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March 7, 2011 | by  | in Features |
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Calling the Role – The Life of a Rural Teacher

Te Rangi Ahua,” “Aroha,” “Ripeka”. Calling the roll is difficult in a primary school of all Maori students when you can’t roll your Rs. Luckily for this teacher, there are only ten names to call.

Ongarue was once a bustling little King Country town, the social and commercial hub of a prosperous farming community. It boasted shops, a railway station and a healthy school roll of over one hundred. But times have changed. Today, land prices are well beyond the reach of your average farming family, and houses are falling derelict as giant forestry corporations take over old pastures. Needless to say, pine trees don’t have children—hence the declining roll of poor old Ongarue School.

This isolated, decile three school is where my mother Peggy Carmichael is principal, and sole charge teacher of a class of five- to twelve-year-olds. It’s a challenging role, which was no doubt made harder by having her daughter in the class throughout much of the 1990s. My desperate attempts at pre-pubescent rebellion failed miserably, as there was no chance of hiding bad report cards or wagging school for the afternoon (and let’s face it, there’s nothing else to do in Ongarue anyway). My mother would frequently threaten me with the ominous prospect of home-schooling, a potential teacher:student ratio that soon knocked my behaviour into shape.

But, the inconveniences of having a mother as a teacher aside, I am in awe of the contribution that she, and so many other teachers like her, make to New Zealand’s rural communities. In Ongarue, where the little red general store closed its doors about five years ago and BP brought in their trucks to remove the petrol pumps from the service station, the school and the marae have become the focal points for the tiny, yet amiable village population. In places like this, a school becomes far more than an education provider, and the role of a teacher expands likewise. The hardest part, my Mum tells me, is “being everything for everybody.” She is the leader of the board, the school bus driver, emergency grounds keeper and even make-shift plumber in dire situations.

It’s exhausting, but evidently rewarding. As a sole-charge teacher you are burdened with a huge responsibility, providing one of the most important aspects of a child’s life; a sound and strong education. But to see a child grow up from the age of five, progress and develop academically, and to send them off to high school prepared and excited is, Peggy argues, an incredibly fulfilling career.

There are concerns, of course, with rural schooling, including whether students can develop adequate life experience and social skills in such small and isolated environments. Ongarue is so small that, at primary school, going to The Warehouse in Te Kuiti was considered an adventure. We would marvel at the sky-scrapers of Auckland on school trips. University life in Wellington was virtually unfathomable, and still is to many of the Ongarue locals who have spent their entire lives in one little village. But isolation breeds resourcefulness. As children we built tree huts at lunch time and would use our imagination, rather than the internet or iPhones (seemingly the latest new accessory for ten-year-olds), for entertainment.

Rural education, may, for many seem a by-gone relic of an old New Zealand. It certainly comes with its disadvantages, and one must question the financial efficiency of running a school for only ten children. But, in places like Ongarue, small schools provide vital social glue as a centre of community projects and focus and, not least, an invaluable education for Kiwi kids.

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