Schools Taking a sabbatical

Teacher Claire Waring-Wallwitz and her partner Adam touring the globe during her sabbatical leave.

Sabbatical leave is the best opportunity that most teachers have never even heard of, says one rejuvenated AEU member.

Watching the grim advance of the COVID-19 pandemic across Italy, Rosana Golf Links Primary School councillor Claire Waring-Dallwitz could not believe what she was seeing. Last year, she took advantage of a little-known VGSA victory for the AEU – one that allows teachers to take extended sabbatical leave.

Heading to South America first, she and her partner Adam arranged to meet up with friends from around the globe on the beautiful island of Sicily to coincide with Claire’s 40th birthday.

“One friend is from an island there called Salina, so it was pretty amazing,” she says. “So, to see the crisis unfolding there now is really insane. We also went to Spain and visited New York City for the first time. It’s just so sad.”

An avid traveller, Claire jumped at what seemed too good to be true. “When I found out about it, I remember calling up the union and asking, ‘Is there a catch?’” she laughs.

“In a career that’s renowned for burnout, it’s great to come back to school with that energy, feeling really positive about teaching.”

Essentially, it works like a savings plan spread over one to four years before taking sabbatical leave. Claire worked full-time for four years prior at 0.8 pay. “I wasn’t at my full increment when I started, so it worked out about $200 down per pay packet, which was so worth it,” she insists.

“We went to the Perito Moreno Glacier, which is the only glacier in the world that’s still advancing. We took in some really challenging but amazing hikes in Patagonia and the Atacama Desert, and I learned to speak very poor Spanish.”

Touring abandoned buildings in Chernobyl with a clicking Geiger counter was another highlight, but the simple things were just as sweet. “We played a lot of cards and moved to the beat of our own drum,” Claire says. “It was a huge bonding experience with my partner and I actually think we could be doing better in isolation right now because we’ve had that experience, sharing one room for a whole year.”

While on leave, Claire was paid the amount she had saved during the previous four years, parcelled out fortnightly for the length of her trip. “I think you can opt for a lump sum, but I’m glad I did it that way, because otherwise we might have frittered it away too quickly.”

Sabbatical leave allows time for a little blue-sky thinking. (Photo: Supplied by Claire Waring-Wallwitz)

Initially nervous to ask her then-principal Kelly Morrow, she received nothing but enthusiastic support. “It’s an incredible thing to support your staff to do,” Claire says. “In a career that’s renowned for burnout, it’s great to come back to school with that energy, feeling really positive about teaching.”

The buzz remains in Term 2, even if there were a few challenges after such a long time away. “It seems like the reading program has completely changed, and we’ve gone to continuous assessment, so it was a steep learning curve,” she says. “But I’m still excited, even though working from home has taken away that bit of teaching that I love the most, which is the interaction with the kids.”

Claire felt a strong bond with Rosana while visiting a penguin colony in Argentina, climbing the steep slopes of Machu Pichu, sunning themselves in Miami and Cuba, and taking in the majesty of Bolivia’s mirror-like Uyuni Salt Flat. “I found myself reading the newsletter and still felt a part of the school community, finding out about a new build or what was going on in a writers’ festival. It was reassuring, knowing that my job was safe and secure for me when I came back.”

While international travel may be off the cards for a while, Claire notes it’s a great time to explore our own backyard when restrictions eventually relax. “Just go for it. Don’t overthink it. When I saw my first pay cheque come through, I think it was only the difference of a couple of hundred dollars a fortnight and I have absolutely no regrets. I have this renewed energy for my profession.”

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