Teachers' uprising


Twelve ApostlesTwo things happened to me recently that became bound together in my imagination. One was that I drove along Victoria's Great Ocean Road and visited, for the first time in years, the Twelve Apostles, those extraordinary, towering rock stacks left after 20 million years of battering by the Southern Ocean separated them from the original limestone cliffs and smashed their surrounding structures.

The other was a meeting I had with some student teachers. Their final exams were finished, the practical teaching rounds were all done and they were waiting on news of their appointment to some urban, suburban, rural or remote school where they would start their professional careers.

Their infectious anticipation, mixed with some apprehension and even, deep down, a certain dread, reminded me vividly of my own experience of that volatile, nervous time when, qualified at last, you had to leave the cloisters and face the world.

You'll be pleased to know I refrained from reminiscing but simply wished them luck and success. No such restraint, however, will prevent me from recalling those distant, testing days for the interest or despair of Eureka Street readers already stunned by the sudden swift arrival of yet another Christmas.

Having completed a degree and a diploma of education, my mate and I put in identical applications: on top of our lists were high schools in Wangaratta, Yarrawonga, Shepparton and other Victorian north-eastern towns. At the bottom were the most remote eastern and western schools in the state. I was appointed to Shepparton Technical School; he got Orbost High.

As we had developed during our diploma year a sturdy reputation for recalcitrance, we immediately suspected conspiracy and a deliberate policy to put us as far apart as geography allowed, though one of our more cynical colleagues suggested that the Education Department could not have mustered the administrative acumen to achieve such a sophisticated result and it was probably just bad luck.

After a couple of years we both returned to Melbourne. It was 1960. My new headmaster at a sprawling suburban high school was a large, loud, somewhat pompous bloke. At our first meeting, having wrongly assumed that my two years at Shepparton Tech must have been 'a baptism of fire', he told me he had two 'absolute buffoons' on his staff.

I resisted the temptation to say, 'Well, now you have three', and so our professional relationship got under way.

In my first week I arrived one morning at ten to nine, signed the time book for 8.30, as was the custom, and began to walk down the corridor to the staff room. The time book was outside the head's office and he emerged as I passed.

'Matthews!' he called. I kept walking. 'Matthews,' he boomed again. I walked on and was now a fair distance away. 'Mister Matthews!' He positively exploded. I stopped, turned and said, 'Yes?'

'Did you not hear me?' His heavily jowled features were rubicund, his round, waist-coated barrel chest heaving with effort and annoyance.

'I answer to Brian or Mister Matthews,' I said, as my father had taught me, 'nothing in between.'

It was a tense moment and a very 1960s encounter. Though neither of us realised it, we were enacting our minuscule part in a process that would grow through the decade — the erosion of taken-for-granted authorities, postures, assumptions and hierarchies.

Within months, the time book that had been the mute observer of our clash had been thrown out — in some schools actually burnt — as unprofessional. Secondary teachers went on strike for the first time in their history, not for extra pay, but for the kind of professional recognition accorded as a matter of course to their medical and legal colleagues.

I don't know if the moon was in the seventh house or whether Jupiter was aligned with Mars, but it was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. A vast restlessness ran like a ripple through society's youth, an agitation exacerbated by reports from America and Europe and by the growing questioning militancy of popular music.

Along with thousands of my contemporaries, I left my job at the end of that year and travelled to Europe. It is now folk lore that, in the decade that followed, the world was convulsed with change: after the Pill, the Berlin Wall, the Eichmann trial, the Kennedy assassination and any number of other heterogeneous events and controversial people, nothing would ever be the same again.

Those wind-blasted Twelve Apostles that started this train of thought were 20 million years in the making, but the same forces that shaped them are destroying them. They retain their name, but there aren't 12 any more and gradually the others will succumb. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose is a catchy and persuasive aphorism, but sometimes things change forever. 

Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is the award winning author of A Fine and Private Place and The Temple Down the Road. He was awarded the 2010 National Biography Award for Manning Clark — A Life

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, Twelve Apostles, 1960s



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Existing comments

When he told you he had 'two absolute buffoons on his staff', maybe a better response would have been: Oh, and who's the other one?
Trish Taylor | 09 December 2011

I too had my first appointment at Shepparton Tech and it was a baptism of fire and I found myself as senior Vice President of the Union at 23 and eventually elected as one of the two initial staff members of the School Council, at the same time as I resigned from the Ed Dept. I had been at several Moratorium Marches in Melb and by now had been on strike several times and had chaired a meeting of 400 striking teachers at the civic Centre. But I never lost the fire that had divided the table tennis table, pro-moratorium strikers were able to play, not the others. Divisive. Now after many years in education I do voluntary work in India when not tending my olive trees. The refugee Tibetans are much more receptive and willing to learn than cynical self-seeking and over indulged Australian children whose parents seem to have developed education into a commodity which some people can access and others cannot afford. The old Tech days were days of wonder. With my old mentor John Gray years later we watched the excavator knock down the walls of the 'old Tech' because we no longer needed tradies!
tony london | 09 December 2011

An exquisite piece Brian, and one with which I resonate strongly. When one looks at the Catholic Church, local and/or universal, one can detect the forces of change at work. We can only hope that the aphorism you quoted near the end of your article does not apply to this much needed change. Would that some things ecclesial might change forever!
Garry | 09 December 2011

Brian, you bring back memories of megalomaniac principals and time books. I was told by my first boss, "This school would be better off without you", for such trivial offences as failing to sign the time book. However, I survived 40 years of teaching and thoroughly loved the job. Apparently my successor was a little more trying; he was caught spot-lighting rabbits in the school bus.
Dennis | 09 December 2011

About time more of us senior professionals felt free to pass back the wisdom of the years in a celebratory rather than an apologetic way.
graham patison | 09 December 2011

What a time warp! How this recalls the sixties and the general unrest, manifesting itself in teacher revolt, in Victoria. Thank goodness the core protesters survived the then Premier's pronouncement that they 'could protest till they were blue in the face' and if they wanted professional status they should behave professionally! - of course the prevailing political leadership gave them such good example.
Here's to the survivors!
joan thomas | 09 December 2011

Great piece, Brian, and so nostalgically evocative for those of us who remember The Way We Were.

And I bet I know who that Head was: the co-author of a popular series of English textbooks?
Gillian | 09 December 2011

Bless you!! From another Mr. Matthews Who taught eight years in Hong Kong 20 in Seattle and five years in Vegas!!
Mr Matthews | 16 August 2014


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