At present finishing the last few subjects of a Master of Education (Sustainability) at James Cook University in north Queensland,

Ernst never had any doubt about the area she wanted to specialise in.

“I found that sustainability is No.1, a very important area, and also something that is very engaging for our students and I felt that that was something we needed to really look at within our schools at the moment.

“This is a particularly personal reason, but all of my children have left home and there was a gap; I had never done my masters, it was something that I always wanted to do and so this filled the gap and has been ongoing.

“It was just something I’d always aspired to do, but knew I didn’t have the time frame, I was getting my children through their university courses and so now it was time for me.”

Home for Ernst is in the tiny town of Julatten, north west of Cairns, and so the course’s online nature, for her, is a must.

“They’re very flexible, and the same with assignments and things like that, they’re very realistic about our workload as teachers,” she says. Ernst says the interaction she has online with lecturers has been particularly of benefit.

“That communication has been very empowering and stimulating.”

But getting back to study after some time out of university has proved a challenge.

“Because I hadn’t studied for a while, I had to get my headspace into the referencing and the academic speak. Being a teacher, it’s finding the blocks of time to be able to put into it.”

The course has complemented Ernst’s already substantial knowledge of sustainability, an area that she feels could be a higher priority in the Australian Curriculum.

“I guess it’s a little bit of a backward one, because some of the things I was doing prior to my study, and in some ways it confirmed what I was doing, but then added authenticity to it. 

“So applying it has been an ongoing thing, which has been somewhat challenging because of the nature of the curriculum at the moment...”

With sustainability being a cross-curricular priority in the Australian Curriculum, it’s not set out as something that must be done as a core element – and so convincing fellow staff to become involved in projects can be a little difficult because they naturally see other things as bigger priorities.

“It’s as simple as we’ve established a kitchen garden – and I can see very easily where you can include maths and science – there are so many different aspects about it that you can be writing about,” Ernst says.

The kitchen garden is one of a host of sustainable practices Ernst has established at Biboohra over the last few years.

“Just simple things like recycling, sorting rubbish, composting, planting out a wetlands area for biodiversity, trying to establish procedures for saving energy, recording the impact of the solar systems that were put in,” she says.

And while it has consumed much of her spare time, Ernst has enjoyed the course.

“Quite honestly, last year in particular, it was my saviour. I had some challenging new aspects coming through the department and it just filled me with the sense of learning and sense of knowledge. 

“It was very empowering and I wasn’t expecting it to be that way, but it was.”

The course content has impacted on her knowledge to such an extent that when she comes across situations, she now feels that she has a breadth of knowledge from which she can confidently apply it.

“I’ve particularly used it with some of the department things that are coming through that challenge my beliefs and sometimes those beliefs are supported by my study. 
“The other thing is that it has been really good at engaging parents. It’s great with engaging parents and the community to become involved in the school – in things that they feel that they can contribute,” Ernst says. 

“So many parents they don’t feel able, as an educationalist to be able to teach, but they know that they can contribute in some of these hands-on activities and that increases, not only their involvement, but their sense of worth at being able to contribute to an education system.”