Outback Governesses by Paula Heelan


When I moved to an isolated cattle station with my husband, Peter, and my nine-year-old son Matthew in 1997, far from a town or school, I was warned I’d have to teach Matt through School of the Air (Distance Education). I wasn’t a trained teacher, so I gathered he’d be on the phone every day, for quite some time, to a real teacher. What could I possibly do? With a complete lack of knowledge about Distance Education and what lay ahead, I went in starry-eyed. I soon discovered that for parents living in rural and remote areas the challenges of accessing a continuing, equitable and appropriate education for their children from eKindy through to vocational and tertiary levels are immense. But so too are the rewards.

Across outback Australia education is delivered in many different ways: from tiny one-teacher schools, and teachers working in Indigenous communities in some of Australia’s most remote areas where English is the second or third language, to home tutors or governesses teaching students via School of the Air (SOTA). When children reach secondary level, many attend boarding school or a school-term hostel in a town closer to home; some stay at home and continue to learn through SOTA because the prospect of living away from home is too daunting, or the high cost involved is prohibitive.

In our house, we turned a small bedroom into a schoolroom. It didn’t take long to work out the system by following the home tutor guidelines, seeking advice and support from the school and other home tutors, and establishing a daily routine. I discovered as the home tutor provides the majority of assistance, great commitment and time on every single school day, year after year, is required. To make it through, school has to take priority. Beds are left unmade, cupboards become impenetrable, phone calls and visitors are ignored during school hours and tidiness becomes a thing of the past. Everything gives way to keeping up with the school books – even if it means turning up to the schoolroom in pyjamas for an on-air lesson. Many parents choose to take on the teaching role and find it rewarding. Others, less inclined to teach their own children, prefer to employ a governess. Many are unable to afford a governess and are therefore without options – they must take it on themselves. Some are trained teachers, others not. Most like to separate the parent/teacher role if they can – but it can be difficult to juggle both.

While having an outback adventure of their own, governesses bring myriad benefits to families with children learning through Distance Education. Each family has its own unique situation and the terms and conditions of the job are negotiated to best suit the needs of the family and the governess. While governesses come from diverse backgrounds and are of mixed ages, many have taken a gap year between senior studies and university. That one year on a remote property can make a big impact on both the governess and the family she or he is working for. Indeed, many love the job and the bush lifestyle so much they stay on indefinitely.

I taught Matt from Year 4 to Year 7 and our daughter, Ali, from preschool to Year 7. Both of them left home at twelve years of age to complete their secondary education. One of the hardest things about living in the bush is sending your children to boarding school. When bush kids make the huge leap from home to high school, kids and parents experience massive changes. The daily absence of children is a loss experienced like grief.

When it was time for both Matt and Ali to leave I was shocked by the nagging emptiness and heartache I felt. Nothing prepares you. Across Australia parents from farms, remote stations, small rural or mining towns, or itinerant professionals experience myriad concerns and emotions when faced with sending their children to boarding school. When you have had a major input into your child’s education and wellbeing, it’s very hard to let go. At first the main concern is for the child who is leaving. But the majority settle into their new school and new life with apparent ease, embrace the world of opportunity and have little time or inclination to miss home.

Teaching Ali to read and write from scratch was one of the most frightening things I’ve done. She insisted I read to her every day, but wouldn’t read back to me. One day I changed the words in the book and she picked me up on it. I asked her what it said. She grabbed the book and, out loud, read the rest of it. As she moved through the pages fluently, I watched in disbelief. I think she assumed if I knew she could read on her own, I’d stop reading to her.

When Matt called in for his first on-air radio lesson on his handheld microphone, I sat beside him to listen in. The SOTA teacher asked a question and, coming from a mainstream school, he instinctively raised his hand to answer. ‘You have to press the mic button and call in your name,’ I reminded him. ‘Your teacher can’t see you.’ When I heard a sea of little voices calling in from outback stations, I welled up. I couldn’t believe we were taking part in this iconic feature of bush life. We began to enjoy the one-on-one of teaching and learning. The hours were flexible, but if we got too far behind on the work, it could be a challenge to catch up.

We all made it through. I had twelve years of teaching with loads of long-distance driving to mini-schools and district clusters, on-air classes, teaching by the river, bird watching, rock collecting, lessons on the back lawn or in a paddock, tantrums and tears – not always the child’s. Despite our isolation, there was a wonderful sense of community, and the time was not without excitement, such as the day I nearly burnt down the house!

