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Teachers flock to rural Queensland where desperate towns are determined to make them stay

When the left propeller would not start on the rickety plane set to carry her into Queensland’s Gulf country, Lyn Maykin-Perez could feel her cheeks flush hot with panic.

“I remember sitting on that tiny plane at Mount Isa airport watching the right propeller start up and wondering why the left one wasn’t working. It took so long to start up!” the Brisbane native said.

She is one of 62 teachers who have put city lights in the rear view mirror to fill critical positions in rural and remote public schools in the state’s north-west.

Used to living with crippling staff shortages, north-west communities are counting their lucky stars.

“Everyone knows just how hard it is to get staff in rural areas, let alone teachers,” said Belinda Everett, lead principal at the Mount Isa Center for Learning and Wellbeing (CLAW) which provides support to teachers in the region.

Local agencies hold events such as rodeos and camps to help new teaching recruits feel less isolated.(ABC North West Queensland: Kelly Butterworth)

But getting boots on the ground is just the first step. Next is convincing the new recruits to stick around.

Locals and community agencies are pulling out all the stops to ensure the educators have no trouble putting down roots in the country.

Combating emotional isolation

Ms Maykin-Perez has started teaching grades prep to year 10 at schools in the gulf communities of Normanton and Karumba.

She said the isolation can “really hit you on the flight in”.

Woman in red shirt stands infront of colorful wall
Gulf teacher Lyn Maykin-Perez says programs run by support agency CLAW help her feel less isolated.(Supplied: Lyn Maykin-Perez)

“You leave Mount Isa on that little plane to come to the gulf and it is a real journey,” she said.

“You go to Doomadgee, then to Burketown and to Mornington Island, and then you land in Normanton and drive to Karumba.

“Change is always challenging.”

Combating feelings of isolation that can drive teachers away is one of the key goals for support organization CLAW, according to Ms Everett.

An outback landscape
Teachers are often struck by the isolated landscape.(Supplied)

“There are a lot of problems with attraction but then retention of teaching staff in rural and remote areas like the north-west,” she said.

CLAW programs help new teachers ease into their roles while introducing them to colleagues and giving them skills for connecting with their new communities and students.

Ms Maykin-Perez was one of the teachers that participated.

“It was fantastic. The individual programs are great, but it is mainly the feeling of being welcomed and assured that we are now part of this region and that feeling of connection that sticks with you,” Ms Maykin-Perez said.

Normanton welcome sign in Qld's western Cape York during the drought in November, 2013
Ms Maykin-Perez travels between Karumba and Normanton in the gulf to teach. (ABC News: Kate Stephens)

The organization runs regular events where teachers from across the region come together.

“We do camping, we do rodeo weeks, anything that helps teachers immerse themselves in the culture out here, makes them realize what a wonderful place it is, and convinces them to stay,” Ms Everett said.

country hospitality

When maths teacher Raj Lutz arrived in Mount Isa to begin his transfer to Mornington Island he was blown away by the local hospitality.

“I walked off the plane and began making my way to rent a car when I saw the people from CLAW waiting for me. They chauffeured me to my hotel,” he said.

man in colorful shirt stands infront of school
Raj Lutz has begun teaching math on Mornington Island.(Supplied: Raj Lutz)

People in the streets of Mornington Island were no different.

“I was being offered lifts to the grocery store,” he said.

“Everyone here calls me brother, everyone is a ‘brother’ and that immediately gives you that feeling of belonging.”

Making passionate teachers permanent

While the surge of teachers moving to rural Queensland is most welcome, Ms Everett can not put her finger on what is driving the influx.

“COVID-19 is causing a lot of people in general to move away from the cities, but we also get people moving because they want that rural lifestyle. There’s a lot of different factors,” she said.

Ms Maykin-Perez made the move because of her strong belief that country faces and voices are under-represented in Australia’s halls of power.

“Education is the key to changing that. We need to see the bush better represented,” she said.

Aerial photo of Mornington Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria.
Locals in the remote community of Mornington Island rolled out the welcome for new teacher Raj.(ABC News: Lucy Murray)

Meanwhile, it was Mr Lutz’s military background that helped him develop a love of rural communities.

“Having those support services that let you innovate and create further opportunities for yourself, it’s a really good match for me here.”

As for Ms Maykin-Perez, she is not getting on a plane back to Brisbane any time soon.

“I’m loving getting to know the students. I’m lucky to be at two terrific schools and I feel like I can make a difference here,” she said.

“I’m definitely in the right place.”

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