Rachael Jacobs

Everyone belongs? Rethinking the value of Harmony Day celebrations in schools

It’s Harmony Week and all over Australia, schools, along with community groups and workplaces are holding their annual multicultural celebrations. Traditional Harmony Days in schools are full of food and fun. Cultural dress ups are the norm. Students get a chance to perform their cultural dance and songs. What could possibly be wrong with that?

The history of Harmony Week

Harmony Week is a “celebration that recognises our diversity and brings together Australians from all different backgrounds”. Mid-March was chosen because it centres around March 21st, the ‘United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination’. This day commemorates the killing of 69 people by police at a peaceful anti-apartheid demonstration in 1960 in Sharpeville, South Africa. On this day the UN asks all people to commit to three key strands to the fight against racism:

  • Education: including teaching the history of racism, slavery, colonialism, racism and discrimination
  • Actions: Speaking out against intolerance
  • Becoming agents of change and having the courage and the will to act.

So how did we get from this to fashion parades and food stalls?

Not-for-profit organisation, All Together Now, details the history and the political agendas that led to the creation of Harmony Day in Australia. At the time, the Howard Government made the choice to focus on ‘harmony’, rather than the hard work required to challenge the root causes of discrimination and prejudice. The Harmony Day slogan is now “Everyone Belongs”, and word ‘racism’ isn’t used on the Harmony Day website or in the “Event Planning Guide for Schools”. 

The Problem with Harmony Week

  At Harmony Day celebrations, the food and entertainment are generally provided by migrants, First Nations people and people of colour, while White-Anglo community members are passive recipients of the labour. It’s hard to see how a day of celebrating dress, diet and dancing, is going to do very much to fight racism. 

The Australian Human Rights Commission proposes that Harmony Day hides structural and systemic racism. Harmony Day implies that Australia has achieved a post-race utopia in which racism doesn’t need to be discussed. It celebrates superficial representations of culture without deep engagement with challenging concepts such as unconscious bias, discrimination and colonial legacies, all of which are alive and well today. Harmony Day makes no mention of truth-telling about genocidal acts, stolen generations, the White Australia policy and other racist histories that shaped the nation.

Harmony Day is a comfortable and safe version of multiculturalism, described by some as “lazy multiculturalism”. But by nature, challenging racism must be uncomfortable, brave and accountable work. While we may feel compelled to protect school-aged children from this,   research tells us that it is never too early to talk with children about racism. Children aren’t born racist, but they learn racial identity from the adults around them.  Ideas around race are formed when children are just three, and babies notice racial differences as young as six months old. 

So, what works in anti-racist education?

We propose three ways that conversations about cultural inclusion and racial justice can be made more meaningful for young people.

Avoid the smorgasboard

A single day set aside for diversity celebrations emphasises the ‘otherness’. It sends a message that culture is trivial, not critical to people’s being and ever-evolving identities. If students are encountering a large range of diverse cultures in a single day, it’s unlikely that any meaningful learning is going to take place. All they’ll take in is the food and fun, and fail to recognise the challenges that people from racial minorities face. Targeted activities that engage deeply with cultures avoids the trivialisation of identities and allows us to notice, understand and appreciate difference.

Embed the learning in the classroom

The Australian Curriculum in Humanities and Social Sciences offers a solid model to start. Children in the early years learn about their local community and its history, the people who live there and their histories, and connect this with their own experiences and identities. As they progress through their primary schooling, they begin to explore Australia’s neighbouring countries and then places and cultures that are further afield. Unlike a smorgasbord approach, it allows for meaningful engagement with the cultures being studied.

Talk about race and racism

There is no greater opportunity to shape the values of future generations than by talking with our youngest citizens what racism is and how to stop it. While some argue that teachers and schools have to forego the safety of celebration-focussed events that have limited impact, we suggest that Harmony Day can be part of a larger learning program of anti-racist work.

One of the authors of this article (Rachael Jacobs) runs Deep Harmony, an arts-based anti-racism program in NSW Schools. The program engages primary and high school students in weekly workshops where they use drama and dance as a portal to arrive at deeper understandings about racism. The program was titled Deep Harmony in response to schools’ desire and commitment to keeping Harmony Day events on their school calendar. Jacobs found that it was too challenging for schools to ditch multicultural celebrations, so instead, designed a program that can take place in the lead-up to Harmony Day, ensuring that there is truly something to celebrate.

Make Harmony Day meaningful

Research suggests that teachers and principals understand and share the critique of Harmony Day, but are still reluctant to remove it from the school calendar. If we’re going to keep doing Harmony Day, schools need to consider the goals of the day, and be bold in adding some depth to the celebrations in order to achieve them. What we want is empathy, respect and understanding. Learning about something that is special to another person, understanding their classmates’ family history, and listening to stories from elders and grandparents can be beautiful and meaningful ways to add value to the day. It is essential to remind students that ridding the world of racism is ongoing work that we are all responsible for. Teachers can even try telling them the limitations of the day, then ask them to name what else they can do.

Let’s make this International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination a genuine commitment to racial justice. It will require more than celebration, but ultimately it will be more meaningful.  

