xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' The Font of Noelage: How Gough Whitlam led me to the Principalship

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

How Gough Whitlam led me to the Principalship

W. C. Fields once said, “It was a woman who drove me to drink and I never did get to thank her.”
It was a bit like that with Gough Whitlam and me and my journey to the principalship. I guess I should also have thanked John Tonkin, State Premier from 1971 to 1973. For, between them, these two men lifted me out of the classroom in 1971 and plonked me down in Donnybrook in 1975 in the newly established Level 3 position of Deputy Principal Primary.
How did they do it? Well it was a rather complicated and convoluted process that saw me in a couple of Acting positions. In fact by the end of 1974 I had had so many Acting positions that I was very nearly nominated for the Academy Award.

In February 1971 I was happily working away teaching my fabulous Year 6/7 class at Mt Lawley Primary School. At a morning tea early in that school year the Headmaster, we didn’t have any Principals in those days, tapped his tea cup with a spoon and claimed our attention.

The Headmaster was Neville Green, a very, very good operator, so we all gave him our close attention, anxious to hear what pearls of wisdom he was going to cast before us.  Bible scholars will probably read that last line and make a quite unfair inference. O.K. we may have told a few porkies from time to time but that was as close as we got.

“I have been informed by the Department that they are going to appoint a Supernumerary Teacher to this school next Monday,” said Neville and waited for the importance of his comments to sink in.

Ooh ah, we all thought. A Supernumerary Teacher. Next Week. How interesting. Er, umm, what exactly is a Supernumerary Teacher?

“A Supernumerary Teacher,” said Neville, "is a teacher appointed in addition to the number of teachers needed to staff each classroom. The Supernumerary can assist the class teacher or sometimes may even take over the class so the teacher can do other things like meet parents or mark work.” Neville had read our minds. I told you he was an astute Principal…I mean Headmaster. Neville then said he expected to have more details about the Supernumerary position in a day or two and would keep us informed.

At morning tea the next day Neville again played his little solo percussive piece on his tea cup and we all gazed eagerly in his direction.

“I have been told the Supernumerary Teacher is a Mr John Doherty. He graduated from Secondary Teachers College in 1969 and has spent the last two years in National Service. He has just returned from six months in Vietnam and will be discharged this week. He will start at Mt Lawley School this coming Monday.”

Ooh, Ah we all thought. Secondary Teachers College. National Service. Vietnam. Ah, er, um, two years since he graduated. Er. How much help can he be?

“Considering Mr Doherty’s lack of any primary teaching experience in the last two years, I will not be making him the Supernumerary Teacher,” said Neville. Once again demonstrating that, like any astute Headmaster, he could so easily read our minds.

Yairs. Well that makes sense, we all thought to ourselves. No good having an inexperienced teacher as a Supernumerary. Guess Neville will tell the Department to think again and send somebody who is at least a qualified Primary teacher.

“What that means,” continued the clairvoyant Neville, “is that I will put Mr Doherty in to a classroom so that he can acquire and develop the skills required of a primary school teacher.”

Good one, Neville, we all thought. Boy, is Neville ever clever. Makes sense. Put him in the classroom where he can learn how to be a teacher. Yair. Terrific. Hey, hang on! Which classroom? Not in mine, that’s for sure!

“So that means,” said Neville, “that I will require one of you to volunteer to be the Supernumerary Teacher instead.”

Now I had been in National Service some years earlier. The number one thing that my less than glorious army career had taught me was, never, ever volunteer. The other staff must have all have done military service, too, for not one of them volunteered. In fact we all sat there staring intently into our empty coffee cups. We were practising the avoidance technique perfected by all Year One children which, stated simply, says that if I do not look at you when you are speaking to me then you cannot see me, because now I am completely invisible.

Well I don’t know whether Neville could see us or not but he sat down and started talking to the Deputy Headmaster about the Annual Stock Requisition. We gradually dragged our eyes out of our coffee cups and started talking about everything except volunteering to be the Supernumerary Teacher. The school siren rang and we moved out of the staff room. I did not realise as I moved away that morning that my life was about to change forever.

At 11-30 a.m. my class was busily engaged in a Social Studies activity when Neville came into my classroom.

“Noel, I’ve been thinking that you would make an excellent Supernumerary Teacher.” Now normally I thought Neville spoke a lot of wisdom and common sense, but this was just ridiculous. I thought I had better  set him straight with some well reasoned, lucid, cogent argument.

“Um. Er. Ah. I dunno, Neville,” was my erudite reply. Unfazed by my eloquence, Neville then explained how the Supernumerary position would suit me down to the ground.

“You will take lessons in the other classes but you will not have direct responsibility for any class and you will get substantial amounts of free periods. Also, you are doing part time studies at University, so we could organize it that you could leave early on those afternoon when your lectures start at 4-00 p.m.” Neville then showed me a draft timetable and it did seem to have quite a few free periods in it. Now I have to admit that this made the idea much more attractive.

