The sheer size of Australia, its geographical barriers, and sparsely scattered population creates hurdles for schools in country areas. Smaller student populations mean that rural schools must absorb higher fixed costs than their urban counterparts. For instance, the per student cost to employ staff is greater at a school with 20 pupils, than at a school with 800. In the rural context, it also takes more time, effort, and expense to move students and staff across great distances, as well as to create and transport educational resources.
Attracting and retaining qualified and competent teachers in rural, regional, and remote schools has been a perennial problem throughout Australia’s history. Currently, 10% of Australia’s population lives outside urban areas. Despite increasing numbers of graduate teachers, positions in rural schools are difficult to fill, resulting in an oversupply of teachers in cities. In 2017, there were over 200 staff vacancies at rural schools in New South Wales.
State governments have a history of offering incentives to teachers who take up posts outside urban areas. These include higher salaries, and entitlements to extra leave. As of 2015, teachers relocating to Western Australia were offered half a year’s long-service leave after four years and allowances of up to $20,000 a year. Research indicates that whilst such incentives attract candidates to positions, they rarely stay for long. For many, placements at rural schools are merely a stopover before accepting a post in a preferred urban area. Indeed, a widely held perception exists within the education system that the country is a good place to start out as a novice teacher, but not the best place to devote your entire career to.
Pros and Cons of Teaching in the Country
But how do the pros and cons of teaching in the country stack up, according to teachers? Of course, one man’s pro can be another’s con, or vice versa. Some advantages are:
- Incentives such as higher pay, longer leave entitlements and relocation allowances.
- The opportunity to teach in a more individualised, creative way with smaller class sizes.
- A greater chance of finding permanent full-time work than in the cities, where there is an oversupply of teachers.
- Tightknit communities can give teachers great opportunities to develop as a teacher, and to explore different roles while feeling supported and encouraged.
- Opportunities for promotion can be fast tracked in rural schools and teachers have the opportunity to assume other roles and responsibilities in addition to their expected workload. Some teachers may view this as an advantage, whereas others, particularly if they are young and inexperienced, might feel intimidated and stressed by extra responsibility.
- More opportunities to build close relationships with students in small communities, and become involved in school and community activities than in city schools.
- Fewer discipline problems compared to urban schools.
- Rural areas are safer and therefore child and family friendly, and the pace is relaxed.
According to many educators, teaching in a rural context also has its own unique and significant disadvantages.
- The high cost of relocation, including travel and setup costs which aren’t paid for by education departments, even if they do provide allowances to cover living expenses.
- The high cost of certain items, such as food, telephones, and electricity.
- Limited access to a diverse range of quality housing options.
- The high cost and time consuming nature of undertaking professional development in a rural area. Teachers often spend a long time away from students and their families.
- A lack of casual teachers to replace staff who attend professional development courses. The quality of professional development offered in schools seems to depend on the school in question. Some educators say they have regular access to great professional development opportunities, and others argue that there is a lack of them. Still others point out that available courses lacked relevance because they didn’t take into account issues associated with teaching in a rural context.
- Inadequate support for teachers who deal with behaviourally challenged, disabled, or other disadvantaged students.
- Inadequate training to prepare teachers for culturally sensitive interactions with indigenous students.
- Social isolation and the lack of privacy in small towns. Their work life encroaches too much on their personal life, and they suffer from “the fishbowl effect.”
- The lack of professional networking between experienced and novice teachers due to distance, time, and cost. Similarly, novice teachers are concerned about the lack of experienced mentors due to a “revolving door” of staff.
Improving the Situation of Teachers in Rural Areas
Much can be done to overcome the difficulties experienced by teachers taking up posts in rural, regional, or remote areas.
- More teaching courses should include components which focus on the challenges of teaching in rural contexts, and working with indigenous, disabled, or other students with special needs. Informed graduates are better able to serve the communities they work with.
- Introduce an attractive pay scale for teachers who serve remote communities, particularly those who work with disadvantaged groups, could be introduced.
- More university courses could include a term-long practicum in rural communities, so that graduates can see whether teaching in the country is a good fit for their skills.
- Mid-career and senior teachers could be paid well to work for a period of time as mentors in rural schools.
- Introduce exchange programs where teachers get to work in different schools and observe how other schools are run.
- Rural schools can pool casual teachers and professional development resources so access to training is easier for all.
- Finally, schools might consider if there are specialist skills or parts of the curriculum which can be taught by people who have appropriate levels of skill and experience, even if they are not schoolteachers. Such specialists can be an asset to rural areas with a small pool of talent to choose from.
- Employ local graduates, as they are likely to stay within rural communities over the course of their career.
- Governments, education departments, and schools can promote the benefits of teaching in rural settings through campaigns.
Teachers in country areas must face unique challenges, and serving isolated communities as a teacher is often rewarding and always vital. Put simply, all educators deserve to be supported in ways that recognise the challenges associated with their specific situation. Only then will they be able to maximise their own potential and that of their students.
Gerathy, Sarah. “NSW teachers to be given free degrees under push to attract more young staff to the bush.” ABC News. 1 December, 2017.
Halsey, John. Independent Review into Regional, Rural, and Remote Education: Discussion Paper. Department of Education: Canberra. 2017.
Jenkins, Kathy, Paul Reitano, and Neil Taylor. “Teachers in the Bush: Supports, Challenges and Professional Learning.” 2011. Education in Rural Australia. Vol. 21, No. 2. pp.71-85. >.
Major, Tom. “Teachers encouraged to head to rural and regional Queensland for better opportunities.” ABC News. 23 August, 2017.
Roberts, Philip. Staffing an Empty Schoolhouse: Attracting and Retaining Teachers in Rural, Remote and Isolated Communities. NSW Teachers Federation: Surry Hills, NSW. 2004.
Roberts, Philip, and Natalie Downes. “We need a radical rethink of how to attract more teachers to rural schools.” The Conversation. 7 September, 2017.
Ross, Mailie. “How can we recruit more teachers to work in rural schools? The health sector could have the answer.” The Conversation. 6 November, 2015.