Recently I chatted with a friend about how much we all owe to some teachers and mentors. So I decided to share, with a few minor changes, what I wrote about twenty years ago about two teachers to whom I owe a great debt. They turned my life around.
Professor W.G.K. Duncan at Adelaide University taught me Political Science in 1958. I was used to lecturers and teachers presenting facts and interpretations for me. I would write down my lecture notes with the intention of reproducing them at examination time. I was a passive learner. But in WGK, I had a lecturer who asked question after question. I found it very frustrating for the whole first term. What was this fellow all about? He wouldn’t tell me what was correct, right or wrong.
Should inheritance or property have any special rights in a democracy? How do we draw a line between individualism and collectivism and so on? In all these carefully crafted questions, he never provided me or other students with anything that looked like an answer.
It took me a whole term to get over my frustration and irritation with him. But it was brilliant and challenging teaching. There is a kernel of truth to be found, but we have to work to get inside the shell to find out what it is. But once we find it, the truth is our own. I found that exploring, challenging and finding answers is where life’s energy comes from. Unknowingly WGK had helped me to link the dots between faith which I had experienced in the Methodist manse and social justice.
WGK’s lectures were transforming. He motivated me to think for myself. Both my head and heart were engaged.
There was also an earlier experience with a headmaster at Naracoorte (SA) High School in 1949. My family were Methodist improvers, but not particularly academic. My mother never went to university and my father never went to high school.
I coasted along as a student, played a lot of sport and sat comfortably in the lower half of every class. My father enquired about a job for me as a PMG linesman or bank teller.
In my Intermediate Certificate year, the headmaster Alex McPherson decided that our examination class didn’t have a sense of urgency and direction. In effect, he became our teacher in most of our subjects for the last term. He was determined to get good results for us and the school in the external examinations for the Intermediate Certificate.
The change for me was dramatic. McPherson was so enthusiastic and dedicated, even fearsome. He carried us with him. We respected him. He was known around the school as the ‘Iron Duke’. He shook us up. He pushed himself to the limit and expected teachers and students to do the same. His commitment to me and others was infectious. Dull subjects came to life. He showed us how the area of a circle, the formula ‘Pie R squared’ could be demonstrated by cutting the circle into thin slivers, patching them together to make a rectangle, which was easily measured. He challenged me when I said that ‘the sun rises in the East’. He asked me how that could be when the earth moves around the sun and not vice versa. He clearly loved his subjects and he also respected and loved his students
Alex McPherson stirred and enthused us. He was a colourful and charismatic teacher who cared for us but demanded a lot from us in return.
To my great surprise, I got good results in the Intermediate Certificate year. I learned for the first time that I had a reasonable ability and that if I applied myself I could get good results. Most importantly I learned that when it all came to push and shove, any success was basically up to me. That lesson stayed with me in later education and in my career. When doubts arose, I recalled my experience with Alex McPherson.
WGK Duncan and Alex McPherson both turned my life around. They both worked in the public sector and as you would note from their names they were both Scots. They were great advocates and exemplars of public education. They were both great motivators and leaders. They loved their students and their subjects.
We all need teachers like them