More than the three Rs

Host: Jenny Underwood
Written by Jenny Underwood – Owner, Pine Hills Station.

This week’s blogs are from one of our regular hosts, Jenny Underwood, formerly from “Eversleigh” Station south of Hughenden in north-west Queensland and now of “Pine Hills” Wallumbilla in south-west QLD. Before going to live on Eversleigh, Jenny was the sole teacher at a small school 65km south of Hughenden. Cameron Downs School is only one a few schools left in Queensland that is not based in a town or settlement.  It is right in the middle of a 65 000 acre cattle (and until the ’90s, sheep) property called “Cameron Downs”.

In her blogs this week Jenny gives an outline of the history of the school, as well as some insights into her life in the district as the Principal of the small one teacher school. 

This is the first instalment of a five-part series called “The Bush School”. Visit Jenny’s profile page to find the other instalments.

During the years I taught, one of my first priorities in establishing classroom harmony and productivity was to establish a routine that was consistent and reasonable. Rules were set and the consequences of “straying outside” of these guidelines were also discussed. I probably sound like your typical “old dragon” school teacher and I have no doubt stirred up long-forgotten memories of school days gone by!

The same routine and rules applied when I started teaching in the one-teacher school. Having a number of children of varying ages in the one small classroom was a bit of a challenge to begin with, but I felt I was fortunate to have 12 years of experience behind me. However a “beginner” teacher ever managed in such circumstances is beyond me.

The capabilities and needs of a little 5-6 year old starting school for the first time are vastly different from those of an older student of 11-12 years of age. While the younger children needed lots of time spent with them it was important that the older children were never overlooked. The schoolroom operated much like that of a family – everybody pitched in and kept an eye on everyone else and helped out when and wherever needed.

The computer room and library in the old schoolroom – around 1995. Originally this was the teacher’s bedroom when the school first opened; the classroom adjoined this room.

Despite the fact that the school was on a remote property, the children were still involved in many activities which would be common to schools in more populated areas – sometimes they accessed even more opportunities. One of the best programmes provided by the Education Department was the Priority Country Area Programme better known as PCAP. This programme provided the opportunity to apply for funding to go on school camps and to hold coaching clinics for all types of sports. There were also artists with a variety of different talents who were sponsored by PCAP to hold workshops in the small schools.

Pottery, fabric printing, spinning and weaving, and banner making were only a few of the skills taught to children during my time at the school. It was just as well these programmes existed, as my artistic skills left a lot to be desired!

Banner making, one of the many art activities the children learned at school.

There were two other small schools in our “cluster”. These schools were about 100-150km away from us and we would regularly meet for activities and sports days in Hughenden. One of the PCAP-sponsored workshops the children did was a two-day Circus and Dance Workshop. They loved it!

The Grand Finale of the two-day workshop. The children were encouraged to help in the planning of their performance and some even helped with the make-up.

One of the few times that I encouraged the kids to behave like clowns! With the Cameron pupils is the instructor Katherine Lyon – she was brilliant.

We also loved to have dress-up days, often following a theme of work studied in the schoolroom.

Cowboy dress-up day. The local property also had a pony which they saddled up for anyone who wanted to be a “real” cowboy. You should have seen us boot-scooting!

Another favourite was dressing up for Book Week. Some of the costumes and outfits were amazing!

Book Week 1997. By this time the school numbers had really grown and the new modern schoolroom had been built.

As there was no town in the immediate surrounding area the school was the focal point for the community. The wider community often held meetings for Landcare and information days at the school. One organisation which provided great help to the families of the Central West was the Remote Area Family Services – a branch of the Uniting Church’s Frontier Services. RAFS provided in-home assistance as well as community Playgroup Days. Mothers with young children would travel from up to 100km away to attend Playgroup.

Playgroup fun in the bower shed at the school. The arrival of the RAFS girls always brought great excitement (and proved to be a handy bribe for me to use as an incentive for the students to get their work finished so they could join in the fun too!)

Older children often worked with the younger children by reading to them or listening to them read. But they also proved invaluable when a student was struggling to understand a new concept. I found that the kids were able to help each other by explaining things in their own language. I often smiled to myself as I overheard the “young teachers” praising their “students” with each success.

The students also put their own skills to good use on Playgroup days and helping others in the classroom.

I would like to think that the skills learned by the students while they were at Cameron Downs have held them in good stead. A large number of them have become teachers; others have graduated from University as doctors and physiotherapists; many have done trades and now have their own successful businesses. Others have chosen to remain on the land and are doing what they love most. I feel old to think that many are now parents, some of whom are now sending children of their own to Cameron Downs School.

I am proud of them all.

Cameron Downs State School – Preschool to Year 6 1998 – my final year of teaching. At the end of this year, after 18 years as a teacher, I “put away the chalk” and embarked upon my new life as a grazier on Eversleigh Station. The setting for this photo was in the shearing shed at Cameron Downs – to me, it’s one of the most away from the usual school photos ever. (Photo credit: Richard Fraley – Townsville)