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Waltzing Matilda: A Lesson in Teaching

A jolly swagman, camped beside a billabong, as depicted in this painting by Australian artist Estelle O'Brien. The swagman is the main character in the tune Waltzing Matilda, the unofficial Australian national anthem.

Teaching can be a rewarding career. It can also be a tough job. That's nothing new to longtime educators. Commentator John Richard Schrock taught for decades but says he learned something early on. He discovered that sometimes, a teacher needs to set aside the subject matter in order to really make a connection in the classroom.


Commentator John Richard Schrock is professor emeritus at Emporia State University, where he trained generations of teachers. He lives in Emporia.

Learn more about Waltzing Matilda here.

The artwork used with this article is by Estelle O'Brien and is available from www.RedBubble.com.

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(TRANSCRIPT)

Waltzing Matilda

As a middle school teacher many years ago, I remember stepping away from my science teaching for the day. And I am proud I did. It was a middle school, where the classes moved as a whole group. I taught general science and my whole class came dragging in from social studies.

“What’s the matter?” I asked a rather forlorn student as he entered my classroom.

“We didn’t do very well on the test on Australia,” he confessed.  “But Mr. Church offered an extra credit point to anyone who knows what Australia’s unofficial national anthem is,” he continued.

“That would be Waltzing Matilda,” I suggested. I returned my attention to getting quizzes ready for handback.     

As the bell rang, I looked up and room was empty.  Books were on each desk, but there was not a student in the room.  From the commotion coming from Mr. Church’s room down the hall, I knew where they were.  

I looked in his doorway: “Waltzing Matilda; one point for me too!” My students encircled Mr. Church’s desk and he was busy recording each extra point in his notebook while his next class waited in their seats.  They returned to my room in a slightly better mood.  Several said “Thank you, Mr. Schrock!”  Each was grateful for the tip as they hustled into their seats. Several were muttering to each other: “Where can we find the words?”

“What words?” I asked.

“Mr. Church said that anyone who can sing Waltzing Matilda all the way through can get ten extra points! And we all did pretty bad.  We all need the ten points.”

Now they didn’t expect anything like that from me.  I was a straight-laced science teacher  about as far from music teaching as you can get.  So, there I was, sitting on the edge of my desk, ready to start today’s lesson on respiration.

Not one of my students knew that there was only one song where I completely knew the words: Waltzing Matilda.  I scanned the faces of my 30 students, each expecting to learn about lungs and breathing.  I closed my textbook and slide it behind me.

“Okay class, today we will learn to sing Waltzing Matilda–all the way through.”

I can still recall today their expressions, first of surprise, and then of joy, that flashed across every face.  I am not a music teacher. And I do not suggest I can lead a class in choral singing.  But that day we took one whole period to learn it.

Verse by verse I explained the words: “Once a jolly swag man, camped by a billabong....”  Now what is a swag man?  What is a billabong?

Waltzing Matilda is a quirky, wonderful song, reflecting Australia’s ex-convict history, the fate of a vagabond, and the burden of lugging a heavy knapsack or “matilda,” through the Outback.  I explained the meanings and had them sing each verse that I unfolded, all the way through “down rode the troopers, one, two, three.”

The next day, I waited in the hallway, outside the door of Mr. Church’s social studies class.  And they all gloriously sang together. The whole song.  All the way through. And they all got their extra ten points...as Mr. Church would later grumble to me.

But for the rest of that school year, that class and I had a special rapport.

They knew that I really cared about them.

A biology teacher doesn’t just teach biology; a teacher teaches students.

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