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Issues In Educational Research, Vol 12, 2002
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Rural retreat or outback hell: Expectations of rural and remote teaching

Elaine Sharplin
The University of Western Australia
Concern about the quality of education in rural and remote Australian locations has prompted attempts to improve the recruitment and retention of high quality teaching staff. This study reports on the expectations held by pre-service teachers about rural and remote teaching, focussing on both the professional and personal/social domains. The participants were enrolled in a rural education unit as part of Secondary Graduate Diploma of Education at The University of Western Australia. The findings suggest that pre-service teachers are under-informed about rural and remote teaching, relying on narrow, stereotypical images of the rural and remote teaching experience. The expectations of the pre-service teachers included vague and dichotomous images. They held simultaneously idyllic and horrific expectations. The disparity between the expectations of the pre-service teachers and the range of possible realities has implications for the staffing of rural and remote schools and the subsequent level of satisfaction experienced by novice teachers.


The staffing of rural and remote schools impacts on the quality and equity of educational experience for rural Australians (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, 2000; Sher, 1981). How rural and remote schools are staffed to achieve equity remains an important issue for state education systems (Martinez, 1993). The way teacher education institutions support the development of pre-service teachers for rural and remote positions also warrants examination.

Yarrow, Ballantyne, Hansford, Herschell and Millwater (1999) suggest that measures to effectively prepare teachers for positions in rural and remote schools have only recently been addressed by teacher education institutions. To date, the implementation of effective strategies and programs has been haphazard and limited both in Australia (Higgins, 1993; Gibson 1994; Rural and Remote Education Advisory Council, 2000; Yarrow, et al, 1999) and overseas (Queitzsch & Hahn, 1995). Knowledge of the expectations and pre-conceptions of pre-service teachers prior to their appointment may help to identify more effective and appropriate strategies for teacher education institutions.

The study reported here examines the expectations held by pre-service teachers about rural and remote teaching. In particular, this study looks at the expectations of the pre-service teachers in relation to their professional experiences and the personal/ social domain affected by the need to relocate to a rural or remote location. This study will provide some preliminary views about the expectations held by the pre-service teachers. It reports on data collected prior to the implementation of an intervention strategy and is only the first stage of a continuing research project into the experiences of novice teachers in rural and remote areas. Further research is in progress concerning ways in which the expectations of novice teachers are likely to affect their degree of satisfaction with their subsequent worklife experiences.


Both in Australia and internationally, it is accepted that rural areas have more difficulty recruiting and retaining qualified staff (Ballou & Podgursky, 1998; Davis, 1985; Fishbaugh & Berkeley, 1995; Gibson, 1994; Nachtigal, 1982; Martin, 1994; McEwan 1999). Concern about the staffing of rural and remote schools in Western Australia led to the establishment of the Remote Teaching Service within the Department of Education to "enhance equity and quality of student outcomes in the Department's most remote schools" (Remote Teaching Service, nd). However, problems with the staffing of rural and remote schools remain (Home, 1999).

Historically, new graduates have staffed rural and remote schools. Western Australian figures for 1993 indicate that 90 percent of graduates were appointed to rural and remote centres (Kerr & Lake, 1994). McGaw (1977) presented a similar picture in Queensland with 87 percent of teachers appointed to country schools in their first two years of teaching. Similarly, in the United States, educators appointed to rural schools are "younger and less experienced than their urban counterparts and have less professional preparation" (Kannapel & DeYoung, 1999, p.70). While it is difficult to obtain current statistics that reflect both the rural and remote contexts, the Department of Education in Western Australia believes there has been a reduction in difficulties experienced with the staffing of remote schools. Only thirty four percent of teachers employed by the Remote Teaching Service in 2000 were identified as new graduates (EDWA, April 2000, personal communication). Yet, sixty five percent of UWA graduates employed in 2000 were placed in country schools (D. Gardiner, 20 April 2000, personal communication) and recent reports continue to identify the employment of inexperienced staff in rural and remote schools as an issue (Butorac, 1998; Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, 2000).

The difficulty of staffing rural and remote schools has been linked with negative perceptions of teaching in such environments. Richmond in 1953 (p116-118) described an assignment to teach in a rural area as "a dead end job" requiring "a stout heart" and likely "to break him". Similarly, Turney, Sinclair and Cairns (1980) refer to teachers "dragooned" into remote areas, however, Gibson (1994) suggests that attitudes to appointment in rural schools have changed. Boylan and McSwan (1998) support this view. They believe that the negative stereotype depicting rural schools as inferior, suffering from staffing instability and inexperience is unjustified and that recent studies demonstrate satisfaction by novitiate rural teachers.

