P grew up in a small community in rural South Australia. It proved to be a complex childhood with events necessitating her leaving the community at the age of nine to board in a nearby town. Her new school – and her Monday to Friday home for four years – was a convent of Josephite nuns who ran a two-classroom school and cared for ten boarders.
The strong and caring role models of the nuns – and their consistent message of education, life choices and opportunities for women have influenced her ever since. The nuns lived by the philosophy of Mary Mackillop – a rule of service and social justice in a family and community context. The consistent narrative was one of opportunity – for women and girls, but also for anyone disadvantaged. Their fundamental message of ‘if you see a need, do something about it’ has been P’s guiding principle in life.
There were three nuns at the convent, one elderly Junior Primary teacher, one young, newly appointed teacher and a Principal in charge, but not teaching. P does not describe herself as an attending Roman Catholic, but certainly lives as one. She is still involved with the Sisters of St Joseph and believes their framework is a great one by which to live your life. It was her young teacher who inspired her to think about teaching. P remembers asking her lots of questions about how she knew what to teach, why she chose topics or content and how she knew how to go about teaching it.
P’s parents were committed to education. The grandchildren of Prussian pioneer migrants, their lives were bounded by regional geography – the local area where they had been educated in single-room schools to the age of 14. Her mother had run the family farm during WWII, but was displaced when her brother returned from war service. She had been homeless and living with 12/6 in her purse when she married.
P’s father had polio and was unable to work the land, so her parents joined forces to run a shop in a small seaside town. Both her parents emphasised being able to look after yourself. Her father told her “Never let a prince on a white horse run your life”. She grew up assuming she would make her own way and be financially independent, no matter what choices she made in life.
They had no family outside the rural area in which they lived and little reason to travel beyond it.
From the convent school she went to the local High School, where she was successful until a disastrous set of Leaving Certificate results left everyone, including her teachers, shocked. She had an invitation for an interview for the job of secretary at the local Town ouncil. The letter of invitation, however, contained a typing error, which resulted in her missing out on the interview and the job.
At this point the Principal of the High School did something unorthodox. He called her father and expressed his concern that she had not achieved to her potential and that for her to leave school was a tragedy. He invited her to return and continue her studies with a view to attending Teachers’ College. He knew of her interests and ability and refused to let the matter rest until he convinced her to return. After some persuasion she returned to school and completed the entry requirements of Teachers’ College. That year also saw her elected as Head Prefect and House Captain- roles that were to stand her in good stead for leadership work in the future.
When the time came for her to go to Adelaide for training, her family treated her bond and contract very seriously. She still has the signed copy – carefully preserved by her mother. In her father’s mind this was an indenture paper and a big commitment. He was terrified – it was the scariest thing her parents had ever done – but he believed that, in the spirit of indenture, she would be looked after.
So she went “to Town”, as Adelaide was to country people at the time, to board at St Mary’s Hostel and train at Wattle Park Teachers’ College. It was full time, comprehensive training, with observation, strictly supervised practicum twice a year, methods training in every subject, a real induction into the professional community- and a weekly scholarship allowance of $10.30.
She remembers the assembly at the end of her training at Wattle Park Teachers College, when the Principal, Colin Thiele, announced that the girls could now go and get a cup of tea while the boys stayed for the Superannuation Information Session. Marriage, he said, would negate any benefit from Superannuation. She could hear her father’s voice telling her to ensure her financial independence regardless of marriage – and she stayed – the only girl to do so. She was mocked and hissed at, but persevered. She not only stayed, but took out superannuation – a decision she has never regretted.
At the end of her training she applied for three schools – Hambly Bridge, Crystal Brook and Murray Bridge. She chose them for their names. She had grown up not seeing a river. The best she knew were storm creeks. She wanted to live in a town with a river and chose towns whose names suggested one. Fortunately, she did not find out the hard way that two of those towns were not, in fact, on rivers. She was appointed to Kadina.
She was at Kadina for two years and loved it. She used contemporary pedagogies and established herself as a teacher. The Regional Director helped considerably. In this period she was diagnosed as having chronic renal failure. Once this was diagnosed she travelled to Adelaide each week for treatment. Once again, it was her Inspector who went to great lengths to see she stayed employed. He supported her and strongly advised her not to resign but to keep working no matter how sick she was. She took his advice.
At the end of her timen the country, her Inspector was asked to nominate 3 teachers from the region to become Demonstration teachers in Adelaide. P was one of his nominees.
