The Call of the Kimberley

In 2012 Kaytlin Courtis was a teacher seeking adventure. She took a year’s unpaid leave from her school in Victoria to spend some time travelling and, towards the end of that year, agreed to a short stint working as a governess on a large cattle station in the Kimberley. Kaytlin returned to Victoria with a strong sense of unfinished business and soon found herself journeying north once more to take on a second governess role, this time remaining with the same family for several years.

In the first of our ‘Govie Stories’ Kaytlin tells us about her experience working as a governess and how it impacted on her teaching career.

I remember those first 24 hours so vividly. It was late October, right in the middle of the build-up to the wet season. It was stiflingly hot and humid. My boss picked me up from the airport in Broome and we drove the two hours out to the station.

As we were driving down the 17km driveway onto the station bush fires blazed all around us. I couldn’t believe how calm my boss was. I was completely terrified!  Where were the local fire authorities? Why weren’t there road blocks? Where were the news helicopters? Had this fire been raging in Victoria, it would be all over the news. Instead, this fire was just one in a string of many the station crew would fight that season. Nothing particularly special or dramatic.

That night, as we watched the fire burn on the horizon, I felt like I had landed on another planet. This was a world of which I knew nothing. I was completely taken aback by the hospitality of everyone of the station. I was made to feel so welcome and, despite the fire, all of my worries were eased on that first night.

I knew the placement was short term and that I had already agreed to return to my school in Victoria for the following school year but by the end of that first week at the station I was already thinking about how I could get back to this line of work.

Upon leaving the station I returned to my job (teaching English and Humanities to secondary students in an independent P-12 school on Phillip Island) with my mind full of memories from the Kimberley. During that year I found another job as a governess on a different station in the Kimberley located just outside of the tiny town of Fitzroy Crossing. I began work there at the beginning of 2014 teaching the station manager’s four daughters. I planned to stay a year and had no intentions of staying any longer. However, I ended up staying nearly two and half years!

I had no idea what to expect of the role initially, growing up in Victoria I didn’t know that this form of work even existed. I was quite apprehensive as I had no experience teaching primary aged students. My hopes, professionally, were that I would come away with an understanding of the School of the Air model and maybe a better understanding of what is covered in primary schools.

I found that working as a governess was incredible rewarding. You not only spend the school day with your students, but also inevitably some mornings, evenings and weekends also and so you end up developing quite a close relationship with your students. Having four students in my school room, as opposed to 30, meant that I could focus my attention on each student and see their progression quite quickly.

However the school room had its own challenges. I would often be juggling a craft activity with the kindy student, a science experiment with the grade 2, a writing task with the grade 5 whilst learning times tables with the grade 4. Some days this worked surprisingly well, but other days could be a disaster.

The contrast with my working life in Victoria was huge. In Victoria, my weekdays were dedicated solely to work. I would spend time each weekend marking and planning and maybe grabbing a coffee with friends, or exploring the suburbs of Melbourne.

When I moved to the Kimberley, suddenly evenings were spent with the crew debriefing on the day as we watched the sun set. Weekends were spent mustering or out in the yards with the crew. Days off were spent down by the river, fishing and exploring. All of a sudden, riding motorbikes, helicopter flights back to the homestead, branding cattle, feeding pigs, chooks and poddies became the norm. My life in Victoria seemed a world away.

I learnt so much about primary teaching in my time working as a governess. My skill set certainly expanded and I now have a greater appreciation for primary school teachers. I am putting these skills in to use in my current teaching role as, thanks to my improved understanding of primary teaching and learning, I now feel more confident working with students who struggle with low literacy and numeracy levels.

I will forever be so grateful for my time living on a remote cattle station. I am, most certainly, a stronger person for the experience. I was lucky enough to do so many things I never dreamed I would do and to meet some incredible people along the way.

A huge thank you to Kaytlin for sharing her story with us. Kaytlin now works as a Year Leader in a secondary school in the Kimberley (the area is yet to release its grip) and continues to be one of the kindest, most patient and all round awesome people I know. I knew Kaytlin during her time as a governess and, aside from the personal qualities that made her great at her job, one of the most inspiring things about her was her willingness to give anything a go and to fully embrace life on a station. She is a wonderful example of ‘the more you put in, the more you get out’ and hopefully we can convince her to share some more of her experiences in the future.