Nearing the end of her two years teaching on Thursday Island, LEILANI FERRIS will miss the people, beauty and culture of the Torres Strait, if not the extreme humidity.
Not many people could tell you where it is on a map, or even know that it is a part of Australia, but Thursday Island is where I began my first year of teaching. A beautiful part of the Torres Strait, Thursday Island is among an archipelago of at least 274 small islands located in the middle of Far North Queensland and Papua New Guinea, around 39 kilometres north of Cape York Peninsula.
It took four forms of transport – two flights, a bus ride, a ferry and a car trip – to reach the place that was going to be my new home for the next two years. My immediate impressions were that the water was just beautiful: bright blue and crystal clear. The sun was boiling hot and the humidity was extreme. I was sweating as soon as I stepped off the plane on Horn Island, a feeling that eventually became normal.
I had always wanted to teach somewhere rural and remote. The Torres Strait was particularly appealing to me because it is where my Pop is from. Having spent my entire life on the Sunshine Coast, I wanted to go back to where my family comes from and to be able to give back in some way.
Before I started my first day, I took part in a five-day conference providing a snapshot of the Torres Strait languages, cultures and histories – and I just couldn’t wait to meet my students. In the end, I think I spent the first three terms getting to know them. What I learned was that it takes them a while to open up because they’re so used to teachers coming and going in a short period of time.
So many of my students have to leave their beautiful island homes, their families and everything that’s close to them, to come to school.
During my time in the Torres Strait, I’ve got to experience a variety of opportunities. I was invited to take part in a transition visit to two outer islands at the primary campuses. This was my first time in a six-seater charter plane and I don’t think I’d ever watched a pilot’s every move more than I did during that first 10 minutes.
As expected, the outer islands were also beautiful. Upon arriving, both times we were required to sign in as visitors at the council’s office. The students were so welcoming and just eager to learn. I was lucky enough to spend 70 minutes with a composite Grade 5/6 class on both islands where I got to teach them Science. We did two experiments together, one on density and another on identifying whether a gas was present or not using the more common bicarb soda and vinegar experiment. The students were so excited to be doing Science, I left them with a parting gift of a plastic pipette because they were so interested and wanted to try the experiment at home.
This particular experience gave me a snapshot of where my students come from. I couldn’t believe that so many of them have to leave their beautiful island homes, their families and everything that’s close to them, to come to school. Here at the school, they live at one of the two boarding houses where they spend the school term. They’re all so brave. I could not imagine doing high school without coming home to my parents each afternoon.
I was lucky enough to be asked by some students if I would like to compete with them in the yearly Battle of the Islands touch carnival. This experience consolidated the importance of getting to know your students and spending time with them in a setting other than the classroom. It also gave me the chance to meet students who I didn’t teach.
Another great experience was Culture Day, where the students, staff and community come together to celebrate and share their culture. It’s a beautiful day filled with laughing, dancing, singing and lots of food and eating. It was on Culture Day that I got to try my first dugong and turtle. The dugong was my favourite.
As a Biology teacher, I was lucky enough to take my Year 12 class of six to two nearby islands, where the students explored mangroves and conducted a ‘transect’ (a path along which we count and record occurrences of the objects of study) within two different mangroves on two different islands. The best part about teaching on Thursday Island is that my students are always teaching me something too. The kids are so aware of the sea and the land – and will share their knowledge with you when they see that you’re interested.
In the classroom, I’ve been exposed to a range of challenges. I have learnt quite quickly that teaching isn’t easy. It is challenging, yet so rewarding. I’ve learnt so much about my students and myself, not only as a teacher but as an individual as well.
I am now in the last six weeks of my time here on Thursday Island and, to be honest, I don’t want to go. I’m going to miss my students and their smiling faces. Teaching in a remote school has provided me with so many opportunities as a first year teacher I wouldn’t have had anywhere else. It’s been an amazing experience that will form the foundations of my teaching career.