She was appointed to Payneham Primary as a Demonstration teacher. The school had a large population of children of Italian migrants – and she loved it – loved working with the students and their families. She was able to attend the Renal Unit every Wednesday morning with wonderful support from her principal, – first weekly, then fortnightly and eventually monthly. It took years to fully regain her health, but she never resigned and, despite the challenges, got herself to school every day, earning a reputation as a high performing teacher and formidable educator.
She had been assessed as an Early Years Deputy. There was a growth in R-7 schools in outer Adelaide suburbs and she was appointed as Deputy to Modbury Primary. She was by now married. Regulations were changing and she was not forced to resign on marriage. Her (then) husband’s job took him to Port Augusta so she was granted a transfer (for which she took a demotion) and moved.
She expected to be there for three years. She stayed for 13. On arrival she was put into an acting promotion position – taking the place of a male in a job which another male teacher had expected to get. She was treated to a variety of harassment and retaliatory behavior.
In her second year at Port Augusta she decided to take a huge risk and start a family. Her colleagues rallied to support her through the pregnancy and continuing treatment for chronic health issues, backing her up in the classroom and monitoring her health. When she returned to work after the birth of her daughter, she applied and got a job as an Adviser. Her Demonstration School experience put her in a good position to support new teachers, of which there were many scattered across the region, in tiny rural schools, combined early childhood, primary and secondary sites and schools in extremely remote areas serving Indigenous children, mining communities and fishing villages.
Although her background and experience was Primary, Secondary teachers also asked for help. P thrived on the pedagogical work, developing programs to assist teachers at all levels of schooling supporting innovation and seeing results in students across the north of the State. It was liberating, challenging and most of all, educative. She knew, for the first time, she could have a career beyond that of most women in rural South Australia because she was Indeed practicing her career within the broader social and educational context that her Principal had spoken about all those years previously when he persuaded her to stay at school beyond compulsion.
Promotion positions, especially in hard to staff schools, were now being advertised rather than directly appointed. P applied for a Special Open Position in a regional rimary School with a 60% Indigenous student population. Her appointment caused a stir. Women were rarely appointed to such schools. She was asked “How will you manage the Year 7 boys?” “Who are you to take the job X should have got?”. She was treated to ‘roof rocking’ – when a group of male colleagues, fresh from the local pub, disgruntled by the appointment, threw rocks on to her roof at night. It was new and confronting. Many later apologized for their behavior.
She ran the school for three years, working with, for the time, radical pedagogy and getting good results. She really pushed the staff until she began to doubt whether she would herself be able to do what she was demanding of them, so she applied to return to the classroom. Her superintendent refused, so she applied for, and was granted, a teaching exchange to Canada.
On her return she was appointed to the Iron Triangle. She was presiding officer of the local Principals’ Association and was pressured by her colleagues to take on the job of local District Superintendent. She was reluctant, but succumbed to the pressure, especially when it came from the Director General of the time.
She loved the work. As with her other jobs, her approach was based on her Mary Mackillop training and mantra – If you see a need, do something about it. She worked with new educators and people unaccustomed to working in rural communities, assisted Principals and their families to make the transition to schools in the region. She started a Special Needs Unit in an empty house at the back of a school, setting it up and telling the Regional Director afterwards. It supported and integrated Special Needs students into the mainstream, using staffing she saved from the district allocation. It served the whole Far North, including the School of the Air.
Throughout these years since leaving Wattle Park Teachers College as a two-year trained teacher, P had studied units to gain first her Diploma in Education, then an Advanced Diploma and finally a Degree. This worked well, she says, for a single mother, or a woman bringing up a child largely on her own while her husband worked away. She enjoyed study. After several rather grueling years of driving literally thousands of kilometers each year, she won a scholarship to London for a year to undertake a Masters’ degree.
She is active in retirement, travelling extensively both in Australia and overseas and pursuing personal interests, including a significant oral history project on the Yorke Peninsula.
P sees her Teachers’ College Scholarship as her liberation. She believes the only real alternative to getting a professional training as an educator would have been to enter the convent…..not an option she seriously considered at the time, although she is observant and admiring of the leadership practices of the Sisters of St Joseph. She sees them devolving leadership and demonstrating true democracy, based on the collective good.
She continues to be a powerful educator in ‘retirement’, constructing her narrative from the strength of her family, community and the solid scaffold of support she enjoyed from individual teachers, principals, administrators and colleagues. The difficulties she experienced – rural poverty, harassment and chronic illness – served only as spurs to her next push forward to achieve good for the people around her. She is driven by ideas and commitment, still living by the Josephite maxim “If you see a need, do something about it”.