Rachael Jacobs lectures in arts education Western Sydney University. Her research areas include racial justice education and language development through the arts. She is a community activist, aerial artist, South Asian choreographer and she runs an intercultural dance company. As a community artist, Rachael facilitates projects in community settings, mostly working with migrant and refugee communities. 

Rachael Dwyer (she/her) is a Lecturer in Curriculum and Pedagogy at the University of the Sunshine Coast. Her scholarship is focused on creating social change, through decolonizing, arts-based approaches to teaching, advocacy and research, and sharing her scholarship in ways that impact policy and practice. 

Scholarships for teaching students are great – but will they really diversify the profession now?

Australia is in the midst of a teacher shortage, and with 35% of teachers considering leaving the workforce before they reach retirement age, the problem may get worse before it gets better. This means we need to increase the number of teachers graduating from university teaching degrees. The full set of data for 2024 university applicants isn’t available yet, but UAC data suggests that applications to study teaching degrees at universities are trending downwards

One of the strategies to address the teacher shortage is the new Federal Government scholarships to encourage more people to undertake teaching degrees. While hoping to attract more people to teaching overall, the scholarships target groups under-represented in the profession, with scholarships available for First Nations peoples, people for whom English is an additional language/dialect, people with disabilities, people from regional, rural or remote locations, and people from low socio-economic backgrounds. Currently, the level of diversity in the student population in Australian schools far exceeds the diversity of the teachers, with the majority of teachers being from monolingual, White-Anglo and middle-class backgrounds, and more likely to be born in Australia than the general population.

Benefits of a diverse teacher workforce

Research also tells us that a diverse teaching population has a positive impact on student learning outcomes and engagement in schooling. Students perceive schools as more inclusive and welcoming environments when they see teachers who have similar racial and ethnic backgrounds. Based on teachers’ own experiences as culturally and linguistically diverse students, they can better understand their students’ cultural practices and beliefs and how they grow as learners. As insiders to the experiences of racism, they are valuable in the fight for educational and social justice. They make significant contributions to their school communities, due to their distinct experiences and their ability to offer students a different worldview, as well as becoming cross-cultural mentors for their mainstream colleagues.

But will these scholarships work to diversify the teaching profession?

There is no doubt that these scholarships will be attractive for some promising teacher candidates who would otherwise face greater challenges juggling study with their work, health needs and caring responsibilities. There is potential for the pool of students studying teaching to be widened because of the availability of such scholarships,  which would be a positive outcome.

However, financial support during their studies isn’t going to provide everything these students need to have a successful career in teaching. For example, our research has found that teachers from culturally, linguistically and racially diverse backgrounds (we use the acronym CLRD) experience higher levels of isolation, exclusion and racism in their workplaces. CLRD teachers can experience discrimination on the basis of skin colour, accent, dress and even food. Teachers have told us:

“At times, my faculty  would have lunch together in the staff room. It would have been nice to be told about this, even just to be polite, but it did make me feel very left out.”

“Teachers from Anglo background speak to you in a condescending way, belittle you, question your knowledge and qualifications, and there’s definitely a hierarchy where they consider themselves better than you.”

Forced to conceal their true identity

While there isn’t explicit evidence to connect these experiences to racism, every CLRD teacher who participated in our research shared a story like this. Teachers from CLRD backgrounds often feel forced to conceal their true identity to try and fit in, and it means that they’re less likely to stay in the profession and thrive in their careers.

In addition, most CLRD teachers described additional labour they were expected to undertake because of their race, language or cultural background. Some teachers were happy to do this work to help their students, but many commented that this was labour they did not see their white counterparts being asked to do.

Further, when it comes to scholarships, it’s vital that recipients successfully complete their ITE programs. Some teacher candidates from equity groups may require additional academic support from their university, and may not complete their programs without that help. Some universities do a great job of providing this support, but it takes extra resources. How students will be supported needs to be a part of the discussion.

So will these scholarships keep new teachers from leaving the profession?

The financial support may help teacher candidates from equity groups to take the leap into university studies, but it’s not a single solution to teacher retention.  Teachers on these scholarships are required to teach in public schools for a period equal to the length of their studies – two or four years. But to create a sustainable pipeline of teachers, we need them to stay longer than that, and based on our research there are other barriers that need to be addressed. Support from school leadership teams is essential, as is a united front on the part of the school, to reject racism and discrimination. Schools and leadership teams must genuinely see cultural and linguistic diversity as a positive attribute, rather than a deficit. Cash incentives during their studies isn’t going to be enough of a drawcard to stay in a harmful work environment.

