A hundred and still counting

Bob Phillips
Elaine Langshaw

Miss K.B. Yabsley, noted early childhood educator and Miss Mathematics in NSW in the 1960s and '70s, celebrated her 100th birthday on August 20 with family and colleagues who came from near and far to honour a remarkable lady.

Kath attended Armidale Teachers College from 1934 to 1935. She began teaching in 1936 and was appointed infants mistress at Avalon Public School in 1958, retiring from that position in 1980.

At one stage she was invited to take up one of only three positions in the state as Early Childhood Inspector but she declined, wanting to stay closely involved with the children at Avalon Infants. She was at the forefront of educational innovation, particularly in mathematics, with a constant stream of overseas visitors coming to Avalon to view her innovative teaching practices.

Kath was a member of the Mathematics syllabus committee in the 1960s when structured materials in the form of Cuisennaire rods, Diennes blocks, multi-attribute blocks and others were being promoted to enable students to understand mathematical processes, not just get their arithmetic examples correct.

Together with Ralph Rawlinson and Bob Phillips she developed the Triad Maths Laboratory for kindergarten classes in 1970 followed by the Open House Laboratory for year 1 in 1976, both promoting hands-on discovery of all aspects of mathematics.

She had a long involvement with Stewart House as board member, chairman (and she insisted on that title) 1983–85 and consultant for 20 years until her 90th birthday. Bob Phillips paid tribute to Kath Yabsley in a book (written in 24-point font so Kath could read it). He stated:

“Kath’s insights into children were the basis for everything she did …. She just knows exactly how they see the world and how to reach them. This enabled her to write more quickly than anyone I have ever met, and to write with such clarity that it was rare that a word, once written, was changed.

“Let me share another insight into Kath with you. When I was studying for my Doctorate at Sydney University I was engaged in some very sophisticated modelling based on the work of the eminent psychologist Jean Piaget. Anyone who has studied Piaget probably knows just how inaccessible some of his writing is but also how penetrative his ideas are, about how children learn and how their intelligence grows.

“I found an esoteric book in a library that I thought might help. When I opened the cover I found only one other person had borrowed the book: Kath Yabsley. Quite remarkable that Kath would have the energy to face the hurly-burly of being an infants mistress all day and still have the will to grapple with the theoretical constructs of Piaget at night.

“The poorest and the most disadvantaged found a champion in her, not only through her great work for Stewart House, but also in the way she gave unsparingly of her gifts.”

Elaine Langshaw is a former teacher at Avalon Infants and retired deputy principal of Nowra PS. Dr Bob Phillips, a former Research Fellow with the Department of Education, also had a noted academic career.