JOHN MENADUE. We all owe a lot to great teachers.

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 


John Laurence Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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6 Responses to JOHN MENADUE. We all owe a lot to great teachers.

  1. Rosemary o'Grady says:

    I love this piece, and I loved Things I Learnt Along the Way, a few years ago; and now – Geoff Hawker’s short but as ever elegant Post … I always like a little smile at the start of a weekend. Thanks fellers!

  2. john tons says:

    John, we now have an education system that ensures that the teachers that inspired you are sidelined. I am part of a group of retired educators who meet semi-regularly to discuss education issues. We noted that the discourse surrounding standardised testing and the national curriculum has little to do with any conception of education. We regard that discourse as having a political objective, but it is a political objective masquerading as an educational philosophy – the rhetoric is littered about improving standards, providing a quality education, empowering parents to compare school performances and of course for justifying the way money is spent.
    The victims of this bipartisan failure to have any clear conception of the purposes of education are the students and the teachers. For schools the NAPLAN is little more than a marketing exercise that distracts them from their core business of education. Schools and by extension principals realise that they cannot afford to ignore NAPLAN results for their own future and that of their school may depend on those results. Meanwhile departmental bureaucracies are staffed by managers not educators, so schools become even further removed from any thoughtful commitment to education.
    As educators we are not engaged in some nostalgic re-imagining of the past. We know that teachers are better educated than ever, schools are better resourced and yet we have a system that is failing our students because schools are judged on the basis of a testing regime that has no educational validity whatsoever.

  3. Jim KABLE says:

    I am a teacher – now into my retirement phase but still thinking of myself in the present tense as a teacher. In my mid-30s while undertaking graduate studies I was given the chance by some of my lecturers to reflect on my life and my teaching life as the deliverer of a residential school Keynote address on Teachers as Agents of Change.

    The preparation sent me back to thinking of my own teachers and why they were important to me and to the kind of teacher I thought I was on way to becoming. I mean teachers in my primary schooling, through my secondary school studies and through my university years.

    I am just home now as I write this from visiting one of my Sydney University TDP Dip.Ed. teachers from 1970. I can scarcely believe he is in his early 80s – no more than recognising I am now in my 70th. Lee OWENS was born and initially grew up in the north-east of the US – then its south-west – California – before teaching in Australia – in Tasmania and then in NSW. He and his colleague David DUFTY at Sydney University’s Faculty of Education devised a Teacher Development Program which absolutely upturned the professional teaching diploma hitherto building teacher competency on top of base level degrees. It broke the mould. It fundamentally questioned accepted verities – on such things as IQ and teacher expectations – the partnership between teachers, parents and students – classroom design and outfit. All the radical educational thinkers of the time were examined – we visited schools, independent and private and state – K-6 and 7-12 – in Sydney and in Melbourne – at universities – in Canberra – policy makers, curriculum design – and we looked abroad, too. We taught (practice-teaching) with co-operating schools and teacher-mentors for most of a year – and attended out-of-regular schedule specialist lectures. We featured in The Bulletin – our tiny group under forensic examination.

    And then we were unleashed – sent to schools in the city – but mostly out into far-flung rural communities. Although one “mature” age classmate taught briefly within the second year of the course – 10 times the size of our initial program – and then went into politics – emerging – before overseas diplomatic service as a state Minister for Education.

    In my early teaching career at different ends of the state, my confidence in the program from which I had graduated emerged through my growing familiarity with my syllabus and my assumption of all the other roles expected within a school of members of staff – House Patron, in-charge of a text-book room, class-patron Home Room responsibilities, school fund-raising – after school bus duty – playground duty…and within the small community – Drama, sport, services club membership.

    And with that Keynote address challenge – I found that I had become a composite of my own teachers. Gladys McLean ran the Infants section of West Tamworth PS. She was never my teacher – but she played a crucial role in managing my behaviour – languishing in a class where I had finished the work as the teacher was giving us the directions – and then turning around to chat with class-mates yet to pick up their pencils. Sent to “Miss” McLean – she would listen to my story – and taking pity on both my classroom teacher – and me – would sit me down at the front/side of her “top” class – always quietly working – with a book – to read until the following break – recess, lunch-time – or end of school. She took a keen interest in my progress even as I moved up into big school – across the playground divide. My 3rd and 5th Class teacher was Mr Shanahan. Lucky me. I responded to something of the positive father feel in his presence. And his love for Australian literature – stories and poetry – fostered through the NSW School Magazine – edited in those years I understand by the amazing Ruth Park. My 4th Class teacher taught me something about war damage – an angry man – returning everyday from a liquid lunch taken at a nearby pub – and I was the foil for bringing the after-lunch assembly to order – ordered to his office door – where the inevitable caning afterwards was my reward. Teaching me nothing really – it was really badge of honour territory – apart from the sense of injustice that it represented. And then Mr Rich. Torrens – storyteller, prophesier of amazing futures, encourager – for my 6th Class – the School Principal.

    In secondary school – my first English teacher Mrs Brown – who mid-year went off to teach – she and her husband – to PNG. She allowed me to shine as a bit of a comic – to realise that performance offered a space for developing another persona. And her successor for the remainder of my Tamworth High School years – Brian G Neill (reader of the local ABC regional news) identifying for me that I had a way with words – written and in reading (performance). A builder of confidence – highlighting strengths. Then there was a French subject prac. teacher from UNE – “Miss” White – who took us twice within the year when we lost of regular teacher and there was no other replacement – how we loved her – and our Science teacher in our Second Year – who it seemed (though we’d not have used the word in those days) “loved” us all – whether achievers in her subject or merely those who – like me – “strived harder”! In my senior years a teacher of Modern History – Maurie (sp?) Graham(e?) – who encouraged answers to his questions – and who taught an Honours History course – Japan: Meiji Restoration to the post-war Douglas Macarthur Era. For which there was payoff 25 years later when I began a close and long-term relationship in and with Japan.

    Compassion, Encouragement, Story-telling, Respect for Students, Forecasting Bright Futures, Being Enthusiastic, Being Knowledgeable – but NOT all-knowledgeable on subject areas…those things I learnt to incorporate – via a kind of exposure/osmosis. Great teachers.

    During my years in Japan I had occasion to think about my teachers – and to get in touch with many of them over the years 1990 right up until to-day (literally). There is much more to write – re Miss Arnott, David Malouf, Andrew Riemer, H. Ian Hogbin – Peter Kirkpatrick, Ivor Indyk, Leonie Kramer, Ros Paterson, Myra Catchpole, Helen Andreoni Christine Nicholls – and many others – all of whom taught me questioning, investigation, honesty, generosity and building confidence and to say thank-you. To acknowledge.

  4. Kim Wingerei says:

    Thanks for sharing and so very true – I had a history teacher who taught us to question what we read, a literature teacher whose passion for words were utterly contagious and a geography teacher who told me I could go wherever I wanted and that one day I would change the world – haven’t figured the last bit out, yet, but I’m working on it…

  5. Thanks for those important memories of great teachers John. I was a few years behind you and think it was the same Alex McPherson who was principal of Norwood HS a little after I got there in 1955; and when at Adelaide University from 1960 it was Hugh Stretton who enlivened me as a history student, but I can attest to the impact of WGK Duncan on those who took Politics. Such teachers exist still I must believe.

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