Building closer connections between city and country
A conversation between two principals more than a decade ago has paved the way for a program linking country and city classrooms. Kerrie O'Connor reports.
14 July 2023
Huddled around a fire pit on a freezing Menindee night, two principals from very different schools discovered a common goal.
One had travelled from a small town on the Murray River, the other from Sydney’s northern beaches - and neither could remember just why.
However, that conversation in 2011 between Glen Walker and Andrew Williamson would light a spark in more than their own lives.
Their career choices differ widely - Mr Walker leads 180 students at Gol Gol Public School, about 130km from the South Australian border, while Mr Williamson now has 10-fold that number at Carlingford West, in Sydney’s north-western suburbs.
A dozen years since their fireside chat, exchange teachers are treading a well-worn trail between the pair’s respective schools, and their shared dream of linking their country and city classrooms is a reality.
NSW’s students also have an exciting outdoor classroom on the banks of the Murray River, thanks to the creation of the Gol Gol Cultural and Environmental Immersion Centre.
Complete with merlot vineyard and bush tucker gardens, the Centre sits on 4.8 hectares of land endowed to Gol Gol Public School in the late 1960s by William (Billy) Caffrey, of Woorlong Station.
Mr Williamson said the centre’s goal was for all schools to “immerse themselves in Australia's cultural heritage, right back from our first traditional custodians, through to current multicultural Australia”.
Mr Walker, who also chairs the 60-strong City Country Alliance of Schools, said the centre connected city teachers with their bush counterparts and encouraged quality collaboration and teaching.
“It's enabled us to develop and grow middle leadership qualities in staff, and rural students get a deeper understanding of city life, while city kids experience rural life and know where their products come from,” Mr Walker said.
Centre lead teacher Kaye Cook said the nearest environmental centre was 500km from Gol Gol, so nearby rural schools also welcomed the opportunity to visit.
“They learn all about the region’s biodiversity, the Murray River and about agricultural processes,” Ms Cook said.
“We tie it all in with the curriculum.”
Students love planting trees and joining an archaeological “dig”.
Gol Gol is just two hours from the World Heritage Mungo National Park, home to spectacular sunrises and sunsets and to Mungo Woman and Mungo Man, the oldest human remains found in Australia.
“One of our most popular programs is an archaeological ‘dig’ with a Barkindjii elder and an archaeologist,” Ms Cook said.
“The students learn about respecting country.
“The Elder will yarn to them about the significance of Mungo and they learn about the megafauna and ask permission to dig.”
Finding realistic megafauna “fossils” brings the ancient landscape alive.
Literacy specialist Sandi Strickland swapped the busy roads of Carlingford West for the wide open spaces of the centre in 2023, under the Rural Experience Program (REP).
“I grew up in Carlingford and have never really left,” Ms Strickland said.
“I really enjoy being in the classroom and this is a great opportunity to do something different.”
Mr Walker is grateful Mr Williamson backed Sandi’s dream.
“We have principals who look to grow their staff and Andrew is one,” Mr Walker said.
“Even when they know they are going to miss that person, they are willing to support them in developing leadership and opportunities.”
Ms Cook plans to captialise on Ms Strickland’s literacy focus, but also her love of kayaking and hiking.
“We are building programs based on her skills,” Ms Cook said.
“Everyone brings something different that is of value, including different teaching styles and ways of learning.”
Ms Strickland has followed in the footsteps of fellow Carlingford West Public School teachers Jocelyn Chay and Zoe Stephens, who spent 2022 at Gol Gol.
Ms Stephens continues to work with Sydney schools two days per week, with Alliance funding.
Ms Chay, a tech wizard, revelled in upskilling the Gol Gol team, building “virtual worlds” to connect the two schools.
Her daily work was high-tech, but not so her daily commute.
“I was like, ‘nope, I am going to walk every single day’,” Ms Chay said.
“That was the highlight of my year.
“Everyone drove past and beeped their horns.”
At the finish of her year in Gol Gol, Ms Chay said she had resolved not to complain about Sydney traffic.
