Remote learning: Peter O'Brien's bush lessons

Former teacher Peter O'Brien revisits remote hamlet Weabonga in Bush School

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When newly-minted teacher Peter O'Brien was sent to the tiny NSW town of Weabonga to run its bush school, it was a steep learning curve.

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The first time Peter O'Brien arrived in the tiny NSW hamlet of Weabonga, it took him two days to travel there by train and mail car from Armidale, 150km away.

It was 1960 and Peter, a 20-year-old teacher just two years' out of training college, had been dispatched from Sydney to this forgotten village in the New England region in the state's north west - halfway between Tamworth and Walcha - to run its bush school.

As a fresh-faced graduate teacher from the city, who had never lived away from home, Peter knew a stint in the bush was inevitable. But he was not prepared for the harsh reality of country life.

Nestled in the ridges of the Great Dividing Range, the few houses that were in this poverty-stricken village - which were little more than tin huts - had no electricity or running water.

And his digs for the first couple of months were literally a bed on the veranda of his host family's home, taped up on one side with a thin sheet of tar paper for privacy from the road.

Bush School, by Peter O'Brien (Allen&Unwin) $29.99

Bush School, by Peter O'Brien (Allen&Unwin) $29.99

Sixty years later, little has moved on. Last year Peter - also an academic who co-founded Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation - revisited Weabonga, and the building that was his tiny one-teacher school in a paddock. This time the trip from Armidale took two hours.

"It was extraordinary going back," said Peter. The house with the Post Office and the little Catholic chapel had burned down, the old Royal Standard Hotel - closed when Peter was there - was falling down and the tennis court was no more. The old school building, which closed in 1968, had been converted into a house.

So what inspired Peter to return to this remote spot? He was at a Balmain Teachers College reunion when a friend suggested he write a book about one-teacher bush schools.

"The idea was it would be good to have some record of it," Peter said. While he thought he'd just come up with "a few thousand words", once he started writing the memories came flooding back.

As soon as I got started I was standing back in the schoolroom and all of the 18 children - aged between five and 18 - were there with me, they all came back to life.

"I could remember each of the children, just as they were 60 years ago. They're all, no doubt, people who read The Senior now!"

The result is Peter's memoir, Bush School. In the book, he tells the story of his two years in Weabonga, the children he taught, the people he met - including the town's oldest residents, brother and sister Perc and Ethel - and the important life lessons he learned along the way.

"The whole experience was really formative for me. I was only 20-21 when I was there and still developing, still becoming the person I would become as an adult," he said.

The thing that struck him most when he went back, was just how difficult it was to live there, particularly during the first two-and-a-half months when he was camping out on the verandah.

He was taken in later by another family who lived in a nearby farm homestead.

"The first two and a half months were really difficult and it took me until I met Perc and Ethel - who I came to love very much - and moved in with the Williamsons that I was able to settle down and appreciate the place for what it was," he said.

In the book, he says while he was uncomfortable staying with his first host family and their three boys, he was never ungrateful.

"After a while I'd come to understand more about and empathise with their difficult, rather hand-to-mouth existence. I'd grown to appreciate that they had taken me in at all... Without their accommodation there would have been no school, and I would never have come to Weabonga.

Once life became agreeable, and supportable, and I'd got over the 'hump', the whole experience opened up. What appealed was the landscape, and then I got to know the adults. They were all such good, decent people trying to do the very best for their children.

From day one the children were delightful. "I enjoyed being with the kids and at the beginning that was the only thing that kept me going."

While teaching materials were scant, and Peter had a wide age range to prepare for and few facilities to rely on, he relished the opportunity to focus on his then novel child-centred education approach.

"From that point on I became quite convinced that child-centred education, focusing on the children themselves rather than a curriculum or syllabus, would lead to good outcomes. And it did."

Since writing the book, Peter has been contacted by some of the children he taught. The three boys who lived in the first house he lodged in have become graziers and one owns a trucking company. Others became engineers overseas, teachers and joined the army.

"The other thing that has happened is that people who have read the book are going to Weabonga.

"In the last few months the village has had a steady stream of visitors, thanks to the book. Everyone there is making them very welcome, all these years later. "

To find out more about the book and where you can hear Peter talk about his experience, go to the Bush School by Peter O'Brien Facebook page HERE

  • Bush School, by Peter O'Brien (Allen&Unwin) $29.99
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