The joys and trials of the one-teacher school

 Great Australian Outback Teaching Stories, by Bill ‘Swampy’ Marsh celebrates the one teacher schools in a bush setting were commonplace in rural communities up until the mid to late sixties.

The one and only teacher was responsible for teaching all grades from one through to seven or eight, as well as organising sports activities and keeping the school clean and tidy. A yearly visit from the Inspector was a big event, and the teacher never let on that he/she was the one being inspected. Instead, students were coached into a polished performance of copybook writing and poetry recitation. I attended one of these little bush schools through to year seven, and I can still remember the yearly visit by the Inspector.

In assembling this book, Bill has interviewed the students and teachers of these little bush schools, along with people who taught or learned in remote Aboriginal communities or on School of the Air. It’s a wonderful collection of stories about how rural dwelling Australians lived and learned.  Each story has been recorded, usually in a personal interview with Bill, and then transcribed into a short story about a particular place and time. This writing style makes the book easy to pick up and read a story or two and return to later.

Great outbackOne priceless tale involved a School of the Air teacher asking her pupil where his father was. The lad revealed that Dad had ‘gone next door to get a killer’, which essentially meant that his father was off killing one of his neighbour’s animals for the family food supply. Although this was a reasonably common practice on large cattle properties, it was not something that you would want announced to all and sundry over the radio.

Another story involved all the kids at a one teacher school learning to swim in the local creek. If you were starting out, you stayed up the shallow end, and the older kids who could swim were allowed to venture into deep water. The storyteller recounts how learners would stand at the edge, worrying about drowning in the creek. If they hesitated long enough, leeches, catfish and eels began to nibble their legs and that usually helped them take off so the experience could be over and done with. The kids may not have learned stylish swimming strokes, but they were drown-proofed to a certain extent.

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Quite often, an unmarried teacher in charge of the school would be sent to a school that didn’t have accommodation, and would, therefore, board with a family in the local community. Most of these teachers did not own a car either and had to get to school on foot, by bicycle or by riding a horse. There are a few stories about how teachers in this situation filled in their spare time because no doubt it would have been a welcome break for all parties if the teacher spent time away from the house sometimes. Some helped out with chores like mustering, another spent weekends wool classing, while others who played musical instruments were in demand playing at dances. Many communities gathered at the weekend for a game of tennis, football or cricket, which provided an outlet for the sporty types.

This book is a wonderful trip back in time. It makes for happy reminiscing and is a great reminder of how Australians coped with living and working in isolated locations. The book would also make a lovely gift for someone who likes to read collections of short stories rather than novels. The back of the book states that this is the author’s fifteenth book, with some of his other books being about the outback police service, outback towns and pubs and droving and shearing stories. I’m going to keep an eye out for his other books, and I think that if you read this one, you’ll be doing the same thing.

Great Australian Outback Teaching Stories, by Bill ‘Swampy’Marsh. is available from Dymocks.

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