Matt and I had spent the morning melting candle wax to create works of art. The wax, I decided, was of low grade, so I tossed it out and started again with a better quality wax. We were making Batik – a technique of wax-resist dyeing applied to cloth. While Matt went in to the schoolroom for his on-air lesson, I plonked more wax into a saucepan and put it on the stove. Then I went to another room, turned on some mood music, set up a play area for twelve-month-old Ali and started some ironing. Some time later I smelled something odd. I thought someone outside must be burning rubbish and returned to the music, ironing and baby play. Then, needing coat hangers, I had to pass through the kitchen. Just as well. Flames were reaching high above the oven setting light to the wooden shelf above. ‘Fire!’ I screamed. FIRE. In a panic, I grabbed the chooks’ scrap bucket and threw the contents of vegetable peel, liquid and fat over the fire. This fuelled the flames and they rocketed even higher. ‘Fire,’ I kept yelling.

Matt could hear the commotion from the schoolroom, but a loyal student, he didn’t want to abandon his on-air class. Peering down the hallway from the door of his room – with the radio cord stretched as far as it would go, he interrupted his teacher. ‘Miss Coogan, I think the house is on fire. Mum’s yelling from the kitchen.’ Miss Coogan dismissed him. ‘Go out and see what’s happening, Matt. Switch off but call in later to let us know everything’s okay.’

In the chaos, it didn’t occur to me to smother the flames. The shelves were alight and the ceiling went black. I swooped up Ali and raced her up the hall to her cot. Then I opened the back door, put on oven gloves and grabbed the pot handle. I tossed the flaming saucepan onto the back lawn and returned to successfully bag out the kitchen flames.

From the shed, Peter could hear some noise. Situation normal, he thought, and without any idea about what was going on, returned to work. We had only just painted the kitchen. To this day the ceiling still bears a dark smoky surface – a nasty reminder. All for a flaming art experiment.

In the twelve years of teaching there were countless mishaps, hilarious moments, victories and weeping. But in the end, it was the most rewarding and important experience I’ve had. The School of the Air community is a big, supportive family and through it I have made the most wonderful lifelong friends.

Today there are more than sixteen SOTA bases around Australia with a network covering more than 1.5 million square kilometres. As well as children who live in remote areas, Distance Education caters for children who are travelling or unable to attend a regular school for medical or other reasons.

Distance education has been extended to secondary students and adult education courses, allowing all family members to complete studies regardless of where they live. Students no longer need to rely on pedal-powered radios or high frequency (HF) radio transceivers to receive lessons. Instead they can talk and see each other and their teachers via teleconferencing. SOTA teachers visit as many students as possible at least once a year at community centres, outreaches, town clusters or stations. There are annual sports carnivals, camps and week-long mini-schools. The Distance Education online learning program is now part of the national curriculum and teachers can tailor learning programs for individual student’s needs. Students also receive mail-delivered resources, supplemented by a combination of daily online lessons and home tutoring.

Throughout the chapters of this book, the Isolated Children’s Parents’ Association (ICPA) is mentioned often. The only parent lobby group with interests in all sectors and levels of education for geographically isolated students, the organisation’s strength is in the grassroots support it has engendered and coordinated over the past 46 years. It brings the issues forward and keeps them on the table; and presents solutions to improve education delivery to students in the bush. With branches throughout rural and remote Australia and state and federal councils, crucially it gives bush families a strong voice. With structured, formal administration, volunteers drive the ICPA. Over the years, through persistent lobbying, it has achieved great advances to improve access to education and continues to strive for equity of access to education for bush kids.

Outback Governesses is a collection of eye-opening stories about governesses, home tutors and teachers who educate children in rural and remote areas. The stories provide a window into educating children in the bush and all that comes with this unique experience, and include diverse tales from govies and parents teaching children through SOTA on vast outback stations to teachers working in small rural schools and remote Indigenous communities around Australia. There are those new to the job and others who have taught in remote areas for many years.

Across the country, with a Mary Poppins-like arrival, governesses drop in to take over homestead schoolrooms. They rescue mums juggling school, stockwork, bookwork and all that goes with running a large pastoral enterprise. Those who take the leap to teach outside mainstream schools and venture into the outback are surprised by how much they gain. Governesses and teachers become part of the family and/or remote community and share the trials and tribulations of bush life.

Many fall in love with the outback lifestyle, cope better than they expected with the isolation and often choose to stay indefinitely. Some find love – and life plans take new direction. Others depart reluctantly at the end of the teaching term and, with sad goodbyes, return to city lives.

There are medical emergencies, seasonal floods, fires and drought that impact station life and the school routine. And then there are the unwelcome visitors to liven things up – snakes, bats, mosquitoes, centipedes, flies, feral pigs, red back spiders and the massive insect explosions following rain.

Living and working in isolated areas can mean battling poor access to technology, teaching children who speak English as a second language and learning how to engage and motivate children who might be the only student in the classroom. Days can swing from triumphant, hilarious and joyful, to less than ordinary and downright difficult – but it’s clear from the tales in this collection, the rewards of teaching outback far outweigh the disadvantages.

We hope you enjoyed this sample of Outback Governesses by Paula Heelan. 

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