Blaire Thomson says she was never interested in becoming a teacher. “When I graduated high school, if you told me I'd be teaching seven years later, I'd probably laugh.”
Art was her passion, so Blaire followed her heart to study art and drama at QUT where she graduated with a Bachelor of Creative Industries.
Then, Blaire says she had “lots of basic, part time jobs here and there,” where she did work like housekeeping. She also spent two years travelling around Canada and then Guatemala, where she did volunteer work at a retreat. During her travels, Blaire met a lot of teachers who inspired her, because they were “doing what they love every day.”
“I thought, ‘I should give that a go.’ I saw how much freedom you get with teaching; I could travel and work, and that really is the dream for me.”
She decided to enrol in the Master of Teaching (Primary) at UniSC, which she says has “probably been the best decision I've made.”
“While studying at UniSC, some people who worked for the rural teaching department came to talk to us. I remember thinking, ‘This could be interesting…but it seems like quite a big move.’ And I really did love the Sunshine Coast. Then the more I looked into it, the more I thought, ‘I guess it would be amazing to see all the beautiful sites in North Queensland and teach country kids.’
While on placement on the Sunshine Coast, Blaire met teachers who told her teaching rurally was the best thing they ever did. “I trusted them because they are great teachers...it turned out to be good advice.”
Blaire secured a teaching placement in Innisfail, in the Cassowary Coast Region of Far North Queensland, an exciting land of sugar cane fields, sun, sand and sea, crocs, wilderness and an ancient Spanish castle deep in the rainforest. A place that appealed deeply to Blaire’s sense of adventure, a place where she teaches still.
Getting to Innisfail was a 17-hour drive north, a trip which Blaire says was “an adventure in itself.” A bursary provided by the Tim Fairfax Family Foundation helped Blaire with some of the costs of accommodation and travel, enabling her to make the long trip north without worrying about petrol or a safe place to bunker down for the night.
“I stayed at three different locations on the 17 hour drive up here, and I was concerned about the cost of petrol, so it was reassuring to hear I had help with those costs, and it cemented in me the belief that it was doable.”
Teaching in Innisfail is a “unique experience,” Blaire says, one that offers many one-of-a-kind teaching aspects. “I find country kids are more open to forming positive relationships with their teachers, and in doing so we build a sense of community, which has probably been the best part.
“Country kids are genuinely interested in learning about me and my life experience. They will also not hold back telling me all about their childhood, their home life, their farm, their everything really – they're definitely open books up here."
There is also an incredible sense of community, Blaire says. "I'll be teaching in class and there's someone's cousin sitting on the other side of the room. After teaching for two terms, I've already taught all the siblings…everyone knows everyone, which I guess keeps people accountable. There's lots of different cultures, Indigenous cultures, Maltese, Italians, so it’s a great cultural learning experience.”
Art is Blaire's “number one passion,” and one of things she says she loves most about her new career is “combining working with children and creating art.”
“I thought I'd end up as a primary teacher, but now I'm teaching senior visual art, which – I have to say, I love – being able to bond with teenagers and pass on valuable knowledge, just like the lecturers, who I was inspired by, passed on to me.
“I’m a keen artist, I’ve practised art all my life, so it’s been great to see kids who may not have thought they were creative, learning how to create quality art which they’re not ashamed of.”
Blaire says in her opinion, a successful teacher is genuinely passionate about the content they're teaching. “It may not necessarily be all the content…but if you can find at least one aspect that is inspiring or helpful in any way, that can make a big impact on students’ learning experience in general.
“Most of us have had good and bad experiences in school with teachers and – considering we spend 12 years of our life in school – teachers play a big factor in how we perceive education. The impact teachers make plays a bigger role than we can even imagine.
“Teaching is definitely a lot of responsibility, but just as rewarding.
"I never thought I'd be so passionate about it, but coming up here has definitely opened my eyes to how impactful teaching can be, especially for rural students.”
Maxine Kirby says teaching is something she has always been interested in. “I enjoyed school and I had two older sisters who did very well in school, and I wanted to follow in their footsteps. When I graduated Grade 12, I wanted to try my hand at teaching, and loved it.
“I excelled at uni, which really surprised my mother considering my high school grades.”
The timing for Maxine was perfect, as she enrolled at uni in 2010 – the same year UniSC began offering a Bachelor of Education degree. “We were the first lot of graduates for that program, it worked out perfectly,” Maxine says. “I didn’t have to go to Brisbane for uni, like my sisters did.”
While studying a Bachelor of Ed (Primary) at UniSC, Maxine says she chose to do all her practicums in rural schools. “I tried to diversify myself to see what I was interested in, and loved the smaller, rural schools. I thought the community of these smaller places was incredible. There's always something to do. Everyone's so welcoming. It was just my vibe.”
