crosstalk 00:20:37] at Gosford Preschool.

Cath Gillespie:

Great idea.

Jessica Staines:

Gets the little tracks. There's a guy that I follow on Facebook. His name's Jake Kasser. I don't know if you've seen on your news, the big cat that they've been trying to follow through the Bush. They think it's some hybrid from feral cats in the Bush, and ones that they might've brought over hundreds of years ago from Asia when they were doing trades with Aboriginal people here. So he's been trying to track this cat and he's taking plasters of its footprints. Sometimes it's good because you can compare that to size and measure it and sort of work out how old the animal could be and the species and all that sort of stuff. So, yeah. Follow Jake Kasser on Facebook, if you can. He's cool.

            Look, I think there's so much that you're saying... I don't know if you've ever spoken to Catherine Lee, she's the director at the Point Preschool, but she's in a lot of similar circles, but the Point Preschool's down South on Dharawal country. I was having a yarn with her last week, and she was saying that she takes her preschoolers for about a three kilometre walk twice a week or three times a week. They walk the exact same path, because when you walk the same path, they can notice changes in the environment and they learn to read country and they spend more time. I think there's a lot to be said for that. I sort of have compared it to drawing a portrait of somebodies face, that the first time that children start to draw a portrait, they have eyes and a mouth but sometimes they forget the nose and the ears. So you guide them with that. Then you sort of say, "Well, what about the eyebrows and the eyelashes and how about the freckles?" So you're constantly guiding them to look deeper beyond that surface because we tend to miss little things.

            So I feel like this is exactly the same as teaching children or supporting children to draw a portrait of somebody's face, it's almost getting them to read and to see country deeper, to look deeper at things.

Cath Gillespie:

[crosstalk 00:22:46]. Yeah. We've started to do some mapping of country when we're up there, and it's interesting, the children's perspectives, what they actually put on. So one of our little fellows got bitten by a really nasty jumping ant, and one of our student's maps, that's what she put, she put a circle and she said, "That's the ant that bit him." They're always bringing out the maps now, back in in the fence and also when we go back out there, but they're adding things. "Oh, we have to put on that tree that smells so beautiful." The things that are significant to them. The Grevilleas or the millipede that they found under a log is on their own maps.

Jessica Staines:

Wow. I think the fact that they know the functions of those plants in a way, they know what plants have the ants, or which ones have the koalas, they're learning all of those differences from plants. But it takes time. There's another educator, her name is Sarah Marksman and she works at Paddington Children's Centre. She talks about, she did a teacher research project with Red and I a couple of years ago. She talks about there being three ways to do nature play. So the best way to do nature play is in nature. So experiencing it out on country, if you can. The second way is to bring some of those things back into your service. So using that idea of borrow, use and return, we can borrow from country, we can use it, but when we're finished, we take it back.

            Then the third way was this idea of like take, make... Not take, make and waste, sorry, that's an [inaudible 00:24:31] thing. This is your collage trolley, right? So you don't take, make and waste, but you borrow, use and return. But the third way to do it is to have fake-ture. So it's your plastic insects in your small world play and your artificial grasses and things like that. Look, there's a place for all three because ideally we wouldn't have artificial grass and plastic insects, but some of the services that I've worked with are completely indoors. They're in the middle of the city. There is no opportunities for grass to grow naturally indoors, or for insects to just fly in through their yard and be on their plants for them to see.

            So without this fake-ture, then the environment would just be completely sterile, you know? We know what is best, but there are other ways that you can still have nature or fake-ture play. Depends on your situation. But I think that's why everyone looks at your setting and they're just very jealous. I know I'm jealous.

Cath Gillespie:

Yeah. It's a privilege. We understand that. The actual service itself has only got a small, really like a house block. So our yard is itself quite small. However, we've tried out in the design to have some really good learning spaces in there, so they're significant.

Jessica Staines:

What your service does really well is that it's a reflection of your local community. So we say your local community is the languages, the people, the celebrations, but it's also the environment. I know that you've got some trees that you've put deliberately at your service that the children climb in. So even when you're not out on country, they still have got some of those experiences within your service.

Cath Gillespie:

Yeah. So the [inaudible 00:26:27] tree is perfect for climbing, and this tree we actually think it's growing for us because it has low branches as well and they're quite long and strong. Then as you go up in the tree, it opens right up to accommodate for the children. When I say that we were watching the koalas at the school, we noticed that they all sit in the Y shaped branches. A question was raised, do the trees grow for the koalas? So that sits within our tree at preschool as well, because it's home to lots of... Apart from children climbing in it, really high sometimes, but it's home to ants that will sting them all. We've had tawny frogmouths come in and lots of bees because when it flowers, and then the seed pods and the seeds get used for everything. So we think that tree is part of us as well.

Jessica Staines:

Yeah. Well, that tree sounds like it's a big part of your curriculum as well, really? That's amazing. Well, thanks so much, Cath, for coming on. I know that we could talk, there's so much I know [crosstalk 00:27:37], but I feel like, well, we've talked about lots, but there's so much that we could talk about. But this is just a little snippet and I guess a teaser to encourage people to grab the Educator Yarns book and to really delve into those pages and learn more about your nature programme and your service.

            I think the journey that you've been on in general, it's all interrelated, the connections you've built with community, how you've built your team's cultural capacity and their understanding. Protocols of working with language, recruitment, nature play and pedagogy. I mean, there's a lot really that I know that you could speak to. You're a great presenter, and we're really fortunate as I said to have you as part of our summit.

            So thanks so much, Cath, for contributing and to jumping on and joining me this arvo.

Cath Gillespie:

Thank you for having me.

Jessica Staines:

I hope that you enjoyed this episode and had a great little sneak peak between the pages of our new book Educator Yarns. If you'd like to ask questions or connect with me, best to join our Facebook group, the Koori Curriculum Educator Community, which is free for all of our listeners and members.

            Join me next time, where I meet with Linda Price from Kinglake Ranges Children's Centre in rural Victoria, where we'll be yarning about all things bush [inaudible 00:28:53]. It's not an episode to be missed. See you next time. Bye.

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