‘These embryo teachers’: Forming and Contesting the ‘Woman Teacher’ at Sydney Teachers’ College


  • Alex Robinson


In the histories of Australian student dissent, teachers’ colleges tend to not to figure too highly, radicalism and unrest being seen as the preserve of University students. At Sydney Teachers’ College, in the first half of the twentieth century, teacher trainees were subject to numerous restrictions – clothing, attendance, social activities and gender interaction were all regulated – yet little opposition to this ‘back to school’ state of affairs ever surfaced to rectify the situation. This changed in the midst of the Second World War, however, when the usually calm College experienced two attacks on its administration and regulations. The newfound unrest, stemming dominantly from women teacher trainees, challenged the boundaries of respectability, morality and femininity imposed upon women students as they moved between the College grounds and the affiliated hostels many were assigned to. Using local papers as their mouthpiece, these students challenged the College’s petty restrictions (on socialising and wearing lipstick for example) and publicly opposed the ideological foundations of the College, which perceived these students as ‘embryo teachers’ requiring supervision, ‘mothering’, and moulding into a ‘lady teacher’ (Honi Soit, 9 Oct 1942). This paper goes some way to explicating this burst of protest against the overbearing strictures of College life. Not only does it examine the dynamics of the student body that disrupted the “classic calm” of the teaching institution, but also understands the resistance of female teacher trainees against College authorities in the context of escalating anxieties in wartime society. Indeed, it will be seen that underlying both the 1941 and 1942 protests against College administration was a contestation of the ‘woman teacher’ – a generational and ideological struggle which saw young women resisting the gendered ideologies and attendant moral and social values inherent to teacher training in New South Wales. Thus what may have appeared at first to be a small-time uprising on the peripheries of student life in the 1940s, in fact tested the foundations of Sydney Teachers’ College and the ideologies of teacher education in New South Wales. Alex Robinson is an Honours graduate from this University now embarking on her PhD.