Bush School by Peter O’Brien

Reviewed by Rod McLary

Nearly all of us were once students at primary school; and we all were taught by teachers – some good, some not so good and a few excellent ones who took us beyond the basic syllabus.  It is these latter teachers we tend to remember.  This is a neat segue to Bush School the memoir of a young teacher – with barely two years teaching experience – and what he offered to the students at a one-teacher school in western New South Wales.

The author Peter O’Brien completed his teacher training at Balmain Teachers’ College at the end of 1957 and, contrary to his expectation, was appointed to Kegworth School in Leichhardt.  After a year, he was transferred to Guy Fawkes Primary School in the New England area.  However, due to departmental requirements, Peter was again transferred to Weabonga Primary School – a one-teacher school two hours by road west of Armidale.  He was twenty years old.

Thus begins this memoir of a young teacher with a class of eighteen – thirteen boys and five girls aged from five to thirteen and from eight local families.  As Peter says: ‘the hardest test of my short life was about to hit me’ [1].

The genesis of the memoir was suggested at a sixty-year reunion in 2017 of students from the College.  The men who had taught at one-teacher schools were asked to record their thoughts for historical interest.  Peter was encouraged by his son to write as much as he could – and the outcome was this memoir.

It is a warm-hearted and sometimes moving story of his and the children’s educational experiences over a two-year period.  From the first day, Peter embarked on a novel journey with the children.  He determined that he would encourage and facilitate the children in making as many decisions about their learning as was possible.  His educational theory – although he didn’t call it that – was to encourage his students to be self-determining; which, Peter believed, would lead to improvements in their happiness and in their learning [29].  In an almost conversational way through the memoir, he sets out his progress towards those two goals.  Along the way, he also describes his developing friendships with the locals and his increasing participation in the daily life of a small country town in the outback.

In his descriptions of the local families and identities – always done in a courteous and respectful manner and with affection – he captures the essential good nature and down-to-earth attitudes of these country people.  By actively involving them in school activities – necessarily limited due to the demands of farming – Peter is able to demonstrate to them the value of his approach to the education of their children.  The children themselves flourish under this regime and various incidents are described which illustrate their individual growth.

In a later chapter, Peter touches on what he refers to as the ‘pre-colonial history’ of the area.  Local men are invited to speak to the students about the Indigenous peoples in the area before white settlement and how they responded to the settlers encroaching on their lands.  Subtle references are made about the harm done to the Indigenous people; but more explicit references are made to their care of the land and their skills in trapping animals for food.  This perhaps foreshadows Peter’s later advocacy for the Indigenous peoples and his co-founding the Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation [ANTaR].  His work in this area was recognised with an Order of Australia.

As the original purpose of the memoir – at least in its beginnings – was to share with fellow educators one teacher’s experience in a one-teacher school, the focus is very much on the educational journey of this small group of children.  While quite interesting and engaging, this focus may limit the book’s wider appeal.  From time to time, the memoir does move into more personal areas but there seems almost a sense of restraint from disclosing too much of the personal.

Similarly, the author states that the names of the schools and the students and their families have been changed to protect their privacy.  While this is understandable, it does inhibit Bush School in achieving the general purpose of a memoir which is to personally engage the reader in the experience and enable him/her to relate to that experience.

Bush School is written by someone who has lived experience – in this case in teaching in a country one-teacher school – and is able to articulate that experience in an engaging manner.  He was clearly a ‘good teacher’ and as he says: ‘good teachers model the best human behaviours of kindness, inclusion, sensitive encouragement and caring’ [282].  Bush School deserves to be widely read and appreciated as an example of what can be achieved in a small school with a committed teacher.

Bush School

[2020]

by Peter O’Brien

Allen and Unwin

ISBN 978 1 76087 680 7

$29.99; 284pp

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