Toora isn’t exactly a town that you’ll find on the front page of a local tourism guidebook. But for those who grew up in and around town, and even those new to the area, you grow to love it fairly quickly.
Toora — originally Muddy Creek — has been sitting in the shadow Mount Best and Mount Fatigue for more than 150 years, and is home to a population that’s never climbed to more than 900 people.
Dairy is, and always was, the key industry in the area, employing a fair chunk of the population since the first dairy factory was opened in 1893. But, like the railway station (1983), and the hospital (1985), the factory closed in the late 90s, leaving the town without the industry that had kept it going for many years.
The decline since the 1950s isn’t something that has dampened the spirits of the locals. The community is strong, the residents stay well hydrated at the pub and the local primary school’s bell still rings every week day for the students to hear.
While less than 100km away from each other, Toora Primary School is worlds apart from new principal Luke Haustorfer’s former school in the Latrobe Valley — Moe Primary School — where there were 350 students — at Toora, there are just 35.
Luke and I grew up in the area surrounding the nearby town of Yarram. While twice the size of Toora, Yarram still has a great community, but once you finish school if you’re not a farmer or a tradie, there’s not much to keep you there.
So, you’ve got to be a bit creative about your career prospects. Especially because, like most people at 18 years old, none of us knew what we were going to do next.
Admittedly, Luke took a ‘scenic route’ to teaching, having started at Monash Gippsland —now Federation University — studying a Bachelor of Business and Commerce alongside a Bachelor of Sport and Outdoor Recreation. The business degree was the ‘smart choice’, and the sport and rec course a ‘bit of fun on the side’.
While studying, Luke got a chance to work as a student mentor, which is where things all started to fall into place. His role in the school was to take kids who struggled in a regular classroom environment for a kick of the footy or a game of cricket. It was a good way to get into the swing of things, build familiarity and rapport, but also teach the kids the art of a textbook drop punt.
Responsibilities grew as he spent more time in the school, moving towards working with kids in the classroom and Luke really found a rewarding to help the students grasp concepts they’d been struggling with.
Afterwards, at the encouragement of the principal he’d been working under, Luke decided to enrol in a Diploma of Education once his undergraduate degrees were completed.
But making a leap into a management position is always a tricky one; how do you go from doing your regular day-to-day job to leading a team? Luke’s progression from teacher to principal is one that’s hard for him to describe.
Luke started his teaching career under Latrobe Valley principal Chris Joustra and he attributes a great deal of his career success to him. Luke’s mum is also a principal of more than 20 years, and it would be hard not to give her some credit in the matter.
Having those to lean on is always important, no matter the career, and having close allies accessible definitely made Luke’s career progression a bit easier. A mate of his is also a principal at a small school in regional Victoria, and has had a pretty similar path — leaning on him for advice was an absolute no-brainer.
“There’s a saying along the lines of the perfect opportunity never comes along at the perfect time, and this is something that I’m a very firm believer in”. He’s definitely not one to sit back and let an opportunity land in his lap.
Moving from a school of 350 to a school population a tenth of the size obviously presents some challenges.
“From a leadership perspective, larger schools inherently need to have larger leadership teams, develop more structure and have more stringent processes to enable them to operate effectively.
“In these schools, there are more people doing more highly refined roles. There will be a principal, an assistant principal (or two), curriculum leaders, team leaders and learning specialists, all with their own area of responsibility. In a small school, all of these jobs are the responsibility of the principal, so I’m finding you need to have a greater awareness of all the functions of a school, not to mention also maintaining a teaching load.
“At times you do feel like a jack of all trades, master of none.
“It can be hard to get a game of footy or soccer going at lunchtime with 35 students. The kids do an amazing job of creating other things to do”.
Running a smaller school definitely provides a bit more freedom that you’d expect at a larger school. Kids — from prep right through to grade 6 — have recently been building cubby houses from the newly pruned branches lying around the yard — you’re definitely not going to get that at a big school in the Valley.
While being able to have a hand in everything is beneficial for both Luke and the school, he admits that he was probably a bit naïve in considering how much time initiatives would take to get off the ground.
The current garden project that he’s working on is a big one — a new landscaped kitchen garden for the kids to learn in, and chooks for them to look after. The project is designed to benefit the whole community, but given the size of the project, it’s taking a lot of time and resources.
“Coming out of large schools with multiple leaders to share the load, I was probably a little unaware of how much time projects such as these take to get off the ground.
Even though we have tremendous support from our school community helping with the legwork of these projects, as the school leader I still need to be in the loop every step of the way.”
But Luke wouldn’t have it any other way. Having grown up in Yarram, the slower lifestyle of a small town comes easy, although preparation for the week ahead is definitely key. “There’s no dropping into Officeworks or Big W on the way home to pick up some teaching resources for the next day”.
Moving to a regional area is becoming a common theme for a Gen Y like Luke. As house prices in Melbourne climb higher and higher, many are heading out for the greener pastures of regional centres all around Victoria.
Luke reckons with the increase in working from home policies and the rollout of better Internet connections due to the NBN, people will start trickling back into these areas after initially moving away due to lack of work.
“While a little slower than the previous generations to get married and start families, we have also been seeing Gen Y families relocating to rural areas for better housing affordability and quality of life.
“We have had two families make this move to Toora in the last twelve months — hopefully, that’s a trend that continues”.
Being involved in the community is a huge aspect of living and working in a town like Toora. In fact, it’s inescapable. Prior to Luke starting at Toora Primary, the school had been through five different principals over a two-year period. He realised as soon as he got the job that he needed to involve himself in the community to help build trust with those that support the school, and let them know that he was absolutely in it for the long haul.
“When I learnt I was the successful applicant for the job I got in contact with an old schoolmate who was an assistant coach at the Toora Football Club and arranged for a transfer to be put in”.
He may manage to kick a few goals between the big sticks on the weekend, as well as hopefully some metaphorical ones with his planned work at the school during the week.
Footy clubs are at the heart and soul of small country towns. But, of course, not everyone loves watching eighteen blokes chase a bit of leather around on a Saturday arvo, so he makes sure to pop into the pub for
a counter meal and a yarn when he can.
And that’s really what it’s all about. Those that are looking to work or move to rural regions are best served by getting involved in the community as soon as they can. Luke has definitely done plenty of that.
The school principal is a crucial role in the local community given you’re in charge of setting the tone for hundreds of young people growing up in the area. Fostering relationships, speaking to stakeholders regularly, and hell, having a couple of amber ales at the local pub with the characters of the district never hurts either.