Close examination of the Western Australian context is absent from these studies. Within Western Australia it remains a challenge to attract sufficient numbers of experienced, motivated teachers, with the required subject specialist expertise, to rural and remote appointments.

The Western Australian context presents significant challenges to education systems faced with the staffing of remote and rural schools. Communities in rural and remote Western Australia are some of the most isolated in the world (Rural and Remote Education Advisory Service, 2000). Western Australia is a large state covering 2,529,880 square kilometers (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2000), an area the size of Western Europe (Newton & Newton, 1992). The state is sparsely populated with only 26.8 percent of the population living outside the capital city of Perth. Unlike the East Coast of Australia, only small rural townships dot the 4000 kilometers of northern coastline.

Endeavours to adequately equip pre-service teachers to deal with the rural and remote context are increasingly being explored by teacher education institutions (Boylan & Hemmings, 1993; Jackiewicz, Lincoln & Brockman, 1998), employing authorities and rural and remote communities, often in partnerships (Department of Education Services, nd). Most frequently, initiatives involve placement of pre-service teachers in rural and remote schools on practicum, sometimes through the awarding of scholarships or internships. In Western Australia, such practices are expensive due to the distance of placements from the metropolitan area and the cost of living in remote locations. Only a small number of students have such opportunities and consequently, many pre-service teachers do not have first hand personal experiences on which to base decisions about appointment to a rural or remote teaching location.

This study reports both the positive and negative expectations held by pre-service teachers with an interest in rural and remote education. The data collected provides information about their views prior to participation on a field trip, an alternative means of acquiring some direct personal experience of rural and remote contexts. The impact of the field trip on the perceptions of the pre-service teacher will be reported subsequently. The initial expectations are of independent interest because they represent the views of pre-service teachers who make decisions about their appointment locations with limited knowledge of rural and remote contexts.


A qualitative research design was adopted to identify the perceptions, feelings and attitudes of participants and to interpret their meanings and intentions (Crotty, 1998). This design "accepts, from the beginning, the perspectival nature of human experience" (Pollio, Henley and Thompson, 1997, p. 28). The views expressed by each individual represent their perceptions of reality.

This research focussed on the perspectives of a small group of pre-service teachers enrolled in a rural education elective as part of a secondary Graduate Diploma in Education at the Graduate School of Education at The University of Western Australia. The 22 pre-service secondary teachers who participated in the study were representative of the diversity within the group of Graduate Diploma students. Three quarters of the participants were female. The age of participants ranged from 22 to 41, with all except two pre-service teachers under the age of 30. A range of curriculum areas were represented: English; Society and the Environment; Science; Mathematics; Music; Psychology; and Languages other than English. Participants were predominantly single, though the group included pre-service teachers who were married or cohabiting. While some of the participants had experienced rural life as a child in different parts of southern Australia, only one participant had any experience of northern Western Australia. All of the participants were enrolled in a rural education elective and were embarking on a rural field trip. An assumption was made that pre-service teachers enrolled in a rural education unit have a significant interest in rural and remote teaching and have a higher level of interest in seeking an appointment to a rural and remote location than other Graduate Diploma pre-service teachers. It was also assumed, that after attending five weeks of rural education lectures, students would have developed some informed expectations about rural and remote teaching.

A qualitative questionnaire distributed to participants sought to establish the preconceptions that pre-service teachers have about living and teaching in rural and remote communities and schools, in particular their fears and concerns. Open-ended responses were required to seven of the following eight questions.

Data reduction occurred through an iterative and inductive process (Bogdan & Biklen, 1992) of summarising and categorising the data to identify significant issues. The analysis involved the development of conceptual categories (Burns, 1994).

Findings and discussion

The acceptance of a rural or remote teaching appointment represents more than a professional or career decision. As with many vocations involving relocation, the decision to accept a teaching appointment in a distant and unfamiliar community is likely to have significant personal and social repercussions. The responses of the pre-service teachers represented an awareness of both professional and personal/social concerns. Because of the diversity of rural and remote educational contexts in Western Australia it is impossible to evaluate the accuracy of the concerns expressed. This is not the purpose of this study. The qualitative design adopted accepts that the views expressed by the participants are valid representations of the perspectives of each individual.

