Teachers learn to leave Katherine - special series, Part One

LEAVING TOWN: Traditionally Katherine has the highest turnover of teachers in the NT
LEAVING TOWN: Traditionally Katherine has the highest turnover of teachers in the NT

Katherine has been described as one of the hardest places to be a teacher in Australia.

The department of education has tried every trick in the book to keep teachers in Katherine. 

Cheap accommodation, generous salaries, professional development have not fixed the problem. 

Australian Education Union NT branch secretary Adam Lampe said many teachers throw in the towel after a few years because of the pressures of living and working in the outback. 

“Katherine is a difficult place to teach because it is so isolated, I mean the NT is remote but Katherine has another layer,” Mr Lampe said. 

“Working in these schools can chew teachers up pretty quickly, it is the teachers who are resilient with good skills that stay.”

Mr Lampe said traditionally Katherine has the highest turnover of teachers in the NT.

‘More than half the teachers in government schools in Katherine are on contracts and that indicates a large turnover of staff.

“Having most of your teachers on contracts shows that the teaching force has not been around for a very long time,” he said.

“A high quality of education is achieved when you have the same teacher in front of the kids, it makes them feel secure.”

One Katherine teacher, who did not want to be named, said Katherine is a stepping stone to new career heights. 

“It is almost like taking a career shortcut, you come here for a few years and when you move back to the city you are almost guaranteed a job,” she said. 

“It is because you have proven that you can teach in more demanding environments.”

She said rather than trying to get people to stay longer, Katherine should focus on locking more people down for two year contracts. 

“The town should market itself as a place for young people to move to for a few years. Rather than try to keep people here for longer periods of time we should have more people for two year stints,” she said. 

“People don’t want to stay here forever, it is far away from their families and friends back home and they miss out on weddings and birthdays and their mates having babies. 

“But it is still an amazing place to live and experience for a few years,” she said. 

Another Katherine teacher said he was enticed to town by the high wages, freedom and the chance to engage with Indigenous culture. 

“I make more money here than some teachers in the cities who have been teaching for a much longer time,” he said. 

“It is a really hard place to teach and you can see why people do not last.”

Katherine High School principal Peter Fairchild said his school offers staff a host of contract options.

“We acknowledge that a lot of young new graduates are going to have six or seven career changes in their lives. A lot of them only want short term positions,” Dr Fairchild said. 

“We need to offer flexibility for our staff. Not every position should be permanent, it does not allow for a flexible modern workforce. 

“One strategy we employ is to offer our teachers three year contracts, we find that once they start teaching here they likely want to stay,” he said. 

Education Union branch secretary Adam Lampesaid the high turn over of teachers in Katherine can reduce the quality of students’ education.

“It affects the delivery of education if you are not retaining teachers for a significant amount of time, and that is three or four years at least,” Mr Lampe said. 

“You need that amount of time, or more, to be able to contribute meaningfully, if you are here for a short time you only contribute to things on a day to day basis.”

Mr Lampe said many country towns across Australia are facing similar problems.

“It is not just a problem in Katherine, although it is generally acknowledged as one of the hardest places to teach in the Northern Territory, and I think in Australia,” Mr Lampe said. 

“Like every other public profession, the amount of local recruits are extremely low, it is people from out of state. I dare say very few of them are Territorians.”

“You need a fair amount of resilience to stay for a long period of time. Being a teacher is hard anywhere let alone a place like Katherine,” he said,

“NT schools are hard places to teach. The work loads are insane and they are losing staff left right and centre because of budgeting issues.”

Tomorrow’s second instalment – youth workers.