Getting to class through croc-infested rivers

By Michael McHugh

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How many of us in the training industry can say that they see a group of crocs on their way to work? For Cecily Petherick, it just comes with the territory. She is living proof that a training career can be the key to exploring some exotic frontiers.

Cecily works as a trainer in Language, Literacy and Numeracy at Gunbalaynya, a remote indigenous community on the edge of Kakadu. Edutemps helped to place her there in May this year and she is relishing the challenge.

Prior to Gunbalaynya, Cecily’s training career has taken her to various locations across Australia, including Queensland, South Australia and the Northern Territory. She has worked in a wide range of roles including apprentice training, recruitment, retention and upskilling, but perhaps her current role has been the most fulfilling of all. “My work with the community here has a direct impact on employment prospects and their opportunities for further study. It’s very satisfying to see students gain confidence and develop skills that will serve them for life”, she said.

Gunbalaynya is around 350 km from Darwin and access is at the mercy of the tropical climate, as Cecily explains. “I go back to Darwin occasionally and there is only one road in and out of the community. The road crosses a tidal river at Cahill’s Crossing and while that’s negotiable in the dry season, it quickly becomes impassable in the wet. Once that happens, the only way in is by light plane or helicopter”.

Revelling in the challenge

Her role presents many unique challenges, apart from the tricky access, but this is more than outweighed by the satisfaction it brings. She trains a wide range of ages from teens right up to middle aged adults, with around half of them never having had any formal training before. Methods and techniques therefore need to be adapted to keep the training relevant and appropriate, as she explains. “To engage students I look for scenarios and situations that they encounter in their everyday life. If I’m teaching measurement, volume and size, for example, I use examples involving things they can relate to, such as cooking, hunting. Even something as simple as a clock can be a valuable teaching aid”.

The crocs await their opportunity for a feed at the causeway.

Resources are limited, so it’s a matter of improvising and making do with what is available, as she explains. “We have one room with a whiteboard and just 4 computers. The internet connection is patchy and unreliable, so we have to be creative and improvise with what we have”.

Despite the challenges, Cecily finds it a stimulating environment and can sense the tangible results that her work is creating. “Many of those who come to learn have not had much formal training before and may even have trouble writing their name, so they often start with low confidence levels. Once they start picking things up, however, this quickly changes. Their confidence builds and they can start to make connections between what they are learning, what they enjoy doing and possible career paths”.



Working with cultural differences

Cecily described how a big part of making things work at Gunbalaynya is ensuring that cultural sensitivities are recognised and respected. “In my younger days I lived for 15 years in a remote community, so I suppose I have a good grounding in what to expect. One thing that many city folk may not know is that each community is unique and will have slightly different customs and practices.

It’s very important to be aware of the social norms and that starts with a basic acknowledgement that it is their land and I am coming as a guest. They are naturally a bit wary of newcomers because they see lots of outsiders who fly in to do some work and quickly fly out again, so it’s important to make a commitment to stay for a reasonable amount of time and once they see that, they are very accepting and welcoming”.

“It’s also important for the learning to be a mutual experience. I am as much a student of their culture as they are of what I am teaching. It’s a two-way process and that builds trust. There is also a need to recognise some cultural idiosyncrasies, which may seem foreign to our way of thinking. For example, there can be a lack of consistency in attendance due to different cultural priorities and family events. It’s important to go with the flow on this because it is not due to a lack of interest, it is simply their way of life and I have to have the flexibility to work around that”.

Cecily also noted the need to be sensitive to the cultural norms around gender. Men and women attend at separate times and there are strict observances around any social contact between the sexes. “If I am teaching females and we have a break, the women won’t go onto the verandah for a coffee if there are males out there. They have to be very careful about who they speak to”.


Cecily with some of her dedicated literacy and numeracy students

Edutemps role in the transition

Edutemps had facilitated Cecily’s role at Gunbalaynya after matching her skills and background to the needs of the position. “Edutemps were very thorough in the way they managed my placement here and were diligent in following up and staying in contact to make sure the transition went well. Their ability to understand the role and my skillset was certainly a big factor in this being the right move for me and they have been very supportive”.

“Fortunately, I have never had any close calls, although I may have accidentally run over one or two at the river crossing. Sometimes they are lying underwater on the causeway and you can’t see them, but that’s about as close as I have come”!