Schools Mining for gold in Cobram: meet this year’s Teachers Health Early Career Scholarship winner

George Allen. Photo: supplied

It has been quite the career arc for the latest recipient of the Public Education Foundation’s Teachers Health Early Career Scholarship. 

Since George Allen began teaching in 2021, it’s been a rapid journey – he is already a senior member of the science teaching team at Cobram Secondary College. George puts that down to the teacher shortage, but he’s clearly a driven and innovative teacher who is relishing the challenge of a new career.

It was COVID-19 that took George out of the mining sector and, as it did for many people, precipitated a reevaluation. He had been doing shift work and working away from home, fly in fly out. “It was a fantastic experience, but I wanted to feel like I was giving back more, and I wanted to work with people. Something social, in a bigger team environment,” he says.

George, born and raised in Perth, also wanted the career change to facilitate a location move. “I wanted to feel like I belong to part of a community, and I landed on my feet with Cobram.”

George joined the Teach for Australia program, and it was a busy few years that led to him being the 2023 recipient of the Public Education Foundation’s Teachers Health Early Career Scholarship. This scholarship, one of a suite offered by the foundation, supports public school teachers who are in the first three years of their teaching career, with Teachers Health providing $10,000 for professional development, which George is using to complete a Masters of Education at Australian Catholic University.

“I believe a firm foundation in STEM education gives people the tools to navigate many of the problems coming up.”

George Allen

Cobram, three hours out of Melbourne, is a low-socioeconomic status area with “a whole bunch of students who want to achieve big things”, George says. As the head of the high-abilities program and the science program, he has been taking groups of students in Years 7 to 9 into Melbourne to visit universities. George’s idea was “to give students permission to care about school, to build ambition. Kids who are looking to go to university or want to have professional careers outside of the town or region or go study somewhere and come back.”

First, he got in touch with people he had met professionally or at university and arranged a series of guest speakers. “I built relationships with KIOSC (Knox Innovation, Opportunity and Sustainability Centre) at Swinburne University and other education providers to have discussions with the students and to talk about pathways and careers.”

George makes the point that students are thinking about their life path well before VCE. “They start making those decisions earlier than Year 11 and 12, so the earlier you can give exposure to those things, the better.” KIOSC subsidised travel and accommodation so that students are effectively going on a ‘camp’ to the city for a few days, touring universities and learning about career pathways after school, with minimal out-of-pocket expenses for parents.

George Allen. Photo: supplied

The students have been visiting Swinburne, Monash, and Melbourne universities. “I say to them that I don’t care if they choose not to go to uni, but I want them to have the ability to make the choice. If they come on a tour and see these things and think ‘That’s not for me,’ that’s fine,” George says.

After a city visit last year, some of the students approached him. “They said to me: ‘You tell us that the regional university campuses aren’t as big as others, but what does that mean?’” George saw this as an opportunity and took a group of Year 8 and 9 students to Charles Sturt and La Trobe universities in Albury–Wodonga. “For a couple of them, having a uni campus closer to home was game-changing.”

George has also been running a lunchtime group for Years 7 to 10 students interested in science, engineering and maths, with hands-on, practical activities. “I believe a firm foundation in STEM education gives people the tools to navigate many of the problems coming up in this day and age: food security, climate change, etcetera,” he says.

For George, being a union member has helped him make those big transitions in location and career. “There have been times, early on in my career, where I wanted someone to talk to who wasn’t immediately part of the school, and in lockdown, too, it meant someone was there for me,” he says.

“The union also gives me a great opportunity to have a voice with what goes on in the school.”

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