My rural teaching placement.
The resource and education divide between rural and metropolitan areas is only being exacerbated by a systematic inability to attract high quality teachers. Remote students are now as disadvantaged as they’ve ever been before.
As the release of the 2018 PISA statistics revealed late last year, students in rural areas are subject to an unprecedented teacher shortage, with Australia recording the 3rd highest inequity of education staff in the OECD. Only Peru and Buenos Aires have recorded worse.
Whilst there is no question that the inequalities are partially determined by inherent poverty and disadvantage away from school, an unwillingness to fight segregation and work to bridge the gap has illustrated a clear correlation between geographic location and poor educational outcomes. What can we really expect from students who do not have access to quality education and quality resources?
Teachers are offered better salaries, entitlements and extra leave to lure them to rural appointments, along with faster progression and increased leadership responsibilities. These incentives are still not enough though, these schools are still facing persistent staff shortages and high turnover rates.
It’s been determined that medical students trained in rural areas are more likely to practice in rural areas regardless of their background. Preservice teachers in theory were expected to follow suit, with many universities incorporating a mandatory placement in their respective Bachelor of Education. These placements include free housing and financial scholarship incentives all designed to increase interest.
These incentives and a push for preservice teachers to experience rural schools all hinge on these experiences being positive and rewarding. Yet for me and many of my peers, a rural placement experience firmly turned me against working in a rural school.
I experienced first-hand just how difficult it can be to be a preservice teacher rurally, when I completed a placement in Whyalla South Australia. I was lucky enough to be placed in a good school with an amazing mentor teacher who was very supportive of my teaching but it wasn’t enough. I felt isolated. I felt unsupported outside of the classroom and never felt a part of the community.
By no means a tiny town, Whyalla compared to most is a bustling city with a vibrant community. Yet I found it difficult to integrate, make friends. I would often leave school without talking to anyone until I came back the following day.
I never quite realised how much I depended on my friends and family until I didn’t have them there to lean on. The placement was stressful and overwhelming. It was a challenge learning so many new skills, content and how to fit in with the school’s way of teaching.
The only support given from the University was on campus security and an email address for a staff member back in Adelaide. I wasn’t contacted by anyone from the university during my placement and neither was I given the opportunity to ask for more support.
There was never anything in the way of social outings put in place to help me become a part of the community. When I asked the other teachers, they all said suggested sport teams but as I was only stationed there for six weeks, it wasn’t worth it.
This isn’t to say my experience was all negative, I learned a lot. A perspective I wouldn’t have seen in a larger metropolitan school. All my students actually wanted to be there, they wanted to learn and worked hard to be successful. I had small class sizes and I developed meaningful relationships with them.
Though, none of those outweighed the isolation I and many of the teachers felt. Leaving your friends and family to feel stressed, overworked and overwhelmed wasn’t easy. Many of the teachers felt the same way I did – isolated and lonely.
Unlike the university, the school community was supportive. Teachers stuck together through social events, sports teams and other community building events. That didn’t appear to extend beyond to the wider community though.
Universities must increase their commitment to the students sent out to rural schools. It’s not enough to simply give them some money, a staff contact back in Adelaide and usher them out the door.
Constant support on the ground is crucial for the generations of graduate teachers to come. Staff shortages in rural schools won’t change overnight, but acceptance and belonging to a wider community will go a long way in at a least giving those graduates a reason to stay beyond teaching.