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From the beach to the bush


Brigid Veale
6 December 2007
Dodging kangaroos on a corrugated road for 86 kilometres to and from school each day in 40-degree temperatures was all part of the outback teaching adventure for Southern Cross University student Helen Hemingway during her recent stint in north-western New South Wales.

Having completed her first block of practical teaching at a Catholic high school in Murwullimbah, the Graduate Diploma of Education student opted for something completely different for her second posting – four weeks outback at Coonamble High School. Faced with the prospect of heading west to secure a permanent teaching position, Helen decided she wanted to truly experience country life.

“It was a trial run of sorts and I thought that if I enjoyed the experience I might go back,” said Helen, from Tweed Heads. “It was also important to expose my 10-year-old son Reece to country life, to see what opportunities might also exist for him, so he enrolled in a tiny primary school at nearby Baradine for the month.

“It was a real eye-opener for both of us. It was brown, dusty and hot – and that was at 7am in the morning, when I had to set off to drive the hour to school. I certainly got to see the country and its wildlife. Reece went from a class of 30 kids at Tweed South Public School to a school of 30 children, taught in just two classrooms.”

After 20 years in banking and finance Helen embarked on a Bachelor of Business degree at Southern Cross University while pursuing a career in human resources. The satisfaction she gained from helping adults find employment inspired her interest in teaching. “I loved human resources and it was a natural step to do a Diploma of Education so that I can help students enhance their employment potential even before they leave school,” Helen said.

And in rural Coonamble she discovered that such vocational training is a pressing need.

“Coonamble is a town struggling with the drought, a shortage of local employment and an overall loss of hope; the community’s social fabric is deteriorating,” Helen said. “I saw teachers pouring their heart and soul into their students in the face of these challenges, in the hope that those students will do well.

“My experiences showed me that if I do choose to go out west to teach I need to be prepared to be truly committed, to the school and the community. The experience exposed me to a different range of social, economic and cultural attitudes.”

And the verdict? “There were a lot of things that confronted me, which I felt would be a challenge, but I believe I could deal with those challenges if I thought I could make a difference to one child’s life,” Helen said. “It’s a close-knit teaching community and the teachers support each other professionally and personally and they included me in that. It would be exciting to go out there and I am now hoping to get a placement out west for two years or so to develop my confidence and teaching.

“As for Reece, well he had a really good time, too. Every day his smile grew wider and on the last day the school threw a party for him and every child stood up and gave a reason why he shouldn’t go home.”

Helen said she would advise every student teacher to take up opportunities like that afforded by the NSW Department of Education and Training’s Beyond the Line program, which gives education students first-hand experience in remote and rural schools west of the Great Dividing Range.

“Stripped of the trappings of mobile phone coverage and an internet connection enabled me to see the bigger picture,” Helen said. “I recognised that I need to be more resourceful and that not everyone has the same level of privilege as me.”