“O.K.” I said, “But I’ll only do it if I teach just one subject through the school. I don’t want to teach English grammar in this class, and maths in that class and art in some other class. And I want to have my own room. I don’t want to be every one’s dogsbody traipsing with all my books and resources from room to room with no place to call my own.”

Neville smiled. He knew he had won. He told me there were two “spare’ rooms that I could choose from. Regarding the prospect of teaching just the one subject he said we would need to talk about that with staff at tomorrow’s morning tea.

Next day the teaspoon’s tune on the coffee cup quickly grabbed everyone’s attention.

“Good morning everyone,” chirped Neville. “I’m happy to tell you that Noel has kindly volunteered to be the Supernumerary.

“Good old Noel,” everyone chortled, inwardly thinking, “Poor old Noel. What a dill!”

Neville allowed the general acclamation to die down before he continued. “He just has one condition. Noel has agreed to take lessons of one hour’s duration in each of your classrooms each week but he wants to teach the same subject through the school. You will all need to agree on the same subject. What subject would you like him to teach in your room?”

“Science” they all yelled out in unison. And so I became the first Science Specialist at Mt Lawley Primary School. Or maybe in any primary school for that matter.

This was the time of The Process Approach to Science. So I devised plenty of child centred, problem solving, hands on science activities that led children to develop the skills of scientific enquiry. That is, by attempting to manipulate materials to solve a problem the children developed the skills of observing, classifying, predicting, measuring, recording, reporting, controlling variables, devising hypotheses and designing experiments. It was the generally held view of wise educators, and of Neville in particular, that Science was both a Body of Knowledge and a Method of Inquiry. Primary schools would develop the inquiry skills and secondary schools would provide the content knowledge. Nothing ever changes.

Neville even gave me a budget to buy balloons, magnets, string, magnifying glasses, dry cell batteries, etc. He came in to the class on my first day as a Supernumerary and said, “Noel, here is $10.00. Put it inside this coffee tin and keep it on the top shelf of that cupboard where you keep the school pads and art paper. When you need some materials go and buy them and put the receipts in the tin. When you have spent all the money bring the receipts to me and I will give you some more cash.”

I told you he was enlightened. I mean, in those days in the early 1970s not even Principals, sorry, Headmasters, received any cash. The Department did not give schools any cash. They just issued a line of credit to purchase text books and school stock. The school would order the goods up to the credit limit, send the requisition to the Department which would purchase the goods and arrange delivery of same to the school. The only cash that the school handled was for things such as bus money for excursions or P&C fundraisers.

I enjoyed taking my action packed science lessons. Fortunately I found some Galt Cards. This was an English series of science activity cards on Air, Water, Sound, Heat, Magnetism, Light, etc. I would set up five groups of activities in the classroom and the children seemed to enjoy moving from station to station to see what the challenge was, using the materials provided to devise a solution and recording the results.

Neville seemed quite pleased with what I was doing and invited the District Inspector, Mr Jim Quinn, to come and see the science groups in action. Mr Quinn also seemed impressed. Pretty soon I was doing regular science demonstration lessons for the students of the newly opened Mt Lawley Teachers College.

Then one day Mr Quinn asked me to talk about activity based primary science to a group of principals at the Teacher Further Education Centre in Bagot Road, Subiaco. I decided to practise what I preached and to set them on a problem solving activity. I gave each of them a torch battery, a small light globe and a piece of copper wire.

‘I want you to connect the wire to the battery and globe so that the globe lights up.”  I was surprised that nearly a quarter of the principals had a deal of trouble doing this. Then I told them to work in pairs and try and get two globes to light at the same time. I told them there were several ways to do this and that they could get the globes to glow brightly or dimly. I asked them to draw diagrams of the various ways that they did this.

Well that science session was quite a success and Mr Quinn thanked me very much for my trouble. About three days later he turned up at my classroom door with another gentleman.

“Noel, this is Mr Steve Wallace. He is the Director of Primary Education.”

I shook hands with Mr Wallace who then asked if I had heard that the newly elected state Premier, Mr John Tonkin, had promised to provide free texts to all pupils in W.A. Government Schools.

Actually, I had heard about this plan. Prior to his election in 1971, Mr Tonkin had promised free text books to pupils. After the election he outlined how he would provide free texts to every child in primary school. Naturally there was a huge outcry that secondary students were going to miss out. The West Australian newspaper editorialised about Mr Tonkin’s broken promise and there was much acrimonious public debate.

Finally, Mr Tonkin, who was a former schoolteacher, answered his critics by saying that he had not broken any election promise. He had promised free texts to pupils and all pupils would get them.

