Where red dirt runways, crocs and positive education meet

By Leonie Abbott, Senior Trainer of the Berry Street Education Model

As the red dirt kicked up behind us, our sense of anticipation grew at the same rate as our anxiety subsided.

With relief, our little Cessna 310 landed just prior to the arrival of the oncoming tropical storm looming large through the Cessna’s windscreen.

And so began our first two days of Berry Street Education Model training in the Tiwi Islands, between Darwin and East Timor in the Arafura Sea.

Tiwi College is a remote secondary boarding school in Pickataramoor. It was established by the Tiwi community in 2008 and is overseen by the island-based education board. Students are collected each Monday morning from the three main communities on the only two Tiwi inhabited islands: Melville and Bathurst Islands. Generally the trip takes about 45 minutes. On Friday, the students climb aboard Troopies (four-wheel drive troop carriers) again to return to their communities for the weekend.

Stuart Ward, Tiwi College Principal, believes his role is to uphold the school’s goals “to develop a respected young adult, with the skills to acquire a steady job and be a loving and caring parent.” To do this the school employs a diverse range of staff, to create rich learning opportunities and a ‘family away from family’.

In 2017 Berry Street was approached by the school to add to the already strong restorative practice and strengths-based approach they had already adopted. It was hoped that the trauma-informed positive education strategies Berry Street could teach staff would underpin existing knowledge, and would provide a consistent approach across the school.

Travelling to remote communities often comes with a last minute ‘curve ball’. My Berry Street colleague Michele and I were preparing for our flight from Darwin to Pickataramoor, when I got a phone call. A very embarrassed Rebecca from the NT Education Department rang: “Leonie, this is a really embarrassing question, but I’ve just heard our charter plane size has been downgraded and the maximum payload we can take is now 600kgs. Aahhum… How much do you and Michele each weigh?”

The flight from Darwin takes about 30 minutes, but with all the weighing and reassessing at the charter plane terminal, it seemed quite a bit longer.

Landlocked by rainforest and Acacia trees, Tiwi College is certainly in a remote community. Upon landing on the red dirt airstrip our usual routine to let our loved ones know that we’d ‘arrived safely’ was thwarted. There’s no mobile phone reception. Cleverly, the school block the mobile signal during the school week to keep the non-urgent issues going on in their communities out of the students’ reach, so that they can focus on learning. It was a surreal (and rather freeing!) experience to be disconnected. Although, I did notice how reliant I am on my mobile: I still tried checking it many times each day.


Early March in the Tiwi Islands is very humid and storms are full of power, with heavy rain and very noisy lightning and thunder. We experienced the fly in, fly out (FIFO) lifestyle, including staying in a donga. We quickly learned that thongs, long shorts and t-shirts were the attire most appropriate for these conditions. We also learned that the torch on our phones provided a great alternative to head torches (which we forgot to pack) when trekking across to the toilet block. We called it our ‘snake scanner’. The nearby creek was out-of-bounds due to a lurking crocodile. Our amygdala’s were on high alert for significant reptiles, both during the day and at night. Wild horses and buffalo apparently inhabit the bush surrounding the school, but we only saw their distinctive scat as evidence.

The staff group at Tiwi College were wonderful to work with and were eager to apply what we were teaching them directly to their context and community. It was a privilege to collaborate to create practical adaptations to suit both trauma-impacted students, and the school’s particular circumstances.

Tiwi College had actually temporarily closed for classes to ensure all adults in contact with students participated in the training. We thought about the routines for ‘house parents’, how teachers could tweak their language to promote a ready-to-learn addition to the traffic light system already in place. The sports academy staff were interested in how shifts in their own understanding could enhance the outcomes for the kids they coach. The leadership team were busy applying their lens to create a common trauma-informed language across all elements of Tiwi College.

Throughout our training, the kids of our participants played happily (most of the time) at the back of the training room or next door. It was awesome to see the challenge of ‘elastics’ being attempted by kids ranging from 3 -7 year-olds. It was a dynamic room in which to spend two days.

We finished our time on the Tiwi Islands with what seemed like a party at the Pickataramoor red dirt airstrip. Apparently this is common during the wet season.

The weekly food planes were arriving with supplies, vehicles were busily being loaded up and all before the next storm hit. Our little Cessna took off amongst all this commotion and – whilst it was a bumpy ride – the first flash of lightning occurred just as we landed in Darwin. What a lucky and exciting experience we had. Michele and I can’t wait to go back!


Leonie Abbott is the senior trainer, co-author and editor of the Berry Street Education Model at the Berry Street Childhood Institute. She currently supports a diverse range of schools with Trauma Informed Positive Education training, curriculum and strategies to enable school leaders to embed and sustain the science of wellbeing across a whole-school approach. Leonie is a foundation graduate of the Master of Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Melbourne. 

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