Staffroom moment in ‘back of beyond’ changes teaching career direction | UniSC | University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia

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Staffroom moment in ‘back of beyond’ changes teaching career direction

It was a throwaway comment in the school staffroom of a remote Western Australian town – but it was enough to set senior teacher Tracey Sanderson on a quest to help the next generation of educators.
She hopes her story will encourage other teachers to do the same.

Lecturer in Education Dr Tracey Sanderson with students at UniSC's Fraser Coast campus

“Many teachers don’t think you can do postgraduate study because you’re at a primary school in the back of beyond – but I am proof that you can,” said Tracey, who spent over 20 years teaching in remote Aboriginal and small rural and regional communities.

“We need a groundswell of people with a range of backgrounds and experience to gain post graduate qualifications to research areas that can improve our profession, help empower other teachers and give teaching the recognition that it deserves."

Tracey's ‘aha moment’ came about through mentoring a talented, enthusiastic young graduate teacher who was becoming frustrated with the system.

“It challenged me to reconsider my own career aspirations. It sparked my interest in interrogating my own practice, so I decided to enrol online in a Master of Education.”

Master of Education paves way for new direction 

Initially, the post graduate study was to support her professional development and to become a more effective mentor in her role as a senior teacher.

Then a desire to support graduate teachers before they had even entered the classroom took hold – so Tracey set her sights on a career as a university lecturer.

“I realised that if we don’t empower young teachers, we are not going to see much change – that was my impetus to take this path,” she said.

“A tweak to my study program led to a Master with a research and curriculum focus and meant I was likely to be competitively placed and on my way to a role in initial teacher education.

“With that completed, only one hurdle remained – a PhD.”

Four years of study later, with a thesis that explored ways to support parents to foster a passion for reading, she was awarded her doctorate.

“Engaging in professional development while teaching in regional and remote places requires a little creativity and the willingness to embrace opportunities, roles and experiences as they appear – but it is more than worth it.”

Financial assistance is also available, with ‘Rural and Remote Professional Learning Grants’  to support eligible Queensland state school teachers and school leaders who are studying a Master of Education degree or similar.

“Engaging in professional development while teaching in regional and remote places is more than worth it.”

Tracey now shares her knowledge and insights with education students as a lecturer at the University of the Sunshine Coast’s Fraser Coast campus  – with a focus on promoting the rewards of teaching in regional and remote areas.

And that ‘aha moment’ in the school staffroom continues to guide her practice.

“That graduate I was mentoring was creative, had connected quickly to the community and continually demonstrated how her pedagogy supported her students,” Tracey said.

“But she had become frustrated with the system and ended up saying in a staff meeting, ‘just tell me how you want it done’.

“I was surprised how quickly her thoughtful practice was undermined and, while mentoring other young teachers, I was dismayed by the lack of belief that some had in their own ability to improve and innovate.”

“As an education academic, turning this around is a primary goal."

“I focus on the support that undergraduates need to ensure they enter schools with a strong appreciation for the practical application of theory, and the confidence to challenge constructively, question thoughtfully and advocate for the needs of their students.”

The decision to undertake postgraduate study also creates opportunities for Tracey to undertake research with impact – especially in the regional, rural and remote space.

“These projects include collaborating on developing educational aspirations for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in regional areas,” she said.

“I am also exploring the value of programs like UniSC’s ‘Coast to Country’ in promoting rural pracs and employment, as well as the culture of support education in the university sector for rural, regional and remote education.

Her PhD topic also remains a key focus.

“I’m still working on supporting reading for pleasure for parents with the development of a mobile app that will offer regional parents access to resources,” Tracey said.

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