Expectations of living and teaching in rural and remote communities

Responses to the questionnaire conveyed that these pre-service teachers had only vague expectations of what teaching and living in a rural community would involve. One respondent acknowledged a lack of clear expectations of rural and remote teaching referring to "mostly vague ones [expectations] from videos". Others identified word of mouth from friends and colleagues as the source of their expectations.

The pre-service teachers revealed polarised views, not only between students but also within the responses of individual participants. Cliched phrases, including romanticized images of rural Australia such as "friendly locals", "warm community" were interspersed with expectations of "difficulty", "loneliness" and "isolation". One respondent commented that "the staff and students will be helpful and residents friendly. I think I will be very lonely". Responses frequently referred to "challenges" and "rewards" indicating a belief that an investment of effort would result in professional and personal satisfaction. Responses constantly revealed a tension between the hopes and fears of participants.

Professional challenges

The areas identified by the pre-service teachers as professional challenges are listed in Table 1. This, and subsequent tables, show the number of respondents who identified each issue. The responses revealed strong concern about the availability of resources - both physical and human. The pre-service teachers clearly believed that small rural schools would be poorly resourced with curriculum materials and technology. It was believed that distance from large rural centres and the metropolitan area would limit access to resources beyond the school. This was indicated by comments such as "availability of resources - difficult when you are a first year teacher with few resources" and "not having adequate resources because I've left material in Perth."

Of similar concern was the lack of access to human resources, particularly other teachers with subject-specific expertise. It was believed that the staff available in a school would be of limited value if they did not have the same subject-specific background. There was concern about the availability of professional development opportunities within the local area and concern about the difficulty of accessing opportunities in distant locations. Pre-service teachers were concerned about

Coming from predominantly urban backgrounds and experiences, the pre-service teachers expressed concern about understanding students who they perceived would be from significantly different economic, social, cultural and possibly linguistic backgrounds. They anticipated difficulty with "gaining an adequate understanding of the indigenous community", "rough students" and "harder to manage" students. They anticipated trouble with finding ways of motivating and disciplining the students.

To a lesser extent, the pre-service teachers were concerned with the likelihood of teaching beyond their specialist-subject area, dealing with heterogeneous age groupings, problems of managing student behaviour and finding adequate levels of school administrative and professional support. Typical of responses was the comment: "I expect class sizes to be smaller but an increased potential for a greater range of classes (across years) that vary in student ages. I also think there will be a greater possibility of teaching in areas outside my subject area".

Table 1: Pre-service teachers professional concerns about teaching in rural and remote locations

Professional ConcernsFrequency
of response
Access to resources12
Lack of access to experienced teachers, particularly with same subject expertise8
Lack of familiarity with students: cultural background, language, socio-economic background8
Teaching beyond subject area expertise4
Managing students3
Professional socialization3
Multi-age and multi-grade classes2
Lack of own experience2
Lack of professional development opportunities2
Dealing with workload1
Lack of administrative systems1

Personal and social challenges

The personal and social impact of a decision to relocate appeared to be of greater concern to pre-service teachers than professional issues. In response to the question "What are your greatest apprehensions about teaching in a rural or remote school?" most pre-service teachers commented on personal rather than professional issues, or placed personal issues first on their lists. The themes, shown in Table 2, reveal that the dominant concern was "fitting into" the community and dealing with the social dislocation resulting from an absence of family and friends or dealing with the potentially negative consequences for accompanying family.

The participants were acutely aware of the need to establish new social networks in the absence of direct access to their existing support structures. Some pre-service teachers were concerned that fitting into the community would involve constant exposure and a loss of privacy and anonymity. It was perceived that it would be necessary to maintain a professional persona at all times because of a "lack of privacy in the wider community". Typical responses included the following.

Table 2: Pre-service teachers social and personal concerns about teaching in rural and remote locations

of response
Uncertainty about the experience of socialisation into the community13
Dislocation from family and friends8
Developing new support networks8
Loss of anonymity in small community3
Developing independence2
Loss of diversity1
Access to services1

Issues of socio-cultural dislocation have been identified by Lunn (1997), Carlson (1990) and Yarrow et al (1999) as factors influencing the level of satisfaction of rural teachers. Teachers from urban areas experience difficulty in learning the types of behaviour expected in rural settings and adjusting to community expectations. In a study by Gibson (1994) it was reported that nearly half of the teachers studied (all new appointees to rural Queensland schools) "disclosed their inability to engage in successful community-interaction strategies" (p.73). The teachers had identified concerns similar to the participants in this study that rural and remote teaching would be like "living in a fishbowl".

