ISOLATION is nothing new for Lee-Anne Bright, who has been a governess since 1997.
She attended School Of The Air as a child with her own governesses on the family’s station south of Broken Hill, before going to high school in Burra, three hours away in South Australia.
“The wool market dropped and it became dry. Mum and Dad couldn’t afford boarding school so Mum got a second job in family day care in town and dad came down on weekends,”Lee-Anne explained.
“You just do what you’ve got to do. Every holidays I was working off-farm with dad and getting paid, through the mid years from 13, 14 and 15, before it got that dry we went back on farm and went through the next level of dryness.
“How tough it must have been on their marriage but they held everything together so well and spent time with each other, so we thought it was normal.
“Even in the toughest of times they would make it fun and we were not missing out on too much.”
After school, Lee-Anne realised study would never be her thing so she went off to be a governess.
“I assumed it was the lowest job and anyone can do it,” she said.
“But it’s the hardest thing you can do. I thought it would be a piece of cake but it’s not and never will be.
“The roles you have to play - you may be a counsellor for the parent’s marriage, looking after the kids, the teacher, the entertainer, looking after the animals around the yard.
“You might have to go out and help with fencing when nobody else is available because it’s the difference between sheep getting bogged or not.
“You fill in for whatever role has to be done.”
She knows what it feels like to crawl into bed, exhausted at the end of a long, hot day after caring for and teaching children.
Lee-Anne has shared her pearls of wisdom on her Governess Australia website since 2002.
She saw the need to connect remote families with governesses, educators and nannies through her website, although recruitment is up to the individual families.
There she has a blog, Unwritten Etiquette of the Governess World, which has illuminating tips for the uninitiated.
Lee-Anne has worked on properties in Port Augusta, SA; Broken Hill; Longreach, Charleville and Emerald in Queensland; Bourke; Hay and Dubbo.
She is currently governessing on a property halfway between Broken Hill and Wilcannia.
“One reason I took the job was because it was close to town and had good phone service,” she said.
Both are vital to maintaining good mental health, she said.
“You’ve also got to like the family and the kids you teach.”
Lee-Anne is passionate about the role of a governess and has learned a thing or two in 20 years.
“I know how tough it was on my parents and my governesses in the pre-internet age, without a mobile phone and with no privacy,” she said.
“I’ve got lucky. Half the stations have phone service so I can ring my parents and family, and everyone has internet now.
“For my governess, if she wanted to see someone or talk to someone she had to go to a school event or the pub.
“She had to queue to use the one landline in the homestead.
“Many women come out here not realising how difficult it is. Communication is an effort. Loneliness is a state of mind. It can be stressful.”
Lee-Anne is part of the NSW Governess Network, where a core group of experienced governesses make an effort to ring all the “girls” to see how they are going once a term and follow up on what they are doing.
They ask RU OK? And are prepared for the response.
“As a governess you get thrown into another family - people who you socialise with 90 per cent of the time,” she said.
“Usually only about 10pc of girls are returning governesses or have a connection with the land.
“Now we have about one-third of the group returning or going out with someone (on a station or in the bush) and that’s high.”
At Governess Australia, Lee-Anne goes by the title Bushgovo.
She started a closed Facebook group for the girls, who the network brings together at the start of the year for formal training.
The parents have to contact the network or school (Distance Education) and let them know of new governesses because the page is hidden on Facebook.
“We support the girls who are (or are not) coping with isolation,” she said.
“We give them the skills to start off with rather than them being thrown in at the deep end.
“We support the girls as we know what we’re doing and what they’re going through.”
Such support includes teaching them to set up a classroom effectively.
“We instigate conversations and we know who’s talking and who’s not.”
Importantly, Lee-Anne reminds them everyone has bad days, endures bad weather and can have headaches.
“We all have frustrating days out here in the bush and sometimes it’s not what you expect but life’s like that at times.”
Lee-Anne said some women had personal reasons for wanting to go bush and did not want to be on Facebook so they stayed connected by email.
She said the network also organised regular get-togethers and small events.
“At the moment I am helping the girls with financial sessions.”
Lee-Anne maintains her motivation to help others because she has a passion for the bush and the education of outback kids.
“I love proving myself wrong,” she said.
