A Movement That Sings (will never die)

Danny Blackman

To mark the centenary of the NSW Teachers’ Federation, we include in this issue of The Hummer two songs about teachers and the challenges of working in the NSW State education system.

Our first song, Twenty-nine Kids, is a prime example of the song that keeps on giving because it is reinvented time and again over the years – in this case, always about the struggles of working life, but for different groups of workers. 

The original song from which it is derived is of course Merle Travis’s classic, Sixteen Tons, which talks about the hardships and struggle of the life of Kentucky coal miners. Travis recorded Sixteen Tons in 1947, but it wasn’t until it was re-released in 1955 by ‘Tennessee Ernie’ Ford that the song became a phenomenal hit, topping the American Hit Parade for many months and still remembered today. 

Miners at least had a union to fight for them but white-collar workers in 1950s America (and elsewhere) were seldom effectively organised. For many years, teachers were one of the most underpaid groups in society; the ‘prestige’ of being professional workers didn’t do much to feed their families or improve their working conditions. So it was that an anonymous Arkansas teacher was inspired to use the popular hit Sixteen Tons as a vehicle to put her complaints into song as The Teacher’s Lament.

Fast forward to 21st century Australia, when the Sydney Trade Union Choir, looking for a new song for their annual performance at the NSW Teachers Federation conference, chanced upon the Teachers Lament. With a bit of updating, they felt it would still speak to today’s teachers struggling in crowded classrooms with the myriad of responsibilities a teacher’s role involves. And so, Twenty-nine Kids was born.

Our second song, I’m Changing Our Name to Grammar, was written by singer/songwriter and Teachers’ Federation President, Maurie Mulheron. 

Nowadays, when funds much needed in the State school system flow instead to wealthy private schools under current education funding formulas, State school principals struggle to spread budgets to cover necessary activities.  In Mulheron’s song, a principal has a sudden brainwave and develops an innovative strategy to make sure his school gets a bigger slice of the funding pie. 

Twenty-nine kids

Lyrics by Sydney Trade Union Choir (2012), based on Sixteen Tons (Merle Travis 1947)
and The Teacher’s Lament (Anon, 1950s) 

Now, some people say a teacher’s made out of steel,
But a teacher’s made of stuff that can think and feel.
A mind and a body with a heart and soul,
An ability to teach the shy and the bold.


I teach 29 kids and what do I get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
St Peter don’t you call me to that Heavenly Gate,
I owe my soul to the youth of this state.
I woke this morning, it was cloudy and cool,
I picked up my briefcase and I drove to the school.
The copier’s jammed; I just can’t win
And there’s playground duty before the bell rings.


I teach 29 kids and what do I get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
St Peter, don’t you call me to that Celestial Shore,
I got 29 kids and they’re sending me more.

There’s a kid in every seat from wall to wall,
Any more that come will have to stand in the hall.
They’re breathing down my neck; they’re walking on my toes,
They’re telling me their joys and I’m sharing (all) their woes.


I teach 29 kids and what do I get?
Younger in heart and nothing to regret.
St Peter, don’t you call me, I can’t leave here;
I’ll have 29 students again next year. 

The bell rings at three but I’m not through,
With marking and assessments and reports to do.
The pressure is on, I have to flee,
‘Cause I’ve got to get back for the P & C.


I teach 29 kids, I’m putting them first,
But education’s goin’ from bad to worse !
Devolution’s a con – it just ain’t right,
So we have to stick together and win this fight.
And win this fight, and win this fight

Yes, we have to stick together and win this fight!

I’m Changing our Name to Grammar
Words & Music by Maurie Mulheron (2001)

Oh, the cost of education makes me flinch   
As public schools start to feel the pinch.
From each dollar we have gained
Little has remained;
No, our economic future is no cinch.
But amidst the clouds I spot a shining ray
If we can make State Aid come back our way,
So, I’ve devised a plan of action,
Worked it out to the last fraction,
And I’m going into action here today.


I’m changing our name to Grammar,
And I’m heading down to Canberra you see
I’ll tell those bureaucrats
What they did for St Ignats
Will be perfectly acceptable to me.
I’m changing our name to Grammar,
And I’m heading for that great receiving line
So, when they hand a million grand out
I’ll be standing with my hand out,
Yes, I’ll get mine!

When the P&C are screaming “Where’s the dough?”
I’ll be proud to tell them all where they can go
They won’t have to scream or holler,
They’ll get ev’ry last dollar
From where endless streams of money seem to flow
I’ll be proud to tell them all what they can do
It’s a matter of a simple form or two,
‘Cause for private education, there’s so much remuneration
In Canberra the cheque waits for you.


Since the first amphibians crawled out of the slime,  
We’ve been struggling in an unrelenting climb;
We were hardly up and walking
Before money started talking
And subsidies were an awful crime.
Now it’s been that way for a millennium or two
Now it seems there is a different point of view
If you’re enrolling at St Joey’s
No need to spend your dough
‘Cause Canberra will pay the fees for you!

Chorus (with last 3 lines repeated)