“Everyone in Education knows that primary children are called pupils and secondary children are called students,” explained Supertonk. “I never said that I would give free texts to students, just to pupils and pupils are only in primary schools.” Well it seemed reasonable to me as I stood in the autumn sunshine outside Room 8 with the District Inspector and the Director of Primary Education, reflecting on the free text book debates.

Meanwhile, Mr Wallace soon shook me out of my reverie by inviting me to take on the job of writing science text books for primary children. Mr Wallace was a very enthusiastic and persuasive talker. He reminded me of the footy coach at three quarter time in the grand final delivering his impassioned plea to the players to once more rise up, summon their strength, commit their bodies and go out to do or die for the cause.

Naturally I was very hesitant to accept his offer. But he and Mr Quin were adamant that I was just the man for the job.

“After, all,” enthused Mr Wallace, “It is only what you are doing here every day. Mr Quinn has told me how you are devising science activities over a wide range of classes. Oh, yes, you can do it alright!’

Silently I wondered if Mr Wallace would let me take my Galt Cards with me but out loud I told him that I would give science text book writing a go.

“That’s wonderful, Noel. I’ll be in touch soon to tell you when you will be starting. We are still getting a team of writers together. It may take a few weeks before we are ready to go.”

Writers! I wondered if a plagiarist was going to be included in the team.

Neville Green congratulated me on my new position and said I had made a wise move. About three weeks later Steve Wallace rang to say that there had been a slight change of plan. Instead of me joining the text book writing team, he wondered if I would replace Bob Reid at the Nature Advisory Service. Apparently Dr John Lake, a lecturer at Graylands Teachers College,had won a Rotary Scholarship and would be overseas in 1972. Bob was going to take John Lake’s place lecturing in Maths and Science Education at Graylands.

“So, Noel,” said Steve in his enthusiastic way, “What I’d really like you to do is take over Bob’s job at Nature Advisory at the start of school next year. Will you think about it?”

Well, I actually knew Bob Reid and I had made great use of the Nature Advisory Service. Dr Vincent Serventy and Harry Butler had done a mighty job in the 1950s and 60s in developing this great resource for teachers and students. In fact both of these gentlemen had visited my classrooms when I was teaching at Bunbury Central School and Koongamia. Eventually, after talking it over with Neville Green, I agreed to be a teacher for the Nature Advisory Service. At least I would not need to be a plagiarist in this role.

Just before school broke up in December, I had another phone call from Steve Wallace.

“Noel, Bob Reid has decided not to go to Graylands Teachers College. So he will be at Nature Advisory next year as usual.”

“Oh, O.K. Does this mean that now  I will go on to the text book writing team instead?’

“No. Not now. Because of the arrangement with you going to Nature Advisory, we have put someone else in the science text book job.”

“Oh. O.K. So I guess I’ll just stay on here teaching science at Mt Lawley School.”

“No. I want you to go to Graylands to replace Dr John Lake in the Maths and Science Department.”

That’s the way it worked in the early 1970s. No formal application forms. No merit selection panels. From class teacher to teachers college lecturer in one move. Do not pass go! Do not collect two hundred dollars!

Well, after a lot of thought and further lengthy discussions with Neville Green and Dr Clarrie Makin, the principal at Graylands Teachers College, I agreed. In February 1972 I started working as Acting Lecturer in Mathematics and Science in a tertiary institution. I grew a moustache so that I would look older than the students.

This is where Gough Whitlam takes a hand. He started pushing loads of money into education at all levels. In 1973 the five W.A. teachers colleges were encouraged by the Tonkin and Whitlam governments to become autonomous institutions in an organization called The W.A. Colleges of Advanced Education, otherwise known as W.A.C.A.E. These days it is called Edith Cowan University.

One day in September 1973, Dr Makin called me to his office. He told me that, as the colleges were going to be autonomous in 1974, it was necessary to advertise all positions. He said he was very happy with my work and really wanted me to stay on staff. However, he said the there was a problem.  Great pressure was being exerted on all of the colleges to appoint highly qualified candidates so as to make the W.A.C.A.E. more akin to a university.

I had a Teachers' Certificate and a Teachers’ Higher Certificate plus a B.A. Dip. Ed., but I lacked any real qualifications in Maths or Science, except for a post graduate unit in Educational Measurement and Statistics. Clarrie said it would be hard for me to retain my position unless I enrolled in some post graduate science unit. He said he could then argue to the selection panel that I was actually already doing the job and was upgrading my science qualifications at the same time. He said he thought that this would give me a good chance of staying on at Graylands.

I loved working at Graylands but I told Clarrie that post graduate science units would be completely irrelevant to the primary maths and science courses I was running for future primary teachers. Also, I would struggle to keep my head above water as a post graduate university science student and this would affect the quality of my work at Graylands. I didn’t enrol in any post graduate science units. Needless to say I was not successful in holding on to my college job and, during December, 1973, waited on a call from the Department to return me to classroom teaching.

