William Sanderson Fitzgerald, who was to become a prominent figure in New Zealand education, was born in Musselburgh, Midlothian, Scotland, on 12 November 1838. His parents were Jean Sanderson and her husband, James Fitzgerald, a hatter who later became a missionary. William attended Musselburgh School and then studied at the Moray House Training College, Edinburgh. On completing his education, he took up a position as assistant master in the secondary department of St John's Grammar School, Hamilton. At St Cyrus, Kincardineshire, on 17 May 1861, he married Annie Copland Annandale, a teacher. Also in 1861 he was appointed by the Colonial Committee of the Free Church of Scotland to be principal of the Pigeon Bay Academy, a Presbyterian boarding and day school in Canterbury, New Zealand. With his wife he arrived at Lyttelton on the Royal Stuart in October 1861.
The academy prospered under Fitzgerald's leadership, as did the Oamaru Grammar School where he was the rector from 1869 to 1876. During these years Fitzgerald was closely associated with John Hislop, the secretary of the Otago Education Board. As he was a successful Otago principal with strong Presbyterian connections, it was not surprising that Fitzgerald was appointed in 1876 to establish the Otago Normal School and associated training department which was to become the Dunedin Training College. Before taking up his new position he travelled to Victoria, Australia, to study the development of teacher training in that colony.
The training college at Dunedin was founded on the eve of the development of the national education system in New Zealand and had several noteworthy features. It was coeducational, and it provided stipends for students in return for a bond of two years' teaching service after graduation. In addition it had a policy that all training college students should be encouraged to study concurrently at the University of Otago. There was a canny side to this: the university struggled for students in its founding years and appreciated the steady enrolment of teacher trainees.
However, Fitzgerald was faced with many problems, not least of which was the fact that few students completed a full course of training. The training college was not well integrated into the education system and most intending teachers continued to enter the service through pupil-teacher apprenticeship. Fitzgerald was also required to play an almost impossibly complex dual role as principal of a primary school and rector of a training college. As well as looking after the needs of primary pupils, he was required to provide student teachers with lectures and demonstrations, supervise their teaching practice, prepare them for departmental examinations, and co-ordinate their university work with their teaching studies. It was far too much to expect from one person.
By 1886 the Otago Education Board demanded that the college be reorganised, with more emphasis to be placed on teaching preparation and less on the idea of bolstering up the university. Fitzgerald disagreed with what he saw as a directive to develop a rival university and his doubts were shared by Sir Robert Stout, the minister of education. In the end a compromise was arrived at whereby students could still attend the university and college concurrently, but the number of college staff was increased. Moreover, schools throughout Dunedin became involved with students' practice teaching as 'associated schools'. Teacher training in New Zealand today owes much to these developments, which proved to be very successful. It was no small tribute to Fitzgerald that when a retrenching government withdrew funding for teacher training in 1888, the Otago Education Board maintained the college from its own depleted resources for a further seven years. It was the only education board in New Zealand to do so.
With John Hislop, Fitzgerald was involved in the early development of the Educational Institute of Otago, and in 1885–86 he served as president of the New Zealand Educational Institute. In moulding the new national organisation, Fitzgerald stressed the goal of collective professional development. He helped formulate regulations to allow the organisation to function effectively. He also supported the establishment of a teachers' legal defence fund and a teachers' court of appeal.
In 1894 Fitzgerald was appointed as school inspector in Otago, a position which he retained until his retirement. At a conference of inspectors and teachers' representatives in 1904, presided over by George Hogben, Fitzgerald took a leading role. He suggested that there should be training colleges in the four university centres so that student teachers could take advantage of university classes. His successor at the training college, D. Renfrew White, shared his philosophy and continued with many of his schemes. William Fitzgerald died in Dunedin on 27 January 1920. He was survived by four sons and two daughters; his wife had died in 1919.