When Julie Lavis takes a class she has to hold the attention of students sitting hundreds of kilometres apart, isolated in their own homes — no easy task. “Parted but united” is the School of the Air, Broken Hill Campus motto, and teachers employ particular skills to work through a K–6 curriculum, broadcasting lessons from a studio to children scattered around a 700km radius of Broken Hill.
“You need a good understanding of technology and really good communication skills, not only with students but with their supervisors and families and good personal relationships,” says Julie, a Year 6 teacher who has been with the school for six years, two of them as Fed Rep.
“Each child has a nominated supervisor at the home station — either the mother or a governess — who is supplied with lots of support and information."
Teachers also need a very good understanding of technology and the capacity to be away from home a fair amount of the time. Julie visits each student in her class once a year for a day’s teaching. Some live a couple of hours’ drive away and some further, so she drives out, works with the student in the afternoon, sleeps there overnight, works with the student again the next morning and then drives back. The teachers need to feel comfortable sharing other people’s homes to carry out their work and find innovative ways of working through the curriculum.
Twice a year, the whole school gets together for “mini-school” at one of the home stations. The children come with parents, and everyone camps and use shearers’ quarters over three days while activities are held outdoors.
“The whole community comes in, bringing hotpots and other meals, and the students are given the opportunity of social interaction, including problem-solving group work,” Julie says. Also, each class comes to Broken Hill for “classroom” experience with their teacher in the campus building.
The school has nine full time teachers, two part time teachers and a principal who, Julie says, is dedicated to improving conditions for teachers and students. She doesn’t get time off for Fed Rep duties: “But then,” she says, “I don’t have a class in front of me for most of the day either.”
She downplays her role as Fed Rep, saying much of the advice she gives deals with expected working hours, breaks and leave entitlements. “We are quite a small, harmonious staff and don’t often have problems that need Federation support,” she says, “but it is important that I keep reminding people that the conditions we have, and that our students have, were fought for by Federation.
“I believe that being a member of Federation is essential — and to be honest I’m disappointed that it is no longer compulsory."
Asked why she became a Fed Rep, Julie replies, “Well, it wasn’t the lanyard and pen, that’s for sure! My father was a Rep in the Grafton area for many, many years in the ’70s and ’80s. He’s always been a role model and taught me how important representation is, and that’s why, when the role became vacant at School of the Air, I put my hand up.”
In her spare time, Julie can often be found behind a lens. “I love photography,” she says. “My role in Distance Education has me driving on isolated outback roads and while taking a break I use opportunities to record images of landscapes and wildlife. I also love to travel."