Tales of Classrooms Past and Some Other Places: Reminiscences of the First Students and Staff of Bathurst Teachers College, The 1951–1952 Pioneers

Edited by Royce Levi
Book Pal, 2011

This is a fine collection of stories by teachers and lecturers who attended the first two years of Bathurst Teachers College, from 1951 to 1952. They call themselves “The Pioneers” and to this day have reunions.

Bathurst Teaching College opened in 1951 following Newcastle (1950), Wagga (1948), Balmain (1946), Armidale (1928) and Sydney Teachers College (1906).

Bathurst Teachers College later became Mitchell College of Advanced Education and, in 1989, Charles Sturt University.

The stories record a generation of teachers who grew up during the austerity, fear and dangers of the World War 2 years and began their teaching careers in 1953, an era dominated by the Cold War and nuclear threat. It was also a time with no television, no internet, no photocopiers, and tremendous teacher shortage, with class sizes up to 60.

Bathurst Teachers’ College trained a generation of excellent teachers. Royce Levi can still account for what he learnt there: “child-centredness as a fundamental focus for everything I taught .... Second was the importance of preparation, powerful initial presentation of subject matter and prompt feedback. In the demonstrations I saw at BTC, and in my own practice teaching, I first noticed how good discipline is when pupils are caught up with interest and are fascinated by what they are doing. Last, but far from least, is the power that a school community has over the lives within.”

A Teachers’ College Scholarship gave many young people the opportunity to enter the profession. It paid fees and accommodation costs and included a small living allowance.

The book includes many stories about “country service” which despatched teachers anywhere in the state; they often had to make long journeys by train to tiny, remote schools, with the choice of living in a pub or boarding with a local family.

Many one-teacher schools in remote locations had no electricity and used a battery-operated radio for teaching scattered students. It was common for schools to have pit toilets. Teachers wrote with fountain pens and used blotters to dry their strokes after marking the roll. They had to make their own glue using cornflower and boiling water.

After graduating from College, teachers were required to teach for three years as probationary teachers to gain their Teacher’s Certificate.

Royce Levi reminisces: “In each of those years, a school inspector visited our classrooms and examined our work: our records, our children’s books, and importantly, our teaching presence .... In those days primary program record books, supplied by the Government Printer, had much space to fill, as we were generalist teachers with many subject responsibilities ... We were required at this school to prepare these programs six weeks in advance. Notes in red were also required, to signify work not taught and to explain why. We also kept daybooks containing descriptions and records of all lessons taught.”

The book documents the very rigorous school inspection system for Lists for Promotions and one wonders whether it is time to revisit this when many teachers question the CV/interview process.

One story describes a teacher’s very first Annual Conference, when Federation moved a recommendation for equal pay. In the 1950s, women teachers were paid 75 per cent of the male wage.

The stories describe a generation of teachers who were profoundly influenced by the educational leadership of their Director-General, Dr Harold Wyndham, who reformed secondary education to create our comprehensive high school system. This was a time when the NSW department of education was a centre of excellence for policy development, curriculum support and research.

The stories reveal many changes to teaching since the 1950s but, as a teacher says: “One thing that has never changed, however, is my strong belief in the importance of what teachers do — day in and day out. Nothing can ever replace their multi-faceted role in a child’s life.”

Another great history about the enormous contributions teachers have made to public education.

Federation member Royce Levi, now in his eighties, still has his casual teaching number and continues to update his website at

Up to the Collar: an Autobiography

By William (Bill) Birrell
Compiled by Jean Reid and Joani Reid, 2014

Bill Birrell’s autobiography describes in detail what it was like to teach in a one-teacher bush school in the early 20th century.

Birrell (1888–1975) wrote his autobiography late in life. After his death, his handwritten manuscript was carefully treasured by his family until its recent publication by his daughter Jean Reid, now in her late 90s, and grand-daughter Joani Reid.

It is a fascinating book in the context of one of the most significant educational reforms of its time — the 1880 Public Instruction Act. William Birrell was born eight years after Henry Parkes’ reform that made schooling free, compulsory and secular for all children. It certainly gave Birrell the opportunity to attend school and train as a teacher. He began his teaching career in 1910 and retired in 1952 as a deputy principal at Cabramatta PS.

The book focuses on his first two years at a teacher at one-teacher schools at Crawney and Glen Dhu near Murrurundi, Fosterton near Dungog, and Temi shale mine near Ardglen. It then focuses on his 15 years at a one-teacher school at Steinbrook, near Tenterfield, from 1912 to 1927.

He left school early, aged 13, and for a short while worked at the Seaham Colliery. With the encouragement of his family, hard work and the provision of public education, he was able to attend night school and complete his entrance examination to attend Hill School, Newcastle where he underwent his three-month teacher training apprenticeship. Once a teacher, he had to spend many hours studying for exams set by the Department.

His first appointment was notified by a telegram that directed him to “Take charge of Crawney and Glen Dhu half-time schools via Willow Creek”. The two schools were nine miles apart, separated by the high Liverpool Range, and he travelled on horseback between them.

Birrell describes his daily life as a teacher:

“I usually arrived at school about 8.30am which allowed time to prepare both blackboards with the day’s work. It was usually after 5 when I got home as the room had to be cleaned, usually swept after sprinkling damp sawdust on the floor.”

The book is a fascinating description of how life was like in an age when the car did not exist. It describes the enormous challenges of travelling long distance by steam train and horse to remote small schools. As part of his wage Birrell was given an allowance to feed his horse.

It was a time before electricity, with kerosene lamps and candles, pit toilets, weekly mail, and how children as young as five years of age walked or rode on horseback to school across long distances, often having to cross rivers and creeks.

The book describes Birrell’s teaching and how he proudly replaced slates with “new technology” — hard-backed exercise books. And of course he notes the unexpected arrival of the Inspector, who turned up on horseback, and who always gave him a good report.

The book documents the civic farewell that the Tenterfield community held for Birrell on his promotion to Huskisson PS. It records the speeches and gifts they bestowed on “their” teacher, who was not only held in the highest regard for his teaching but also for the enormous contribution he made to the sporting and cultural life of the town.

Despite showing a male bias William Birrell’s speech at his farewell is testimony of his belief in the value of education:

“During my term there have passed through my hands 60 boys and 72 girls, 132 in all. At present there are 22 on the roll; of that total there have been 45 QCs [children who passed their Qualifying Certificate examinations on completion of the primary course]. I have toiled to get the parents to realise that the education of the child is not finished at the QC. He should be given a chance at higher education. The boy going on the land needs education; he should be wide awake; he should be able to defend himself, in many cases, against rogues.”

The book wonderfully brings to life what it was like to be a public school teacher in the early 20th century.

Both books are available for borrowing from Federation Library.

Janine Kitson is a relieving Country Organiser.