“Some years have been great and some years I’ve been struggling to cope, so I push myself further.”
Lee-Anne aims to improve the industry as a whole and wants to do more, such as getting better pay for governesses.
But it’s not always easy.
“I still feel the same nervousness going into a job,” she said.
“Maybe I haven’t met the parents, just spoken over the phone. I get upset about leaving home, my safety net and the comfort of my family, and I feel a sense of loss.
“So I know I’m still passionate and I still care, and I’m pushing myself to be a better person.
“I still love what I do, and I still laugh and walk with a smile on my face.”
But governessing is not for everyone. It can also have its down sides. Loneliness, missing home, struggling to maintain connectedness with the outside world, living and working in the same place, not liking the family or kids. Some jobs just don’t work out.
“I’ve had several jobs - three or four - for whatever reason that haven’t lasted, whether it’s me, or mutual or they make a decision for you. There are lots of reasons why.
“Sometimes, I don’t know why they’ve put up with me when I was under a lot of stress one year.
“Other times you can feel out of your depth in a job and it can be hard to know who to reach out to or recognise when to stop and get help.
“Some things you can’t change. For me, I can’t see my friends every day who are in three states and thousands of kilometres away.”
The best thing about being a governess for Lee-Anne is the impact she has on the children.
“Knowing they might not remember, but I will,” she said. “Teaching them something they struggle to understand and then they finally get it and move onto the next step, or better yet, they correct me (when I pretend to get it wrong).”
For all her 20 years as a governess and implementing the school curriculum, Lee-Anne has never wanted to be a teacher.
The worst thing about distance education, she said, was the “feedback”.
Every week she has to write reports and take photos of the schoolwork to send back to the teacher.
“It’s a tedious job but it’s got to be done,” she said.
“The isolation is not a worry as much. The hardest part is doing the paperwork to finalise the job. I go for walks to get away from it.”
Lee-Anne said a governess had to adapt the teaching program to suit the individual children, which could be hard for first-timers.
“I have taught every concept within the primary school curriculum and can think of three ways to present something.
“You have to learn on your feet to recognise why kids are getting frustrated and you have to communicate and adapt the work to doing it in a way they will understand.
“Some days you feel like the full teacher because they might not be available.”
The number one skill of a governess is flexibility.
Number two would be the ability to communicate.
“It’s really tough at times to say you don’t like the thing that’s happening,” Lee-Anne said.
“Anyone can be a governess if you set your mind to it and create a support system for yourself.
“You have to be willing to be pushed and to push yourself.
“You have to be willing to learn. It’s one of the things that’s challenged me on a personal level more than anything else I’ve ever done. And it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.”
Lee-Anne continues to improve the network and website, and is working on instructional videos.
“I love counselling and one-on-ones, and teaching them to be better people.
“I love the fact I can improve education and educators in a more holistic aspect.”
Lee-Anne’s top tips to being a govie
- Don't forget to pack a ball gown. You'd be surprised when you get to wear it...
- Don't take mail day for granted...
- If you're not from the country, don't dream up romantic illusions. Haven't come across a remotely handsome nice young male neighbour yet.
- Communication is KEY! Before you even start working with the kids, work out what they expect from you and what you expect from them ... as long as everyone is clear about what they want/expect/accept from the start, there should be no problems!
- Ambulance cover – that covers Royal Flying Doctor Service (just in case). Flying doctors also run clinic days for you to see a GP.
- Get your parents to call on a certain day/night all the time so that you and your bosses know that is the night they call and are expecting it ... or pray you have mobile service.
- Do up a couple of pages of photos of people at home. I did them on white paper, laminated them and then could Blue Tac them anywhere.
- A five-minute conversation with the sexy pilot about cattle tracks on the airstrip may be the highlight of the week.
- Living and working at your employment means you are on display constantly. Then you go out on the weekend and smile all the time. If your governess goes out for over half the weekends in the term she is going to need some weekends at home by herself and maybe even with the curtains down.
- If your governess stays home for a weekend and spend it in your room reading, watching DVDs, texting and talking to friends, on the internet DON’T PANIC, she is just taking some time out to recharge the batteries.
- Of course, if she spends every weekend at home, then panic. Or invite her out on water run, over for drinks and some fun.