Welcome! ~ Sonia Hankova ~ Education/Art/Science ~ E-Mail: sonia.hankova@gmail.com ~ Phone: +61 425 703 860

Teaching in Bulman, Northern Territory

Bulman, Northern Territory

During 2015, as part of the SWiRL Program, I completed my final six-week teaching practicum at the remote Bulman Community School in the Northern Territory. Bulman (Gulin Gulin) is an Indigenous community situated in Central Arnhem Land, 315 km north east of Katherine, along the red dust of the never-ending Central Arnhem Road. The community is very small (about 37 houses) and tight-knit, everyone knows everyone. The native Indigenous languages of the area are Dalabon and Rembarrgna, alas not many community members speak their native tongues; these have now been declared critically endangered. Thank to the influence of white colonisers, majority of local folk speak Kriol – pidgin English. Hence for the most of students at the Bulman School English is their second language. The children of Bulman and Weemol (a community about 7 km away) attend the school and are picked up and dropped off by the school bus. Although the two communities have close ties, there exists a subtle rivalry, which at times echoes in the classroom.

Bulman is nestled amongst rolling hills and plains of the tropical savannah; its surrounds lavish in abundant flora and fauna, sacred lands, pristine springs and the Wilton River. It is a 98% Indigenous community of approximately 150-300 people (depending on the season), with a Police Station manned by two government personnel, a Health Clinic staffed by Indigenous and non-Indigenous staff, a small shop that stocks necessities, and the Bulman School. The community has a Women’s Centre, run by local women, that provides daily meals for the school children and for community members on pension.

'Strong Heart, Strong Mind, Strong Culture'

Bulman is a prescribed community, meaning alcohol and drugs are prohibited. As a result, related issues are not apparent amongst its people who show a close connection to culture and tradition. There is a sense of community spirit and evident influence of the elders sustains a connection to culture that is highly valued yet vanishing with each passing generation. Kinship and skin groups are taught at home and reinforced during ‘culture’ education at the school; there exists a strong emphasis on relationships. This meant that as visiting guests we were able to build and maintain positive relationships with the members of the community as well as staff at the school and easily connected with our students in the classroom – a great benefit to both teaching and learning.

These underlining values are directly reflected in the Bulman School’s motto ‘Strong Heart, Strong Mind, Strong Culture’ and evidently upheld by the students and staff. The school has an enrolment of 55 students in four classes – Preschool: 3-5 year old children, Early Years: Transition-Y2, Middle Primary: Y2-5, and Middle School: Y5-10. It comprises an Anglo-Australian teaching principal, two classroom teachers, an Indigenous teacher who manages the Preschool program, several Indigenous teacher assistants and support staff. The presence of Indigenous staff strengthens the bond between students and teachers and helps facilitate school-community-culture connections. Despite the school’s successes the standardised Numeracy and Literacy achievements are very low and there are many complex, often overwhelming, problems, ongoing attendance issues (on a good day about 40 out of the 55 enrolled students will make it to school), inconsistencies and disruptions to the daily program – behavioural, health and wellbeing, family feuds, social problems, sorry business and other cultural engagements, transience, extreme poverty, infrastructure faults, access, weather. Additionally, extreme isolation and harsh living and environmental conditions as well as the realities of the bigger picture facing the Indigenous population in Australia have a direct effect on staff retention and can have severe psychological repercussions on those not well equipped to handle these. Hence, it can be difficult to retain continuity in both learning and teaching.

Indigenous Elder, Annette, is teaching the Bulman children about skin groups – the kinship system, which is a feature of Aboriginal social organisation and family relationships. It is a complex system that determines how people relate to each other and their roles, responsibilities and obligations in relation to one another, ceremonial business and land. The kinship system determines who marries who, ceremonial relationships, funeral roles and behaviour patterns with other kin.

Teaching Practice

I was fortunate to have gained experience in developing and delivering the science curriculum across all three classrooms of the Bulman School – my science lessons were well received by the students who enjoyed doing experiments and engaging in fun collaborative activities; I see this as my biggest achievement whilst working at the school – inspiring curiosity and questioning through collaborative work and discussions that engage critical thinking. I would typically share my time between the EC Transition and Middle Years (predominantly) where in addition to teaching two hours of science per week, visual art classes and the day-to-day Literacy and Numeracy curriculum I was also involved in one-on-one student assessment, guided reading, goal setting and reporting, and most notably facilitation of the SWiRL Program – collaboratively producing over 30 SWiRL stories with the Bulman children. My SWiRL Partner Ben and I also created a website (click below to view) to share these with a wider audience and allow for easy access in the classroom. It received a warm welcome from the students, staff and community members.

The school follows the Multiple Year Level Remote School Curriculum and Assessment Materials using the Northern Territory Curriculum Framework (based on AusVELS) set out by the NT Government. In line with these documents I developed and delivered practical and relevant learning programs in environments that are based on experiential and collaborative learning. During my time with the Middle School kids I rearranged the classroom from a single row of tables and a teacher centered approach to groups and student centered learning – I felt this would be more conducive to peer support and collaborative work, essential in multiyear, mixed abilities environments. It allowed for classroom discussions, grouped or paired hands on activities and experiments. I delivered a range of activities tasks and assessments that cater for a variety of learning styles; I would study the content and prepare custom materials and resources. Due to the range of student abilities and age groups within a single classroom I adopted an approach that focused on the needs of individual students (often utilising peer support), which in many cases required referral to curriculum standards of earlier years. I found this particularly challenging in the EC Transition classroom, having streamlined my focus on the secondary education and older students, developing basic and simplified science lessons for the very young children proved more difficult for me than developing whole units of work for the Middle school kids. Nonetheless, I learned to read the needs and learning styles of the youngest students and adjusted the content accordingly.


In my view, the overall pedagogical approach of the school is progressive in so that it embraces and emphasises a more holistic education, where possible taking into account individual student’s social, emotional, physical, intellectual, creative potentials. I am however greatly concerned that the current Northern Territory government’s initiatives to implement ‘direct instruction’ curriculum delivery, soon to be rolled out right across the region, will undo all the hard work that the teaching staff and students have been putting in and have detrimental effects on both the students as well as teachers. For now, the school provides a safe and welcoming learning environment that challenges students and strives to equip them with tools and skills necessary for success in boarding schools (from 2016 all community education will terminate at Year 8) and set them up for the world outside of the school as best as possible. This was evident during satisfaction surveys I completed one-on-one with all eligible students. These concepts very much align with my teaching philosophy in that they endeavour to deliver information not only on a level of academic merit but simultaneously engage, connect and nurture the student’s mind and soul. I think that the Bulman School is doing an amazing job, considering the all-encompassing circumstances beyond the comprehension of regular city folk.

Despite the many challenges my experiences at the Bulman School were positive and allowed me to learn more about myself and made me more culturally inclusive and aware. I have proved to myself that I can step into a classroom with confidence, establish positive relationships and high expectations, develop and deliver content specific to student needs, engage children (most of the time) whilst dealing with a range of intellectual social and behavioural issues; that I can think and act on my toes, be flexible and adaptable. This experience has shown me that I truly care for my students and the learning environment and try to maximise their learning, particularly when it comes to my preferred methods I found myself very passionate – in application of critical thinking and the enjoyment they get out of being in my classroom – I have demonstrated these in the ‘Artefacts’ sections of my portfolio. And last but not least, the Bulman experience was life changing in a sense that for the first time in my life I felt an overwhelming gratitude for the life I live.

Thank You Bulman Country and Your Children!