Teacher training and the aftermath

For those who seamlessly move from school to university and a regular job without incident I am full of admiration. Many of us muddle through and hopefully get there in the end. Never give up on your kids, ever. Everyone should be encouraged to find their place, their niche in life.1

“So wake me up when it’s all over When I’m wiser and I’m older All this time I was finding myself And I didn’t know I was lost”

I had wasted my first year out of school by going to Duntroon and filling in time working for the Bank of New South Wales in Wodonga and was about to repeat the trick two years on. No wonder my father was despairing about my antics. I had originally commenced training as a Primary School teacher at Toorak Teachers College (where the country kids were sent) in 1970, the year following my military discharge. My father had strongly disapproved of Duntroon but endorsed my decision to train as a teacher, like him. First year went well academically; I also campaigned and won election as the SRC President for 1971 and set the scene for a disastrous second year. You party a lot when you’re ‘king of the kids’ in a college enrolment comprised of 100 men and 900 women. I had also fallen in with the boys from Dookie Agricultural College who had discovered my college full of women; those Dookie boys were a bad influence but a lot of fun. I’m not even sure if any of them ever went back to run the family farm. They seemed more interested in the bright lights of Melbourne. I also appeared in a number of theatrical productions at the College. I had a flair for the dramatic but couldn’t sing. As SRC President it was truly memorable second year never to be forgotten. I was expelled at the end of 1971 for poor academic performance (a very diplomatic description) and obliged to complete my teacher training by external study.2 This was a humiliating experience as I gained employment as a provisionally registered untrained teacher on the bottom rung of the pay scale – I was one up from the yard man and even he commanded more respect from the kids than me. However, I stuck at it; worked all day, studied every waking moment and held down a cooks job at the local KFC franchise to supplement my wage, a mere pittance. If there’s purgatory on Earth I was in it.

The Riverina College of Advanced Education (formerly Wagga Teachers College) gave me a credit for my first year at Toorak Teachers College, a generous second chance. Riverina offered a range of courses taught externally and at off campus study centers at Albury and Tumut. I enjoyed my study at RCAE, met many on a similar journey including teachers up-grading to 3 and 4 year qualifications. Little did I know that my future wife, Josephine Novak, was living in Wagga albiet still at school. I taught briefly as a primary school teacher in Albury, Wodonga and the Beechworth Training Prison. In the latter capacity I was an Honorary Probation Officer for the State of Victoria; a very sobering and at times emotionally draining role. I specialized in teaching children and adults with specific learning difficulties. I have carried through life a very high regard for teachers. They shape the minds of children and in a world of ever shifting responsibility have for many of their charges become surrogate parents. Children learn by example; one of the least understood and appreciated dynamics by neglectful and disinterested parents. Some 20 years on my thinking on schooling and education would find expression in my role as the NT Minister for Education. Programs such as ‘parents as teachers’, executive contracts for school principals and devolution were a direct consequence of my time spent as a primary school teacher.

A new opportunity

In the latter part of 1974, having finally completed my Diploma of Teaching, I was appointed to the position of the inaugural Administrative Officer3 of the Institute of Catholic Education4 and worked directly to the College Chairman the late Sir Bernard Callinan AC CBE DSO MC.5 What started out as a relatively menial administrative role quickly evolved into Secretary to the Institute Council.

The inaugural Council of the Institute of Catholic Education circa 1975

I recall my first meeting was so traumatic I was left wondering whether I had made the correct decision. I had never seen Catholic clerics and ‘religious’ have such a ‘ding dong blue’ over an Agenda. This was a rough introduction to Church politics. Later George Pell6 and Eric D’Arcy7 assured me that I would learn to roll with the punches. Ensconced in a small office in the new Archdiocesan Centre, I soon discovered that my landlord was Vicar General Monsignor Penn Jones a former Shell Executive. He didn’t like the fact I had stuck some charts to my office wall; he personally tore them down to make the point. Cardinal Knox was the Archbishop but we rarely saw him. His Eminence was later called to a position in Rome and I never saw him again. Denis Hart, later Archbishop of Melbourne was around, a pleasant and engaging priest who was the liturgical guru at St. Patrick’s Cathedral where my parents had been married. He was good friends with George Pell who had returned from Oxford and had been appointed Principal of Aquinas College Ballarat. My first secretary was Elizabeth Jarrett, a very nice lady senior to me who also lived next door to my apartment block in South Yarra. Elizabeth was a great friend and I was very appreciative of her occasional wisdom and suggestions as to how I might fulfil my role, given I never at any time had a job description. Sir Bernard had once said to me:

‘’If you want to lose authority in a job ask for a job description’’.