For many of the participants, moving away from family and friends will be a new experience. A strong component of their trepidation related to the fear of being "locked in" to an unhappy and distressing situation. They were apprehensive about "being locked in to a certain period in one place and not liking it". Another commented: "Mostly, I worry that if things don't work out, or I don't like that particular town, I won't be able to change my mind without serious detriment to further jobs".

These fears are in contrast to the positive expectations of rural life, shown in Table 3, which indicate that participants were positively anticipating the opportunity to "bond with the community", develop close interpersonal relationships with other staff and students and experience positive lifestyle changes associated with small rural community life.

The issue of access to services, which has been identified as a deterrent to teachers accepting rural appointments (Boylan & McSwan, 1998; Loney, 1993), does not appear to be a significant concern in this study. The few statements concerning the lack of access to services referred to: "no access to Internet" and "pot luck housing - you don't know who you will be sharing with".

Attraction of rural and remote teaching positions

While personal issues clearly dominated the concerns of pre-service teachers, the attractions of a rural and remote teaching position included a more balanced number of personal and professional responses. The responses to the questionnaire indicated the existence of diverse individual preferences rather than dominant categories of response. The responses are summarized in Table 3.

Table 3: Perceived attractions of teaching in a rural and remote area categorized
according to professional and personal/social dimensions

Professional AttractionsPersonal/Social Attractions
  • Professional opportunities
  • Opportunities for increased responsibilities
  • Small school size
  • Increased knowledge of staff and students as a result of small size and close community contact
  • Expectations of a different curriculum and variety of teaching experience
  • Part of a community
  • Great place for own family, especially children
  • Active social life
  • Diversity of community
  • Novelty of the experience

Professionally, pre-service teachers anticipated the opportunity to have a broader range of professional experiences with increased opportunities for administrative responsibilities. The small size of the school was identified as an opportunity for closer interaction with students in class and improved relationships with colleagues and parents. Once again, responses convey only vague expectations. They include a view that the teaching experience and curriculum will be different in a rural school but the responses do not specify in what ways. In the words of one respondent: "All this would call for more flexibility and would be a great learning experience." In the personal domain, pre-service teachers have an expectation of positive community experiences reflecting nostalgic, romanticized views of rural life styles and opportunities for a "Sea Change". The comments refer to an improved quality of life, changed "pace of life", "great place for kids to grow up", "a 'whole life' experience", and an opportunity to "meet friendly locals and a warm community". For some, relocation to a rural community is viewed as an adventure ("to see a different aspect of Australia"), a life change ("get to meet new people"), or a personal challenge ("if I can teach there then I can teach in the city").

The omissions from this list are as interesting as the actual responses. Participants do not identify specific employment conditions such as access to permanent employment status, increased pay and leave entitlements, increased accumulation of transfer points as attractions for accepting a rural or remote location. It could be hypothesized that the pre-service teachers are unaware of salary and employment conditions relating to rural and remote teaching appointments that are potentially desirable.

Future intentions

Over two-thirds of the pre-service teachers indicated that they were intending to apply for a rural or remote position commencing in the next year. The remaining third of participants included those who were undecided, citing reluctance to leave family and friends, those who intended to take a rural appointment later in their careers and some who had existing commitments for next year with overseas travel and employment of partners. Only one student indicated a clear intention not to work in rural schools, based on a preference for an urban lifestyle.

Those participants intending to accept a rural or remote appointment indicated the length of time they anticipated remaining in a rural or remote location. The responses have been summarized in Table 4. The selection of short lengths of appointment time suggests the caution and uncertainty felt by participants. They are not confident about the experience and are reluctant to commit themselves to the unknown.

Table 4: Prediction of length of time in a rural or remote teaching position

1-2 years2-5 years> 6 yearsUndecided

The responses convey a high degree of uncertainty and unfamiliarity about the rural and remote context. Participants indicated a high level of interest in rural teaching based on a very limited amount of information, very little direct personal experience and a considerable amount of mythology. Nevertheless, they articulated a range of personal and professional concerns and positive assumptions about the prospects they foresaw in a rural teaching appointment.


The views of the pre-service teachers are consistent with the fears held by many past generations of teachers about appointment to rural teaching positions (Richmond, 1953; Turney, Sinclair & Cairns, 1980). The respondents in this study identified concerns about isolation, lack of resources, lack of access to professional and personal support, standards of housing and cultural differences of students.