However, on January 4th of 1974, a gentleman named Ted Styles called me at home. He said he was the Director of Teacher Education at the Department and he wanted me to work for him as a Liaison Officer between the Department and the five newly autonomous teachers colleges. Specifically, I was to represent the Department in dealing with the hundreds of trainee teachers who had signed on for departmental scholarships, more colloquially known as “The Bond.” I went into the department and had a chat to Ted about what my duties would be. I accepted his offer and became an acting Education Officer in Teacher Education Branch.  This branch was situated in Arcon Centre in Havelock Street. I worked closely with the Education Department’s two Recruitment Officers, Wally Langdon and Gerry McGrade. Both of these very fine gentleman gave me a lot of help coming to grips in working with the departmental bureaucracy.

One of my jobs was to devise various forms for such things as Living Away From Home Allowance, Travel Allowance, Leave of Absence, etc. Before I could have any of these forms printed on Education Department letterhead I had to take them to the Education Department'e Chief Clerk for his perusal and approval. This often took some time.

After one such visit to the Chief Clerk I came back to Arcon Centre complaining as to how the he used to spend a very long time perusing the form, or whatever other document I had given him, only to make very ineffectual changes.

For instance, I pointed out to Wally and Gerry that "After studying it for a very long time the Chief Clerk then says, ,"You need to change "Students must submit this application form before the end of Term One' to 'This application form must be submitted by students before the end of Term One.'"

"Let's face it," I continued to whinge, "It is purely cosmetic. What is his point?"

"He wants ownership of the document," said Wally. 'What you need to do is make a few spelling mistakes or grammatical errors. He'll pick them up in a wink and you'll be on your way."

Wally was absolutely right. I'd make few spelling mistakes, or put a plural verb with a singular noun and the Chief Clerk would swoop on it, make the changes and then hand the document back to me. I was in and out of his office in five minutes.

I enjoyed my liaison work. I enjoyed having my own office in Arcon Centre and working with Ted, Wally and Gerry and salaries and staffing branch officers. I visited each college at least once each week, hob nobbing with principals, bursars, lecturers and students, helping to sort out  payment issues, living away from home allowances, travel allowances and the complex and varied  problems that affected the students and the successful completion of their course. Unwanted pregnancies and drug use being just two of them.

I was amused to note that some of the highly qualified people who had been appointed by the colleges to lecture in primary mathematics and science had very few clues about what young primary student teachers needed to know to teach these subjects in primary schools. On a couple of occasions when I arrived at a college the Bursar would tell me that the maths and science lecturer wanted to see me urgently. This would always be because they were being besieged by panicking students who were about to go on Practice and wanting ideas for science or maths lessons. Of course, though highly qualified, these new appointees were completely in the dark regarding teaching tips in primary science and maths. I would advise them as best I could. It rankled me a little to think that because they had high flown qualifications in quantum physics, or the spectography of particulate matter, they had been appointed to a job they were finding difficult, whereas little old unqualified me had been doing it quite satisfactorily.

Although I enjoyed my life as the Teacher Education Liaison Officer I decided I wanted to get back into a school. Towards the end of 1974 I told Ted Styles that I was applying for a promotion to the Level 3 principalship. The next day Ted sat me down in his office and wrote out a Special Promotion request for me. A few weeks later I was appointed Deputy Principal Primary to Donnybrook District High Schools. Yes, as a Principal. Headmasters had disappeared around about 1973 and Principals were popping up all over the place.

About a month before I left my job as a Liaison Officer, Ted Styles announced that for 1975 he would appoint three Liaison Officers. The three successful applicants came to Arcon Centre for an orientation  week in December 1974 and I gave them insights into what would be required of them. I have always believed that this showed that it took three people to do the work that I had pioneered. Some others take the view that it took three people to fix up the mess that  I had made. Some people can be so unkind!

Anyhow, in January 1975 I took up my Principal’s position at Donnybrook District High School. So it was John Tonkin’s Supernumerary Teacher programme and Free Text Book Scheme plus Gough Whitlam’s federal funding to establish autonomous teachers colleges that had made me a proud member of the principalship. I happily stayed that way for the next 29 years until retiring in 2002.

I know it is bit late, and John Tonkin has sadly passed on, but may I just say, “Thank you, John, and thank you, Gough. I could not have done it without you.”


  1. Well, after three days, still no comments. I thought Gough may have dropped a line.

  2. Is your blog still blacklisted or has the ban been lifted?

  3. Jane,I think it is now cleared for public exhibition. Apparently the Blogger site thought it could have been a Spam Blog, which I am told are noted for their repetitious and fractured literary style.Well, yes, I can see how they would have thought that.
    However, the good news is that I am back and running....just very few comments coming in.


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