Rural teaching: over the hill is not so far away
Jan Millwater is a lecturer at the Kelvin Grove campus of Queensland University of Technology. Sue Hudson is the Academic Coordinator for the Bachelor of Education (primary) program at Queensland University of Technology's Caboolture campus.
The problem has been addressed in a range of policy and research papers, notably in two recent reports: Quality Matters: Revitalising Teaching: Critical Times, Critical Choices (Ramsey, 2000) and the National Inquiry into Rural and Remote Education (HREOC, 2000). These reports call for a range of measures, including financial support, for pre-service teachers who undertake practicums in rural or remote areas.
The need to recruit and retain more teachers in non-metropolian areas has also been pursued by the Rural Education Forum of Australia (REFA), and by the AEU. The AEU, in particular, has stressed the need to give early-career teachers incentives to continue to teach in rural areas rather than undertake short-term rural placements as stepping stones to more desired urban locations (AEU, 2000).
For some years, researchers at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) have been investigating the factors needed to attract and retain early-career teachers in rural areas. These efforts have been spurred on the one hand by principals concerned about staff shortages, and on the other by pre-service teachers' reluctance to undertake rural practicum placements.
Some of these factors relate directly to teaching and the school environment. There is a need for pre-service and early-career teachers to receive training and professional development in the pedagogies appropriate for multi-age classes, strategies for rural classroom organisation and small-school administrative responsibilities, and knowledge of how to access appropriate and sufficient resources(Hudson & Hudson, 2009).
Another set of factors, however, relates to the social dimensions of living and teaching in rural areas. New teachers need strategies for successful community interaction and for understanding community dynamics in rural areas. Similarly they need strategies for overcoming isolation and for developing communication and interaction networks with colleagues (Yarrow, Herschell & Millwater, 1999).
QUT teacher educators have concluded that at least some of the barriers to teacher recruitment and retention can be overcome through the collaborative efforts of university education faculties, schools and local rural communities. In particular, it is possible that pre-service teachers may be more willing to take on rural teaching roles if they are reassured about their personal and social opportunities, through brief experiences of immersion in the sort of communities within which they would be based. To this end, QUT has been involved in trial projects designed to provide pre-service teachers with first-hand experience of teaching and living in a rural and remote community.
The Over the Hill program
One such initiative is the Over the Hill program in which, for several days, pre-service teachers who are willing to consider teaching in rural areas experience a taste of living and teaching in such a location. They are billeted with local families, participate in community activities, and teach or assist at a local school.
After some exploratory work in 2006 the program was introduced the following year. Over five days participants took part in many activities such as touch football, rock eisteddfod rehearsals, a parent and community barbecue, and a visit to the local environmental centre, in addition to teaching experience at a local school. An evaluation of the program (Hudson & Hudson, 2008) suggested that slightly more in-school time was required, and the 2008 program was extended to six days.
The program that ran in 2008 involved a new set of 15 pre-service teachers (five males and 10 females) at schools in the Miles/Condamine area of Queensland. The pre-service teachers were accompanied by two university academics who wished to reacquaint themselves with classroom teaching and to familiarise themselves with teaching in a rural or remote school.
To evaluate the 2008 program the pre-service teachers and the participating academics were asked to provide written reflections about their experiences, while the 14 school staff who hosted them completed a questionnaire.
Following the program the written reflections from the pre-service teachers revealed that all the pre-service teachers had enjoyed the experience and almost all of them would now consider teaching in a rural or remote area. One pre-service teacher felt that he may find the isolation difficult if sent to such a remote location and was not convinced he would apply for such a position.
Each type of participant reported benefits from their involvement.
The pre-service teachers all indicated that they had gained a deeper understanding of teaching and living in a rural community, including the operations of a small rural school and ways that these schools can work with parents and the community. Most of them reported feeling reassured that country life isn't boring or cut off from the technological world. Many indicated that the experience had also assisted in their overall development as teachers. Nine said they had gained knowledge about teaching from existing school staff, and more than half had received experience teaching in a multi-grade classroom.
Host teachers from the participating schools described the informal but valuable professional development they had received from the visiting academics in terms of knowledge of curriculum and assessment strategies. The host teachers also commented that hosting pre-service teachers had provided opportunities to reflect on their own practice with school students as they experienced the varied teaching strategies and approaches used by the visitors.
The two academics commented that the program had deepened their understanding of pre-service teachers' field studies experiences. They also noted that they had been required to revisit effective management and planning strategies, and that they had gained more knowledge about online resources for teachers.
All 31 participants recommended that the 'Over the Hill' program continue.
Attracting and retaining quality teachers in rural and remote areas has been a challenge over the last decade. Many pre-service teachers are reluctant to undertake a rural and remote practicum and may not consider applying to teach in such areas when they graduate. Education departments and universities need to explore innovative ways that will encourage graduates to consider undertaking a teaching position in rural areas. Doing so may help to identify candidates suited to these teaching environments.
The evaluation of the Over the Hill program demonstrates the professional benefits that can be achieved when a school district, schools and a university work in partnership to create an innovative program to encourage pre-service teachers to consider teaching in a rural or remote area. It also suggests that some of the barriers to rural teacher recruitment and retention can be addressed by short-term social immersion in rural communities by pre-service teacher candidates who are open to trialing such experiences.
Australian Education Union (2000). A national teacher shortage: A solution from the Australian Education Union.
HREOC (2000). Recommendations: National inquiry into rural and remote education. Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission: Sydney.
Hudson, P., & Hudson, S. (2008). Changing preservice teachers' attitudes for teaching in rural schools. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 33(4), 67–77.
Hudson, P. & Hudson, S. (2009). Understanding rural and remote schools, and facilitating school–community relationships. In Millwater, J., & Beutel, D. (2009). Stepping out into the real world of education. French's Forest, NSW: Pearson Education Australia.
Ramsey, G. (2000). Quality matters: Revitalising teaching: critical times, critical choices. Sydney: NSW Department of Education and Training.
Yarrow, A., Herschell, P., & Millwater, J. (1999). Listening to country voices: preparing, attracting and retaining teachers for rural and remote areas. Education in Rural Australia, 9(2), 1–12.
Subject HeadingsRural education