From left to right: Dr Rachael Dwyer (she/her) is a Lecturer in Curriculum and Pedagogy at the University of the Sunshine Coast. Her scholarship is focused on creating social change, through decolonizing, arts-based approaches to teaching, advocacy and research, and sharing her scholarship in ways that impact policy and practice. Dr Rachael Jacobs (she/her) is a Senior Lecturer in Creative Arts Education at Western Sydney University and a former secondary school teacher. Her research interests include assessment in the arts, language acquisition through the arts and decolonised approaches to embodied learning. Professor Catherine Manathunga (she/her) is an historian who draws together expertise in historical, sociological and cultural studies research to bring an innovative perspective to educational research, particularly focusing on the higher education sector. She has worked for over 32 years in universities throughout Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand. Professor Daniel Harris (they/them) is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow in the School of Education, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia, and Co-Director of Creative Agency research lab: www.creativeresearchhub.com. They are an international expert in creativity studies, creative methods, affect theory and autoethnography. They are committed to the power of collaborative creative practice and social justice research to inform social change.  Dr Jing Qi (she/her) is Manager of Community Languages Teacher Education Program in the School of Global, Urban and Social Sciences at RMIT. Jing draws together experiences in multilingual, transcultural, and technological studies in her current educational research projects in the areas of teacher education, international education and teacher education. 

Just like us: why Australian students need teachers from everywhere

Our dwindling teacher workforce makes headlines every week and new Education Minister Jason Clare calls it “a massive challenge”. A wide range of strategies have been proposed: increasing the respect and reputation of teaching as a job, raising completion rates in university teaching programs, attracting more mid-career professionals into the teaching, offering bursaries, paid internships and reducing university fees for students studying teaching. There are also conversations about keeping teachers in the classroom by making the pay more competitive. 

Another option on the table is to fast-track visas for teachers from overseas. But can recruiting teachers internationally work?

Australia hasn’t previously welcomed teachers with overseas qualifications, especially those from language backgrounds other than English. The English Language proficiency scores required by AITSL are higher than is required for migrant doctors (and any other profession we could find). Likewise, the English proficiency scores to enter an Initial Teacher Education program are higher than for any other degree, including HDR programs. This creates expensive additional barriers for non-native English speakers, and could be considered discriminatory, given that native English speakers aren’t required to demonstrate the same level of proficiency.

These barriers are impacting the level of diversity of the teaching profession.  Less than one-fifth of of teachers (17 per cent) identify as being born overseas, compared with 33.6% of the wider working-aged Australian population. Further, it reinforces  a deficit view of teachers from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds, overlooking the contribution that such teachers might make to school communities. 

Teachers in countries such as China are highly respected. In Japan and South Korea teachers are well paid and valued as highly educated professionals. Australian ITE programs go through rigorous accreditation to ensure that new teachers have the knowledge and skills they need to be effective teachers, as do other countries. Some countries require all teachers to hold Masters degrees, some require teachers to be bilingual or multilingual. Overseas teachers may actually be more qualified, not less.

A diverse teaching workforce allows culturally and linguistically diverse students and their families to see themselves reflected in their education system. Students will find role models that reflect their life experience, allowing them to feel more comfortable and more able to flourish in learning environments where their home culture is valued. Teachers from racial minorities can understand the experience of racism, and help prevent it from happening, as well as offer empathy to students experiencing prejudice. Studies from the USA have found that teachers of colour are more likely to have higher expectations of students of colour. Studies also found less absences and less disciplinary issues when students of colour were taught by teachers of colour. Most importantly, racially diverse teachers can play a key role in challenging stereotypes about racial minorities among the wider community. In short, everybody benefits from a diversified teacher workforce. 

However, our current highly homogenised workforce doesn’t allow for these benefits to be realised. While the few teachers that we have from minoritised and racialised backgrounds bring much needed diversity to the workforce, they can become victims of racism themselves. They regularly fend off criticism about everything from their accents to their dress, skin colour, religion or beliefs. Their pedagogies and knowledge of curriculum are often subject of criticism, whereas for their white anglo colleagues, nuances in teaching practices are accepted as part of individual difference in the profession. 

There’s sadly a lack of information about cultural diversity among teachers. Country of birth is a crude measure of diversity, and AITSL admits that it currently doesn’t have more detailed information.

Examining the experiences of teachers from different cultural groups, especially with regards to their intentions to remain or leave the profession, will become available in the ATWD in future, and will provide insight into our understanding of cultural safety in schools for students and teachers of different cultural groups. (ATWD report, 2021, p. 18)

However, we also need a far greater understanding of the contributions CALD teachers can make to school communities, and the circumstances that contribute to schools being the kinds of places where diverse teachers – and diverse students – can thrive.

Welcoming teachers from overseas can do much more than address our teacher shortage. While there does need to be some briefing and orientation into Australian teachers’ legal responsibilities, our curriculum and expectations of teachers, we can find ourselves enriched by a workforce that is more representative of our multicultural, multilingual population and our globally-oriented curriculum. More than just a solution to the teacher shortage: A diverse teaching workforce would add value to Australian schools.

Dr Rachael Jacobs is a lecturer in Creative Arts Education at Western Sydney University and a former secondary teacher (Dance, Drama and Music) and primary Arts specialist. Her research interests include assessment in the arts, language acquisition through the arts and decolonised approaches to embodied learning. 

Dr Rachael Dwyer is a lecturer in curriculum and pedagogy in the School of Education and Tertiary Access, University of the Sunshine Coast. She is also the president of the Australian Society for Music Education (ASME), Queensland Chapter.