Maxine graduated in 2014 and got her first posting to the town of Dysart, a small mining town about 10 and a half hours drive from her Sunshine Coast home and around three hours inland from Mackay.
“The town is established for the mines, so it was a very interesting place, but I ended up loving it so much I stayed there for four years,” she says. “I was gifted so many opportunities to learn and grow there, which paved my pathway into leadership roles. I feel very lucky it allowed me to do that.”
Maxine worked in Dysart State School as a classroom teacher and a literacy learning coach, helping other teachers plan their literacy. “Then I expressed my interest in student learning, helping the students who had additional needs, so they got me as much professional development as possible so that the following year I could have a go at that role. I was the inclusion teacher for a little while as well, so I got to do lots of different roles there.
“Teaching in an urban area, you're sometimes lost in the system, there's not as much room to grow. Whereas being rural, in my opinion, leads to many more opportunities for growth and experience.…because they want you to learn and grow."
After four years, Maxine got a transfer to Emerald and landed at Gindie State School, a multi-age, co-educational primary school located in the small township of Gindie. The school has two teachers and 32 students, divided into a Prep to Year 3 Junior Classroom and a Year 4 to Year 6 Senior Classroom.
“Dysart was a school of maybe 360 kids, so it was quite large, and suddenly here I was in Gindie which had a handful of kids. I was a bit nervous, a bit scared, because it was just the teaching principal and myself, so it was very different...but I absolutely loved it so much,” Maxine recalls.
“I just loved the kids, loved the families,” she says. “It was so much more than just a school. We were our own little family. It was so beautiful. I loved the unique challenges as well, like teaching combined grades all in the one class. It was my favourite time in my teaching career.”
Maxine then had the opportunity to step into a leadership role, serving as the school's principal from 2019-2020, something she is "pretty proud of."
In a twist of fate that could have been scripted for the screen, Maxine met her future husband in nearby Middlemount, where herself and a “few of the girls” would go every Monday to play touch footy.
“He was working in the mines at the time, though he grew up on a cattle property about an hour and a half from Emerald,” she says. “At the school where he's from, I think there's a total of five kids that go there.”
Maxine says she’s lucky to have met her soul mate in the regions. The couple now have two children – she is currently on a maternity break from teaching – and own a cattle property together. “We're very lucky where we live, we've got such a beautiful spot. And it's so good for the kids.”
Maxine received a Tim Fairfax Family Foundation bursary while in her final year of university, and says it made a “huge difference.”
“It gives people who have that curiosity the push to give it a go, because without the bursary it is tough. We go out on six-week, unpaid placements, and living away from home there's additional expenses. So, the bursary makes people think, ‘I can give this a go, I can afford to do it for six weeks.’
“I have a lot of friends that have gone from the Sunshine Coast out rural and loved it…though I've also had friends that have not loved it.
"I think it's a mindset. You can come to a place and see all the negative things, or you can involve yourself in community, join a sporting club or volunteer. And if you do, it really does become such a great place to live, and an amazing place to teach.”
The Power of Philanthropic Partnerships
Partnerships are imperative for attracting and retaining quality teachers to remote and rural schools.
Since 2010, the Tim Fairfax Family Foundation (TFFF) has provided a total of 739 bursary funded placements, paving the way for teachers to explore rural and remote locations and giving children and families in these areas access to inspired, quality teaching.
TFFF was established by the Fairfax family who spent twenty years living and working on a cattle property in rural Queensland. Tim Fairfax AC says the Foundation is pleased to continue supporting UniSC's rural and remote education bursary program, which has had a "long and lasting impact."
"Rural and remote Queensland communities require quality educators, and our partnership with UniSC works to ensure that is possible,” Tim says.
Professor Helen Bartlett, UniSC Vice-Chancellor and President, says the significant contribution of TFFF ensures UniSC can deliver positive outcomes for rural and remote communities, and life-changing experiences for students.
“Thanks to the generous support of the Foundation, UniSC’s Rural and Remote Education Program can provide pre-service teachers with rich immersion experiences and financial support during their teaching placements,” Helen says.
"The students’ positive experiences during these placements often leads to valuable employment opportunities and helps address some of the teacher shortages in rural and remote communities.
“The impact these teachers have on rural communities cannot be underestimated, and many of our teachers say they get so much in return from the children, families and communities they work in.”
Incredibly, of the 67.3% of UniSC bursary recipients who took up teaching positions in rural and remote locations in Queensland immediately following graduation (since 2012), 44.3% of these teachers have remained at a rural and remote location after the first two years.