Doing Dookie Lawrie’s Way

Volume 6 Number 9 September 6 - October 10 2010

Lawrie Shears (middle row third from the left) as captain-coach turned his classroom charges into a well-drilled unit that in 1948 took Dookie’s first flag for 62 years in the Benalla and District League.
Lawrie Shears (middle row third from the left) as captain-coach turned his classroom charges into a well-drilled unit that in 1948 took Dookie’s first flag for 62 years in the Benalla and District League.

His formative experience at Dookie, where he led a group of returned servicemen successfully back to civilian life on the land, remained the bedrock of Lawrie Shears’ journey to the top of Victoria’s education system. Shane Cahill reports.

Facing a classroom is always a challenging task whether it be made up of livewire infants, pubescent time bombs or late adolescent know-it-alls.

For Dr Lawrie Shears his 1947 Rural Training Centre (RTC) class at Dookie represented a unique challenge.

His two-year accelerated Diploma of Agriculture students had fought the Japanese in the jungles of Asia, flown combat missions over Nazi-occupied Europe and hunted enemy submarines on the high seas.

These hard nuts had re-badged their RTC “The Ritz” in homage to their Spartan airforce hut classrooms and primitive ablution facilities. They had built sporting facilities, started the irreverent newspaper the Compost Chronicle and joined the local RSL, but beneath the bravado they were unhappy with the patronising and ad hoc teaching and chaotic administration they had endured for four long months. Morale was low and numbers were dropping.

The slightly built 26-year-old Mr Shears was barely older than most of his pupils. He was already a qualified primary teacher, whose studies of Arts and Commerce at the University of Melbourne allowed him to teach at high schools. Three times Manpower had rejected his applications to join the military, as was the norm for secondary teachers of his age. He was planning to take up a posting at Frankston when he received the call to come to Dookie.

“All of these things of course, building up attitudes in me, in respect to what should happen to teachers,” Dr Shears has told his biographer, Dr Eleanor Peeler.

“I didn’t know this but these were the experiences I was having, that were going to impact on my policies, when I got into a position of having to make judgments, more than judgments, decisions.”

From his first day in a sweltering February he rose to the occasion and was able to draw on his own life experience teaching in Gippsland to give the returned men what they wanted as much as formal education in agriculture.

That was a transition to civilian life and Mr Shears recognised the structured military existence to which the men had become accustomed needed to be replicated during their study as a staging post to the freedoms of postwar life.

Mr Shears, who taught English, Accounting and his self-devised subject of Farm Bookkeeping, wrote a clear and staged curriculum and devised a timetable down to the last minute of each day.

“The first term up there in 1947 – it was hot, hot,” Dr Shears recalled in a 2005 interview.

“They started with about 120 and were down to 90 when I got there. The staff had excellent practical experience and quickly picked up the need for subject syllabuses. So I got them into syllabus making. In a few weeks they had each prepared the framework, a week-by-week plan and identified materials to use.”

Lawrie Shears’ mix of ability and common sense turned Dookie around, halting the fall in enrolments and making it one of the success stories of the RTC, Program, his salary doubling along the way. He married his fiancée Mavis later in the year and his daughter Christine was born the following year, the family living in a new house built by the students on the campus.

He also made the effort to get to know each of the men personally. As captain-coach he turned his classroom charges into a well-drilled unit that in 1948 took Dookie’s first flag for 62 years.

He joined the men in observing the letter of the law that there was to be no drinking on the campus by briskly hiking the several miles over the hills to the Dookie pub and returning several hours later with a greater thirst than when they had set off.

Dr Eleanor Peeler first met Dr Shears when she was studying Primary Teaching at Burwood Teachers’ College where he was principal.

After his Dookie appointment Mr Shears obtained a doctorate from the Institute of Education at the University of London.

“We came back and I was immediately sent to Toorak Teachers’ College in September 1952. I remember there was a great deal of fuss about this little doctor with all these degrees. By that time I had three degrees and a doctorate.”

Dr Shears went on to become Director-General of Education in Victoria. Dr Peeler, now a Research fellow in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, is writing his biography.

“Writing about the Lawrie Shears’ story has given insight into the life of a passionate and visionary educator who did his utmost to serve the teachers and children in schools. The life of one man has opened up an entire educational history and identifies others who served correspondingly. The Rural Training Centre is just one part of the story but gives insight into the dedication of a teacher who helped an extraordinary group of students make the most of the chance to craft a new future. War-torn and broken, the experience provided time for their rehabilitation as they made a transition from military to civilian life. The experience was reversed for Lawrie, who like others training to be secondary teachers in the war years were unable to serve. His three years stint at the RTC was his chance to serve.”

Now 89-year-old Lawrie Shears will be back at the 2010 reunion on the weekend of 18 and 19 September at Dookie.