I took him at his word and have lived by that principle ever since. Anyone who keeps asking what their job is clearly doesn’t have the initiative to work it out for himself.

That same year disaster struck; my father fell ill and died after a short illness. Dad’s death had a profound impact upon me. I started to re-assess life whilst at the same time enthusiastically applying myself to the new role. I gradually concluded that whilst this was a comfortable and well paid position at best there were no prospects past the rank of Registrar. I remain forever grateful that the job brought me into contact with some truly remarkable Australians including Sir Bernard, George Pell, Eric D‘Arcy, the legendary Father Francis Harman,8 Brother ‘Spud’ Murphy,9 Sister Marie Kehoe RSM10 and an old colleague of my father’s, Dr. Beth Blackall.11 I remain very proud of the small role I played in helping shape the Institute of Catholic Education out of four Catholic Teachers Colleges and the transition to a constituent member of the State College of Victoria (later it would morph into the Australian Catholic University). No more would ‘religious’ who had trained at Catholic teachers colleges be required to retrain before being employed to teach in the State system. The indignity suffered by my late father as a former Christian Brother forced to re-train as a State teacher was done and dusted. With the election of the Whitlam Government Australia had been turned upside down.

The post-secondary sector was undergoing great change and reform. Universities were being opened up to all; ‘mature age students’ were eligible for significant support to return to or start further study. It occurred to me that opportunity beckoned. George Pell sought to persuade me to stay the distance with the Institute however I resolved to take the leap into the unknown. At first I was rejected everywhere I applied which was not unreasonable given my appalling academic record including a compensatory Matriculation pass. Completion of the Diploma of Teaching had not redeemed me despite the odd solid mark. Melbourne Law School refused me point blank; the faculty administrative officer laughed and suggested I stick with teaching. ANU offered hope; if I wanted to pursue law, first I had to enrol in Arts (on probation) and prove that I could pass the most basic of subjects. I was encouraged and financially supported in this move by dad’s close friend Cyril Collins and his wife Pauline. Without Cyril and Pauline’s support to supplement my savings I would never have taken the decision at age 25 years to leave a tenured position for the great unknown of a university course of at least 5 years duration. I also thank Gough Whitlam; he abolished university fees which completely changed the dynamics and opportunities for many including those mature age students who needed a second chance – that was me.

I am among many in Australia from both sides of politics who benefited from Whitlam’s radical higher education over-haul notwithstanding the country at that time couldn’t afford it. I remain unconvinced about HECS and all the other schemes that have been in play since the 1970’s. Successive Governments are able to find billions of dollars for a long list of at times wasteful projects yet the most important, higher education of the next generation remains a cost and barrier to many. So Canberra it was and at age 25 I took a deep breath, backed myself and in 1976 commenced tertiary studies. However in the midst of all that planning for 1976 the later part of 1974 was a time of great sadness consumed by my father’s terminal illness.

Dad dies

It was late 1974 when my dad died. He was diagnosed terminally ill in mid-October and was gone by 27 December that same year – 3 short months. Surgery had confirmed the worst – he was so ill he couldn’t heal. There was no treatment for bowel cancer back then. The relationship with my father was at times strained and difficult. Whatever the reasons at times we just didn’t seem to be able to connect in the way many fathers and sons do. As Mark Twain once wrote:

‘When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished by how much he’d learned in seven years’.

Continual poor performance at school did little to help as my father was an outstanding scholar and I suspect he struggled to come to terms with my continual failure. The de la Salle brothers in Dandenong had suggested at the end of Third Year that I consider a trade; a carpenter was the recommendation.

Les Stone the teacher

I vividly remember his reaction; downcast I overheard his discussion with mum on our return to Pakenham. The brothers were right about one thing – I would go on to build things. Dad was a very black and white man with no shades of grey; a product of the depression and with over ten years of monastic life, he at times struggled with the lay world. He was a very good man; devoted to his family, he worked hard to provide for us. His profile on the website tells his story in some detail. Although I was working in Melbourne, I was driving home each weekend to spend time with him at the hospital and towards the end, stayed until he died. In between the haze of morphine we sat and talked about many things. He was resigned and accepting of his condition; very matter of fact. He was a man of deep faith and although he preferred not to die he accepted that was his fate, I would like to think he showed me how to die. Years later watching the film Gladiator, Maximus says to the Emperor Commodus:

“Death smiles at us all. All that man can do is smile back”.

