‘Don’t stand up in a hammock’: Stories from rural teachers changing attitudes | UniSC | University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia

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‘Going bush': Changing attitudes of future teachers

As Australia struggles with teacher shortages outside of major cities, how can more early career teachers be convinced to 'go bush'? University of the Sunshine Coast initiatives are helping to make a difference.

Riding a horse around town while dressed as the Easter bunny is not a typical experience for a school teacher – but it’s one of the many reasons why Melissa Nordling adores county teaching.

Since her first experience of rural education through the University of the Sunshine Coast’s innovative ‘Coast to Country’ tour for pre-service teachers, Melissa knew she’d found her path.

Melissa Nordling and her horse dress up as Easter bunnies for the school children of Capella.

"It confirmed my belief that I would be happiest spending my career in rural communities."

“Visiting schools in Central Queensland as part of Coast to Country confirmed my belief that I would be happiest spending my career in rural communities,” said Melissa, who was originally from Burpengary and completed her studies at UniSC’s Gympie campus.

She formed an immediate connection with Capella State School, with the experience leading to a graduate teaching role in the rural centre, 949 km north-west of Brisbane.

“I love that it's a small town in a beautiful country area. The school and people in it are wonderful and I have a fabulous mentor teacher,” Melissa said. “The lifestyle suits me perfectly as I have my horse living in a paddock right next door, and I am able to enjoy riding him regularly.”

Surviving and thriving in the country

At the start of the 2024 school year, Education Minister Jason Clare described Australia’s persistent teacher shortages as reaching “crisis” levels.

It’s a problem felt most keenly in regional, rural and remote areas, where schools grapple with both recruiting – and retaining – qualified teachers.

One of the biggest obstacles is getting university education students to consider teaching outside larger cities as a career option.

Another key challenge is ensuring students who opt to do rural placements, and graduates who take up country posts, are prepared, supported  and remain enthusiastic about teaching in those communities.

There are no quick fixes – but UniSC’s Coast to Country program, a five day excursion for future teachers from Queensland’s south-east corner to schools in central, remote western and north Queensland for education students who have never lived in a rural or remote location, aims to convince them to consider teaching outside larger cities.

Another solution is giving a voice to those teaching in country, regional and remote communities.

A research project by UniSC Senior Education Lecturers Dr Alison Willis and Dr Sharon Louth invited early career teachers to share their experiences and key learnings of regional, rural and remote teaching, through case studies and surveys.

“Most importantly, we asked for their top tips for surviving and thriving, in an effort to encourage and equip more graduate teachers to take up positions in these communities,” said Dr Louth.

“By sharing their stories and advice, we can better prepare pre-service teachers and help them predetermine their approaches to the demands of rural placements and teaching roles,” she said.

The paper, ‘Don’t Stand Up in a Hammock’, was published in the Australian and International Journal of Rural Education.

It identified five key areas of understandings that teachers needed when beginning regional, rural, and remote teaching and living.

They are: Social (building networks and making friends); Geographical (exploring the local area and getting involved in community); Emotional (positive mindset and getting out of your comfort zone); Personal (healthy habits and resilience); and Cultural (understanding community).

“There is a flow of logic across these findings. That is, build professional and social networks to survive, but build friendships to thrive,” Dr Willis said. “Explore the local area and be involved in community activities. Have a positive mindset and attitude to survive – but get out of your comfort zone to thrive.” 

It is a sentiment shared by Melissa.

“I have enjoyed getting involved in local events, particularly the horsey community in Capella,” she said.

“The best moment I have had so far is definitely my Easter ride. I dressed myself and my horse up like the Easter bunny and rode around town handing out lollies to the kids. The community loved it, but I was particularly proud of how two of my students took it upon themselves to be my navigators and accompanied me around town on their bicycles.” 

UniSC education graduate Melissa Nordling in her classroom at Capella State School.

“Whole other world out there"

UniSC’s Coast to Country tour is coordinated by Associate Lecturer in Curriculum and Pedagogy, Dr Tracey Sanderson, who says the value of the experience is immense.

