Life lessons at School of the Air

By Ashley Hay 1 July 2009
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Reading, writing and croc-spotting – all in a day’s work for School of the Air educator Jodie Hart.

NEITHER GLIDING HIGH ABOVE Arnhem Land nor canoeing in crocodile-infested rivers feature in the daily world of most infant- or primary-school teachers – unless you’re an educator like Jodie Hart. As a staff member of the Katherine School of the Air (SOA), she spent one of her first weeks flying between students’ homes, “on patrol” as the school calls it. “Can you imagine that?” she says, laughing. “I kept thinking, ‘I love this job’.”

Now, 15 years on, she’s “catching up with children I’ve taught whose own children are tuning in to School of the Air.

“Coming from the bush, I never was a team player, didn’t really like the idea of communicating with other people. Now, to work best for the students, I have to work in a team, work with other people…so that they get the best out of every lesson.”

Australia’s first SOA, at Alice Springs, made its inaugural broadcast in 1951. Now, 16 such schools cover 1.5 million sq. km of Australia, operating in all States and Territories except Tasmania and the ACT. The school at Katherine, which started broadcasting in 1966, now has 30 staff and roughly 250 students from pre-school to Year 9. (Students can pursue further study through senior secondary correspondence school in Darwin.)

Of these, fifteen Year 3 and 4 students ranging “south of Mataranka towards Tennant Creek” are taught by Jodie. But while that student–teacher ratio, she knows, would make most classroom teachers gasp with envy, “School of the Air has a whole different set of rules.”

For one, time is needed for visits to students, and for the annual activities that bring them together: regional mini-schools, an “InSchool” week that provides classroom experience, an outdoor-activity camp and a week’s swimming program. For another, technology has changed how students and teachers connect. “In radio days [until 2002], we had to explain everything to the nth degree,” Jodie says. “Now, we can actually show the children what we’d like them to do; they can see us and, some of the time, we can see them as well.”

This two-way computer interaction is currently only used for special-needs students; the remainder can see their teachers on-screen via internet video, but can only communicate with them by phone or email. If the school had more bandwidth available, the technology could extend to all pupils.

These processes not only help teachers, they make a difference to the pupils. “In a regular classroom, students are always peering over each other’s shoulders and thinking, ‘That looks nice – I’ll try that too.’ Now, our students can see each other’s projects, and that gives them more ideas, more inspiration. When I was a student, we had no idea what other students were doing or how to present any of the work.”

And this is perhaps Jodie’s secret advantage as an SOA teacher – she’s an alumni. “I started with School of the Air [in the 1970s] when we were at a station near Daly Waters [230 km south of Katherine],” she says. “Luckily for us, Mum had been a teacher – and a very organised one. What was wonderful was we could go off round the station – help Dad with the mustering or whatever – and catch up on schoolwork afterwards.”

Later, while she was studying for a Bachelor of Education at university in Darwin, SOA staff came to visit. “They sat back-to-back and pretended to have a radio lesson where the ‘teacher’ had to describe to the ‘student’ what they wanted them to do – and of course, because it’s radio, they couldn’t see a thing. Then we had to play that out ourselves. It was good for people to see how hard this is; admittedly it turned a lot of people off.”

Not Jodie. “I wanted to do it because I knew what it was like for isolated children, and what it was like for the mums. I loved the [idea of the] job, and I could empathise with both the students and the tutors.”

You couldn’t get a job that’s more quintessentially Australian, or one that evokes such curiosity. “When people ask what I do, it feels as though I’m taking up the whole conversation. But they’re genuinely interested in what happens here, because it’s so different.”

As for canoeing with crocodiles, accompanied by students, during her first month in the role – it’s just one of many experiences that sets Jodie’s job apart. “You know second-grade children,” she says of the incident. “They just kept saying, ‘It’s okay, Miss’.”

Of all her years with School of the Air, she says, “The whole thing has been pretty amazing.”

Australian Geographic Jan – Mar 2009