“I appreciate being back in the car and having everything available, but I miss the land, miss the space, miss the people,” Ms Chay said.”
Mr Walker says the Alliance and the REP offered others the chance to share that experience.
“Every Sydney teacher, new grad and university student needs to come out west at some point,” Mr Walker said.
“You don’t know what teaching is until you have no power and it’s 37 degrees and you are still teaching.
“It’s not about what we have, it’s about how we do it.”
Mr Williamson says teachers thrive on variety.
“What produces good teachers? Life experience,” he said.
“I have taught in behaviour disorder classes on the Central Coast and in Western Sydney.
“I have sent teachers to Broken Hill because I wanted them to have rich experiences.
“Half our city students did not realise that meat comes from a cow.
“Our teachers are also a product of their environments and I want teachers who have had experiences.
“Glen offers me a connection where teachers can have a taste and have a go.
“Jocelyn has experienced a huge cultural shift.
“I want them to have experiences which make them richer people and better teachers.
“We always come back to learning outcomes and ask ‘how will this benefit my students?’”
Mr Williamson said the Alliance was a chance to “support my country colleagues by sending someone like Sandi to help”.
“We can afford to suffer a little in the city, but if a country school loses one teacher, they lose one-fifth of their staff.
“I have only lost one per cent of mine.”
Sometimes, teachers swap classes for just a week.
“It costs us an air fare and accommodation, but what an experience! You can’t buy professional learning that rich,” Mr Williamson said.
“If you are a frog in a pond, you only know what’s in your pond,” Mr Walker said.
“Our students disperse from the playground at the end of the day in five minutes.
“Two of my teachers went to Sydney for a week and experienced a school of more than 1800 students, where drop-offs took an hour.”
Mr Walker said the Alliance exposed country teachers to Sydney schools with a high percentage of students from non-English speaking backgrounds.
“It is important that everyone knows we are all working hard,” he said.
Mr Walker loves guiding staff to “grow and get their teeth into things”.
“That’s the most enjoyable part of my job,” he said.
Mr Walker said Executive Director, School Performance Rural South and West, Dean White, was “passionate in supporting us to support everybody” and principals involved in the Alliance have become “family”.
“I would probably speak to Andrew as much as I speak to anyone,” Mr Walker said.
“We have become really good friends and colleagues and he has been so supportive.”
Mr Williamson says they “level each other out”.
“Glen will tell me he has a problem, and I will fire back with, ‘do you want this one?’ and then we laugh.
“We both realise the world is not that bad.
“Glen and I have become great mates because we share a passion for education and our students’ learning.
“A classroom is four walls, but what is beyond those four walls is what make the child and the learning.
“It is the teacher who takes the students beyond those four walls and that is what creates the future.”
In Term 1, 2023, the centre was booked out and, in week 10, it hosted an Assistant Principal Curriculum and Instruction Conference for 70 middle leaders from around the state.
“The conference was organised over several months by a hard-working committee to establish connections and place greater focus on literacy and numeracy,” Mr Walker said.
The centre has a grant to build a 25-metre rainbow serpent sculpture inspired by Barkindjii culture, with input from Elders.
Mr Williamson, who delivered 100 iPads to Gol Gol in the summer holidays, dreams of the day when the centre is self-sufficient, “so Glen and I are no longer required”.
“I want it to grow, develop and become its own entity through the Alliance.
“It is an amazing resource for the Department of Education.”
Far West Director of Educational Leadership Peter Macbeth said the centre was an outstanding initiative.
“The connection between all the schools in the Alliance is an outstanding partnership that highlights how collaboration can improve learning outcomes and build collective efficacy and teacher quality across schools from very different contexts,” Mr Macbeth said.
“I applaud Gol Gol and Carlingford West schools, Glen, Andrew and all the staff involved in the establishment and growth of the Centre.
“It is focussed on collaboration, built on belief and trust and is creating amazing educational opportunities and expanding the horizons of all our students and staff.”