Regenerating Rural Social Space? Teacher Education for Rural-Regional Sustainability

Article excerpt

Introduction

How might schools and teachers play a role in the project of rural-regional sustainability? How is teacher education implicated in the renewal and regeneration of rural communities and, more generally, rural Australia? Sustaining and enhancing the diversity of rural communities is essential for social, economic and environmental sustainability, and therefore the long-term security of the nation as a whole (Halsey, 2009). There is a complex interconnection among the issues and concerns that affect rural-regional sustainability, and this requires an equally complex program of research designed to support, understand and direct the work of school systems, teachers, teacher educators and local communities, who are collectively involved in a key aspect of the sustainability of inland Australia: the attraction and retention of high-quality teachers. As more than just a pedagogic challenge, a systematic and informed understanding of what we call rural social space may be specifically needed in rural (teacher) education.

How to understand the rural as complex social space is the focus of this article, which outlines and introduces the conceptual framework of a current ARC Discovery Project--the TERRAnova project (Reid et al., 2008-2010). Our aim in this project is to describe and theorise successful teacher education strategies (both pre- and in-service) that appear to assist in making rural teaching an attractive, long-term career option for Australian teachers. The research objective is to be achieved through the identification and analysis of several factors:

* key indicators for success in retaining rural primary and secondary teachers in their situation of practice

* successful teacher education interventions aimed at promoting rural teaching

* successful state-based financial incentive programs, across Australia, aimed similarly at promoting rural teaching.

Drawing on earlier research in this area (Green & Letts, 2007; Green & Reid, 2004) and also the recent work of Donehower, Hogg and Schell (2007), along with contemporary understandings of space and place (Agnew, 1993; Cresswell, 2004; Massey, 2005), we are working with a framework that combines quantitative measurement and definitions of rural space based on demographic and other social data with constructions of rurality in both geographic and cultural terms. This supports the development of a theoretical argument for understanding the rural today--and also for coming to know, and prepare people for teaching in rural communities--in terms of the interrelation of economy, geography and demography as key constitutive aspects of contemporary rural social space.

The rural problem in teacher education

As teacher education academics working in and for inland rural locations, and committed to producing graduates from our institutions who want to teach and will teach well in and for rural and remote communities, these issues are central to the practice and research of all members of this research team. And as we have argued elsewhere (Green & Reid, 2004; Reid & Green, 2003), the challenge of providing high-quality education to Australian children in rural and remote locations is both ongoing and significant. In 2003 we argued that '"Rural Problems" in education have dogged our nation from before its inception', noting that over a century ago a 'Pastoral and Agricultural' Sub-Committee of the New South Wales Legislative Council and Assembly, reporting to an inquiry into educational issues in 1904, raised 'an important question in regard to the country teacher'. This 'question' related to the already well-established perception that 'frequent changes, with the hope of ultimate appointment to a city school, tend to lessen the teacher's interest in the education of the rural child'. Indeed, it was suggested that: 'the teacher's own unrest might tend to lessen the rural-mindedness of the children, and to create in them an ill-defined urge towards city life' (New South Wales Parliament, 1904, p. …