“I think governments are rapidly discovering that if we don't have more education students interested in going to regional, rural and remote areas once they graduate, then these places are going to suffer,” she said.

 “We've got to do something about changing perceptions – that’s how we get more teachers in rural communities.

“We have large cohorts who have never experienced life outside of South East Queensland, so this program is about giving them a taste to show there's a whole other world out there.

“They get to experience places that they wouldn't normally see and hopefully find rural areas aren't quite as challenging as they thought.” 

UniSC Education students on the 2023 Coast to Country Tour.

Scoring the trifecta

Ultimate success for Coast to Country is to have participating students go on to complete pracs in regional, rural and remote schools and finally return to those communities to teach once they graduate.

“The idea being we want committed and interested teachers in these areas to support the education of rural kids,” Dr Sanderson said.

Final year Primary Education student Billy Kendall from the Sunshine Coast is one such success story.

“I had always wanted to go out rural and after hearing about fellow students’ experiences doing Coast to Country I decided to embark on the trip, which led to my heading back to Moranbah State School for a placement,” Billy said.

“It was the best experience of my life and I felt I really connected with the school, the kids and the community.

“Rural and remote teaching is now a likely career option for me, and I would be excited to head back out to Moranbah, as it felt like a place that I could see myself staying for the next eight to ten years.

“The community, the school and students are just amazing people and I do not think it’s something that you could ever get within the Sunshine Coast or busy areas.” 

Master of Teaching student Thys Joshua Matthews from the Sunshine Coast joined the Coast to Country tour for “a bit of an adventure”. Now rural teaching has gone form a remote possibility to a highly probably career move for him and his family of five.

“I had a genuine curiosity about rural education. The outback has always drawn my attention, and I wanted to see what teaching looked like beyond the city schools,” he said. “Coast to Country was an eye-opener. It reshaped my view of teaching in rural areas, from close-knit communities to teachers juggling many roles and students taking on diverse challenges.

Third year Bachelor of Primary Education Oscar Dagostino was also intrigued to see how schools operated in rural and remote parts of Queensland, compared to his schooling experiences at Hervey Bay.

“It was completely different to living in a coastal town,” he said.

“I was surprised to see just how interconnected the schools were with the local communities and how this allowed the education to be enriched. And just how much support they offer new teachers in relation to mentorship.”

He now plans to find a teaching job in Central Queensland when he graduates.

“I feel there are so many benefits and skills I can obtain from teaching in a rural location, as well as finding ways to involve myself in the community, such as sporting opportunities.” 

Don’t stand up in a hammock

So would regional, rural and remote teachers encourage new graduates to forget the big cities and "go bush" instead?  The answer is an overwhelming "yes".

The UniSC study found that while the early career teachers had both positive and negative experiences, with the extent unique for everyone, the message was clear – the benefits far outweighed the challenges.

Almost 97 percent of participants agreed that teaching in rural, regional and remote contexts was ‘challenging’, around the same number described the experience as ‘rewarding’ and ‘professionally developing’. Nine out of ten said it was ‘culturally enriching.’

Dr Willis said a strong theme of “ups and downs” emerged from the graduates when asked to identify major lessons about teaching their regional, rural and remote communities.

“Among the metaphors were juggling, roller coaster rides, and trying to stand up on a hammock then realising you need to lie down,” Dr Willis said.

Dr Louth and Dr Willis say that since many Initial Teacher Education programs are in urban areas with predominantly urban students, a more focused approach was needed to support students to develop a “rural consciousness”, so they are well prepared for rural, regional and remote teaching.

“Education leaders and Initial Teacher Education providers must not assume that pre-service teachers have the resources to thrive in difficult-to-staff locations without holistic support,” they said.

“These findings also reflect the importance of initiatives within these communities that address health and wellbeing of teachers and reinforce the importance of creating a supportive and welcoming social atmosphere.”  

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