That was my father; he did not fear death. There was a steady stream of well-wishers, colleagues and constituents who made the pilgrimage to the Albury Mercy Hospital to say good bye. They would leave the ward engulfed in tears. I made my brother Terry come with me on one occasion, a disastrous call on my part; poor Terry, in Year 12 and saying a final goodbye to his dad. I resolved not to subject Susan to the same. I would leave the ward emotionally rung-out, sit in my car sobbing before I could drive back to Wodonga. Bob McLean was with me at the end as I held my father.

Border Morning Mail Editorial 'A Teacher who taught by example' 27 December 1974

Dad implored me to do my best; to make him proud. He asked me to look after his mother and step up for the family. He didn’t look too convinced. The Sisters of Mercy watched over this final chapter and played their part to ease dad out of this world. This traumatic experience of watching my father die over a three month period caused a seismic shift in my sense of responsibility and determination to succeed. My dad never saw me achieve much of consequence before his untimely death and this has been a recurring regret through-out my life. Contrary to what some might think and written I don’t obsess over it and I am not competing with my father. I’m just mindful of the cards you get dealt in life are not always predictable. Your actions as a child impact all around you whether you appreciate it at the time or not.

In the aftermath of dad’s death, I read everything I could on death and dying. You don’t need legislated euthanasia. Palliative care was in its infancy. I had an opinion on the dignity of dying long before Marshall Perron walked into the Legislative Assembly 20 years on with his Euthanasia Bill tucked under his arm. No one can prepare you for what follows. Families fragment and emotions go off the chart. Grief counselling might have helped me through, who knows? There wasn’t much of that back then; just get on with it. In private I am still moved to tears about events that occurred over 38 years ago; there is deep sadness that engulfs me making it difficult to talk about that time. I had great difficulty writing this chapter and had to walk away from the keyboard on a number of occasions; I would become overwhelmed and upset. I have regrets about how we handled Susan’s exposure to it all. We should have taken her to the funeral but it was another era. She never really knew him but I can assure her she was ‘the apple of his eye’. He adored her.

Madeleine, Shane, Jack and Terry Stone at the dedication stone and plaque for Les Stone Park West Wodonga.
  1. ‘Wake Me Up’ Avicii by Aloe Blacc

  2. In my second year poor academic performance and an over indulgence in College life led to my removal; I gained employment as an ‘untrained teacher’ in the non-Government sector completing my studies externally

  3. I fulfilled the duties as Registrar and Secretary to the Institute Council

  4. Subsequently incorporated into the State College of Victoria and the Australian Catholic University

  5. The legendary WWII Commander of Commando ‘Sparrow Force’ 2/2 Independent Company Timor WWII

  6. At the time George Pell was the Principal of Aquinas College having returned from Oxford where he had completed his doctorate

  7. Doctoral graduate Oxford; Reader (Associate Professor) of Philosophy Melbourne University; in succession Bishop of Sale and Archbishop of Hobart

  8. Parish Priest of Clifton Hill, cannon lawyer, Chairman of the Archdiocese Tribunal and mentor to many priests. Save for the Archbishop in my observation the most powerful man in the Melbourne Archdiocese. He had power and knew how to exercise it - he was very good to me

  9. He knew my father in the Christian Brothers; took me to the Provincial House in Parkville for dinner and introduced me as Les Stone’s boy. Anyone who knows anything about the way former religious were treated once they left will recognize this as a truly remarkable gesture. ‘Spud’ would have made it in the SAS – toughest old religious I have ever come across, even looked the part with his marine style haircut

  10. Beth had worked with my father when as a class room teacher he was piloting was the new Victorian mathematics curriculum at Pakenham Consolidated School. Beth was based in the Victorian Education Department Curriculum Centre Carlton. She completed her doctorate at Alberta University Canada and on her return to Australia successfully applied for the position of Principal of Christ College Oakleigh

  11. Beth had worked with my father when as a class room teacher he was piloting was the new Victorian mathematics curriculum at Pakenham Consolidated School. Beth was based in the Victorian Education Department Curriculum Centre Carlton. She completed her doctorate at Alberta University Canada and on her return to Australia successfully applied for the position of Principal of Christ College Oakleigh

Next: Chapter 4: The Epiphany