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Donald James McLean (1905–1975)

by W. F. Connell

This article was published:

Donald James McLean (1905-1975), schoolteacher and educationist, was born on 18 January 1905 at Broken Hill, New South Wales, third child of Australian-born parents Neil McLean, insurance agent, and his wife Mary Winifred, née Clune. At the age of 7 Donald lost his left arm when a detonator which he was investigating exploded. He was educated at Broken Hill Superior Public and Broken Hill High schools, and was trained (1922-23) as a primary school teacher at Teachers' College, Sydney. After short postings to Coogee, Alma (Broken Hill) and Milparinka, he was appointed (June 1924) to Broken Hill North Public School where he taught until 1935, except for brief spells at Alma (1932) and Burke Ward Public School (1934). On 23 December 1930 at St Philip's Anglican Church, Broken Hill, he married Kathleen Thelma Arthur, an infants' schoolteacher. Of middle height and medium build, he had a striking personality and was a superb teacher.

In December 1935 McLean was transferred to the primary school at Curlwaa, near the junction of the Murray and Darling rivers. There, for two years, he expanded his knowledge of the far-west country of which he later wrote with great affection and humour in his novels, The Roaring Days (London, 1960) and Treasure from the Earth (Melbourne, 1963). In 1938 he moved south to a school at Barham on the Murray River; in the following year he was appointed headmaster of Griffith Public School. Posted to Sydney at the end of 1942 as headmaster of St Peters Public School, he took charge of North Newtown Boys' Intermediate High School in 1945. He moved in 1948 to the headmastership of Bankstown Central, Sydney's largest school, and in 1952 took over as head of Darlinghurst, another large school in an underprivileged area. Seconded to the Child Welfare Department in 1955, he returned to the Department of Education in January 1961 and remained editor of publications until he retired in June 1965.

McLean wrote extensively on education and child care. He completed six books describing aspects of his progressive approach to schooling and the upbringing of children, among them The Education of the Personality (London, 1952), based on his experiences at Bankstown, Nature's Second Sun (Melbourne, 1954), Your Child and the School (Melbourne, 1968) and It's People that Matter (Sydney, 1969). His views on education were sane, well balanced and persuasive, but not always popular with his administrative superiors. Schools, he argued, should be as much concerned with developing personality as with the intellect. Teachers had the fundamental tasks of understanding children's behaviour, and of providing an environment in which emotional and intellectual problems could be studied and solved. Two vital elements in the educational process were the growth of strong teacher-parent relationships, and the encouragement of pupils in the kind of active, creative work which would enrich their aesthetic and intellectual experiences.

In addition, McLean wrote three textbooks on the teaching of English, five on social studies and three on Australian history; he also published three novels, a sketchbook on Broken Hill and several journal articles. He was education correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald in 1965-75, and State and national president of the New Education Fellowship. Widely appreciated by progressive educationists, he contributed to international conferences and served on the executive of the World Education Fellowship. In 1953-54 he visited Europe, toured eastern and southern parts of the United States of America on a Carnegie grant, and lectured in South Africa. Following a trip to southern Asia in 1972, he edited The Changing Orient (Sydney, 1974). He died of basilar artery thrombosis on 28 April 1975 at Hunters Hill and was cremated; his wife and son survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Ward, A Radical Life (Melb, 1988)
  • New Era, 56, no 6, July-Aug 1975, p 162
  • Hemisphere, 20, no 7, July 1976, p 12
  • Inside Education, 70, no 2, 1976, p 19
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 24 Jan 1953, 29 Apr 1975
  • L. T. Hall, Donald McLean, an Australian Progressive Educator (M.Ed. thesis, University of New England, 1986)
  • H. de Berg, interview with Donald McLean (transcript, 1965, National Library of Australia)
  • staff card, D. J. McLean (New South Wales Dept of Education Library, Sydney)
  • private information.

Citation details

W. F. Connell, 'McLean, Donald James (1905–1975)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 27 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

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