To Be a Teacher

In a far distant time, in this city of Melbourne and State of Victoria, there was a high-pressure campaign to recruit teachers.

The year is 1950. Joan Healy is 15 years old. She travels to her secondary school my tram. Standing in the crowd, strap-hanging, this tall, shy, awkward young girl is at eye level with the colourful posters above the tram windows. One holds her attention. She sees blue hills and gum trees, a bush school, children running out from class laughing, school bags flying from their shoulders.  ‘Be a teacher. Earn while you learn’.  She pushes this thought around, pictures herself as a State School teacher, imagines a pay packet. Every morning and afternoon she gazes at that poster and imagines herself there in that schoolground.  She studies for Year Eleven exams. She leans closer and closer to ‘Earn while you learn’.

Seventy-two years later I have only a few facts, a few photos and the precise memory of that poster; I cannot know with certainty why she, with a scholarship to cover school fees, did not continue at school to  Year 12, the final year, the prized Matric. Here are some facts. She loved her father. He laboured in the basement of the monumental State Savings Bank, he with his injured back. After being unemployed he had accepted a job of maintaining the plumbing in this building where, before the Great Depression, he proudly led technical planning as the bank was built. With family responsibilities he dreaded unemployment; he clung to his job in a dark basement though he had qualifications for more creative and better paid employment. There was now a fourth child close to being born, money was short, a second income would certainly make a difference. Any 15-year-old eldest child would guess that. Perhaps there was more to it than this. I cannot remember.

At years-end Joan turns 16. I see her now. Too young for Teacher’s College she is admitted to a Pre-Teacher-College program. As a teachers’ assistant at East Coburg State School she steps outside her sheltered Catholic upbringing, like Alice in Wonderland making sense of all that is unfamiliar.  She collects a paycheck. She assists in a different classroom each month, mingles in the staff room where the teachers are kind to her. She watches Michael the young grade three teacher, the staff member closest to her own age. He relaxes on the steps of his ‘demountable’ classroom totally at ease.

Teachers College

Joan turns 17 and takes the tram to Grattan Street where the Melbourne Teachers’ College occupies the Swanston/Grattan corner of Melbourne University. She gulps down the opportunities put before her, revelling in the subjects she is studying, achieving good enough results. A quote from Banjo Patterson sums it up for her, ‘The stockhorse snuffs the battle with delight’. She is invited to choose ‘electives’ and settles for art and golf. She sets up her easel, sometimes by the beach, sometimes in the bush and encouraged by a tutor brushes oil paint on to canvas. She has no talent at all for holding a golf club and hitting a ball to the green but loves the fresh bushland of the inner-city golf course. She relishes rounds of practice teaching. She turns 19 and feels ready for her first posting as a qualified teacher. The contract she signed three years earlier was a commitment to teach, for several years, wherever in Victoria she was assigned.

My memory of my arrival at my first school is as sharp as my memory of that poster on the tram. It was the summer of 1954.  I was assigned to Loch, a small town in South Gippsland. My mother and father drove me to Flinders Street Station to wave goodbye. My father now worked in the Public Service Department, was paid a fair wage, and enjoyed the responsibilities that came with it. Teaching was also a public service. I judged I should dress as well as possible to meet the Head Teacher of my two-teacher Loch State School; I knew his name though nothing else. As the Loch station approached, I adjusted my pale pink fashionably cut coat and took firm grip on my cardboard suitcase. I stepped down and scanned the platform and the paddock behind. There was a man leaning on a post surely waiting for someone. He caught my eye and ambled towards me; hand outstretched. ‘I’m your Principal, there is no accommodation for you yet, so we have booked you into the pub up there’. I nodded and trudged beside him, eager to seem confident as he carried my case up the hill to the pub. I never again wore the pink ‘city coat’. There are comments I should make about these things. The head teacher and his family became firm friends. Most of the young blokes whom I was soon to meet always waited within view of the platform when a new teacher or a new bank employee stepped off the train. They gauged how ‘just off the train’ the newcomer looked. With a coat like mine I scored high.

Everything is hilly in Loch. The little wooden schoolhouse tops a hill just beyond this town with its one main street. I teach levels Prep, One, Two and Three. The Head Teacher has levels Four, Five and Six and all the administration. My pupils are lively, friendly and eager to learn; I love them. Most of the kids come from dairy farms, the parents are delighted if I can hold them at school until the milking is finished. I knit myself a warm jumper, buy gum boots and ramble with the children through the hills behind the school, or stand watching as they hang and swing from the monkey bars. I am invited to join the Young Farmers Club and eventually I am offered board on a dairy farm in walking distance from the school. I learn to drive on a grey Ferguson tractor. School inspectors come; I have encouraging reports which I much later read in a microfiche search of J Healy Public Service. I was trying to research the career of Joe Healy, my father.

In our family now there are two talented young teachers: Ann’s daughter and Veronica’s granddaughter. They both love teaching children and co-operating with families but in the present system face obstacles and challenges I could never have imagined.

If someone seeking a solution to Victoria’s drastic shortage of teachers should read this story, there may be a clue to making the teaching profession a popular choice once more. I muse on words written long ago, ‘The old will dream dreams and the young will see visions.’ For others of my generation, and for me, these early experiences shaped our visions for our future. From this foundation life unfolded and expanded. I have followed the stories of colleagues of my time; they gave back to the community all that had been given to them. That and more.