In a highly urbanized Australia, many pre-service teachers have never lived away from their urban and suburban homes. Many have never ventured from the comfort of the metropolitan area or the coastal fringe. Images of drought-ravaged farms and disintegrating rural communities do little to foster any desire among the urban majority to relocate. Only some of the young adventurers are attracted to the more remote communities with visions of Crocodile Dundee and Survivor. While rural appointments may no longer be considered "forced exile", as suggested by Richmond (1953), the views presented by these predominantly willing future rural teachers still suggests a fear of exile at least from the security of friends and family. Pre-service teachers still fear being trapped in a place that they fear they may find personally and professionally uncomfortable.

In order to address some of the difficulties of staffing and retention in rural and remote schools, teacher education institutions need to expose students to a broad representation of rural contexts. They need to become more familiar with the diversity of rural and remote locations and develop an understanding of the range of potential experiences. Ideally, pre-service teachers need to experience some of the diversity through direct personal experience.

One initiative of the Graduate School of Education has been to conduct a rural field trip to provide access to a rural experience for more students than it would be possible to place on a rural practicum. The rural field trip strategy has the advantage of providing an opportunity for people who may have family or employment commitments that would prevent them from being absent for a more extended period of time, as required in an internship or practicum. It provides exposure to a diversity of rural and remote contexts rather than experience in one limited area; however, the efficacy of this strategy is still to be evaluated.

A further initiative is the placement of students as interns in rural and remote communities during the last term of their year of study. This is consistent with an initiative reported by Yarrow, Ballantyne, Hansford, Herschell and Millwater (1997) trialing rural internships in Queensland. In 2001, 25 UWA students were placed in rural internship positions (Sharplin, 2002). All students valued the internship experience, with some particularly noting the importance of the relocation to a rural remote community as a "taster" to help decide about future appointments to rural and remote schools. Two thirds of the pre-service teachers would have chosen to continue in the rural or remote placement if possible.

Gibson (1994) argues that teacher preparation programmes must explore the concept of isolation within courses and provide exposure to rural communities, in order to adequately prepare novice teachers to work in rural appointments. Alternatively, pre-service teachers need to be provided with opportunities to establish connections with staff, students and community members in rural and remote locations to enable pre-service teachers to access more specific and accurate information about rural and remote contexts. This could occur through the development of partnerships with individual schools, educational regions through District Offices or Regional Development commissions. While partnerships involving visits to the locations by the pre-service teacher are most desirable, the development of guest speaker programmes; video conferencing or chat-line/email connections could be used as an alternative or an addition. While direct exposure is the most desirable option, knowledge of issues about rural lifestyles in specialized pre-service courses (Boylan, et al 1994, cited by Yarrow et al, 1999) can still be addressed through alternative formats.

Clearly, pre-service teachers are under-informed about what may be perceived to be the benefits and difficulties involved in rural and remote teaching. The perspectives revealed in this study suggest that the pre-service teachers rely on narrow stereotypes of rural and remote teaching. They hold, sometimes simultaneously, images of rural and remote teaching as an idyllic retreat and outback hell. These narrow stereotypes are potentially harmful for the recruitment and retention of quality teachers in rural and remote WA. Such simplistic perceptions may deter pre-service teachers from accepting a rural or remote appointment, or may lead to dissatisfaction with the appointment if accepted. It should be relatively easy to provide additional information regarding employment benefits; it will be a greater challenge to address fears of social dislocation and accurately represent the diversity of rural and remote teaching experiences.

The responses of these pre-service teachers have highlighted the importance of non-professional influences on job decisions. Clearly, personal factors are the dominant area of concern identified by the respondents and these are least likely to be changed simply by the provision of information. It reinforces the need to address non-professional issues in the recruitment of staff to rural and remote area.

In the interest of attracting and retaining quality staff in rural and remote schools, further research is needed to explore the ways that the social and personal domains impact on teachers' decisions to accept appointments to rural and remote areas. For those pre-service teachers accepting positions in rural and remote schools, further understanding is required concerning the continuing impact of social and personal factors on the quality of teachers' working lives.


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Author: Ms Elaine Sharplin is a Lecturer in English Curriculum and Educational Leadership at The University of Western Australia. Her research interests include rural education, internships in pre-service education, development of teacher education partnerships, and the induction and socialization of novice teachers and overseas-trained teachers. Email: esharpli@ecel.uwa.edu.au

Please cite as: Sharplin, E. (2002). Rural retreat or outback hell: Expectations of rural and remote teaching. Issues In Educational Research, 12(1), 49-63. http://www.iier.org.au/iier12/sharplin.html

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