Helen was born in Kilmarnock, Scotland - the site of publication of the first collection of work by poet Robbie Burns. At the tender age of three she boarded a boat for the kinder climes of Brisbane, where she grew up in the Queensland capital and completed an honours degree in French at The University of Queensland.
After several years teaching English and French at Bond University, Helen enrolled in a PhD at The University of Queensland studying anthropological linguistics; undertaking a considerable amount of field work in the Aboriginal community of Injinoo, at the top of Cape York Peninsula.
Helen moved to the Territory in 1995 after accepting a position at Batchelor College. At that point she realised she needed to learn a lot more about language and literacy education in the Northern Territory. Helen completed a primary teaching diploma, and spent the next few years working on various literacy-related research projects and learning about literacy instruction from some of the best teachers in the Territory. She joined the team at Menzies CCDE in 2011.
About her current research, Helen said: “I’m interested in the interactions that happen in classrooms – what teachers say to students and how students respond – and whether this has any impact on students’ learning.”
Getting Indigenous children to attend bush schools in the Northern Territory – and to prosper academically – is both an urgent task and a political hot potato.
“Thinking about education is multifaceted. There are issues about getting kids to school in the first place,” she said.
“This relates to what is happening at the kids’ homes, their health, hearing, and their family dynamics; but we shouldn’t ignore what happens when the kids actually get to school, and assume that then it is all easy.
“It’s problematic because teachers aren’t always well-equipped to do this difficult and challenging job.”
Helen describes her work in the SLRC as one piece of the puzzle.
“Our work at the pointy end looks at real classroom situations with some of the most disadvantaged kids: Aboriginal children from remote communities,” she said.
“Working with remote kids in a boarding school context in Darwin, means we can reduce the travel, time and cost involved.
“We plan by the end of next year to develop a pilot training package for teachers that gives them some guidance on how they can structure conversations with kids in an effective way.
“We’ll try and identify what makes a really good classroom interaction for the teaching of science to Aboriginal children.”