Teacher shortage in 1970s brought American teachers to Australian classrooms
Kentucky-born Bill Wigglesworth arrived in Australia in 1975 to teach at Mirboo North in Gippsland. (ABC Central Victoria: Larissa Romensky)
If you were a student in the 1970s, there’s a good chance you had a teacher from the US with Australia experiencing a teacher shortage at the time.
Australia has a long history of experiencing teacher shortages, dating back to 1947 when the South Australian Education Department recruited English teachers for regional schools.
Now, with another looming teacher shortage predicted, combined with a booming student population and an aging workforce of teachers on the cusp of retirement, Australia is again looking overseas.
In the 1970s, many Australian classrooms had teachers recruited from the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada.
While there is little documentation of this period in Australian history, education academic Howard Prosser estimated around 2,000 teachers were brought in to meet the teacher shortage at the time.
“There is a bit of a dearth of actual material evidence showing the actual government-based programs that brought them in,” he said.
Emeritus Professor Barbara Kamler, originally from the United States, recruited by the New South Wales Department of Education in 1972, was puzzled why there was no considerable research on the topic.
She knew of teachers sent to Victoria and New South Wales and Western Australia.
Three retired teachers from America share their experiences of teaching in Australian classrooms in the 1970s.
Adventure to ‘the other side of the earth’
Bill Wigglesworth’s enlistment number was 189 and luckily the draft numbers stopped at 184.
“So I didn’t have to go to Vietnam, that left me free,” the Kentucky-born retired teacher said.
When he happened by chance to see a flyer on a bulletin board about teaching in Australia he attended an interview, and soon afterwards left on an 18-month tax-free teaching contract.
He flew out of San Francisco on a 747 with more than 300 teachers, arriving in Australia in 1975, five years after graduating.
“For me it was just an adventure, I thought nothing could be more exciting than going to the other side of the earth and seeing what it was like over there,” Mr Wigglesworth said.
After ticking the box for ‘no preference’ for location he arrived in the small town of Mirboo North in Gippsland, eastern Victoria.
“I’m glad I did, because I found some people got the exact opposite of what they put down as a preference,” Mr Wigglesworth said.
“One teacher from California said, ‘Please put me anywhere within a three-hour drive of the coast’, so they sent him to Mildura.”
Bill (centre) celebrating 200 years of American Independence with two Australian teachers he remained friends with. (ABC Central Victoria: Larissa Romensky)
Mr Wigglesworth found himself teaching Australian history within a week of arriving after the departure of another teacher.
“I had no idea who Lachlan Macquarie or Ned Kelly were, so I had to learn pretty quickly,” he said.
After three years in Australia, he went back to Kentucky only to return to Australia after struggling to find teaching work except for one poorly paid position in substandard conditions.
“I said this is rubbish; I’m not going to be anyone’s slave,” Mr Wigglesworth said.
Within a year of returning he met his wife, also a teacher.
“That clinched it for me, but I’d already decided I didn’t want to return to the States; I definitely preferred living in Australia to America,” Mr Wigglesworth said.
He said the politics of education in the United States contributed to substandard teaching conditions, namely the lack of an effective teaching association or union.
“For example, in my home state if I had stayed there and taught in one county the salary I would have been paid was roughly half of what I would have been paid teaching the exact same subject level and work load in another county, about 80 miles to the west of that county,” Mr Wigglesworth said.
“There was no fairness really in how teachers were treated.”
Mr Wigglesworth taught in Gippsland for more than 35 years, retiring in 2014.
‘I was like a celebrity’
Carmella Savale from Melbourne was originally from Michigan and arrived in Australia in 1973. (ABC Central Victoria: Larissa Romensky)
It was a “fluke” that brought art teacher Carmella Savale to teach in Australia in the spring of 1973.
She had just completed her Bachelor of Art Education and teacher training at Eastern Michigan University, not far from Detroit, when she saw posters advertising vacancies for teaching in Australia.
“I though, yeah, what the heck, I’ll have a try. I didn’t know what I was getting into,” Ms Savale said.
“I didn’t know anything about Australia at that stage — we didn’t study anything about Australia in school.”
She flew out to Los Angeles with a plane load of American teachers and landed at Tullamarine Airport in Melbourne.
After a brief induction at a teachers’ hostel in St Kilda she wound up at Pascoe Vale Girls College, where she said she was treated as a novelty.
“In a way it was a little bit distracting at times, they would figure I was like a celebrity or something, and figured I’d met all these movie stars and celebrities,” Ms Savale said.
“Everything they saw on television was what they thought life was like in America.”
Carmella Savale (right) spent more than 25 years teaching at the then-named Collingwood Education Centre. (ABC Central Victoria: Larissa Romensky)
After a year and a half she would go on to spend more than 25 years teaching at the then-named Collingwood Education Centre after meeting her future husband and retiring in 2001.
With most students from a multicultural background, including the 1970s wave of Vietnamese migrants post-Vietnam War, and later an East Timorese influx, she was not considered different.
“Everybody came with their own language, and their own accents and we all mixed together,” Ms Savale said.
“For the most part, I was one of them because the students didn’t even realise that I’d come from overseas and I that had an accent.”
‘I heard the beer was bloody good’
Bendigo’s Roger Dellwo was originally from Wisconson and taught at Edenhope in western Victoria. (ABC Central Victoria: Larissa Romensky)
Roger Dellwo left the freezing conditions of a Minnesota winter, at times minus 19 degrees for the searing temperatures of a 41-degree Melbourne.
“It was just so hot I walked across the street and sat underneath a sprinkler,” he said.
Mr Dellwo dodged the Vietnam draft by signing up to the Peace Corps for two years. Upon returning to the United States for a few years and unable to secure a desired teaching position, Mr Dellwo left for Australia.
“[I thought] it would be worth giving it a go, the spirit of adventure, and I’d also heard the beer was bloody good,” he said.
Stationed in Edenhope in far-western Victoria Mr Dellwo was impressed that the principal of the school had driven almost 400km to Melbourne to pick him up.
The small town, not far from the South Australian border, was already home to about eight Americans.
“The school was good, the kids were good, and the principal was awesome — it was a joy, it was fun, it was like a holiday,” Mr Dellwo said.
Roger Dellwo pictured with fellow American teacher Ron Flaherty. (ABC Central Victoria: Larissa Romensky)
He eventually met his future wife, Beryl, in the nearby town of Goroke — the main reason why he stayed.
“We decided Australia was a better place to bring up kids,” Beryl said.
After two years at Edenhope, Mr Dellwo moved to Bendigo to teach.
Being in a small school he taught everything from woodwork to history at secondary level.
“You automatically just plugged into different areas, that was the big difference from Wisconsin,” Mr Dellwo said.