During her long career as a country school teacher, Mabel Whitaker made a lasting impression on many hundreds of pupils. Born Mabel Wilson at Belfast, near Christchurch, New Zealand, on 11 May 1884, she was the daughter of Margaret Boyce and her husband, Edward Robert Ward Wilson, a farmer. When Mabel was about nine the family shifted to Stratford, Taranaki. They returned to the South Island when she was 13 or 14 and lived at Kaikoura. They eventually settled 43 miles north-east of Stratford on a sheepfarm on the remote Putikituna Road at Kohuratahi.
After the Wilson family acquired a piano, Mabel learned to play proficiently enough to accompany congregational singing when Presbyterian services were held in their home. She attended the Stratford District High School, but most of her qualifications were obtained through correspondence during her early teaching years. She matriculated in December 1907 and gained her Teacher's C Certificate in January 1911.
Mabel Wilson began her teaching career in 1908 as an assistant teacher at Kapuni School. From 1909 to 1913 she had a sole-charge position at Marco School, near Kohuratahi, riding to and from school on horseback. Between 1913 and 1919 she undertook relieving work with the Auckland and Wanganui education boards.
At Kohuratahi, on 19 May 1917, aged 33, Mabel married Walter Morris Whitaker, a grocery manager from New Plymouth. Walter was stationed at Featherston Military Camp at the time and shortly after the wedding left to serve overseas with the New Zealand forces in the First World War. There were two sons of the marriage: Edward, born in 1920, and Robert, born in 1926.
The Whitakers lived in New Plymouth until about 1930, when they moved to Inglewood. During the 1920s Mabel Whitaker had relieved at schools in and around New Plymouth, but moved when she became head teacher at the two-teacher Norfolk School, near Inglewood. She remained in the position for five years, leaving, it seems, when married women were banned from teaching during the depression. A former pupil recalls that she was a trim looking woman with dark, rather bushy hair and vivid blue eyes. She had a slow, impressive manner of speaking and maintained perfect control in the classroom.
Whenever possible Mabel arranged the curriculum at Norfolk School around local events and projects, believing this was an 'effective spur to class-work' and 'a bond of mutual interest between parent, Committee and classroom'. Such an approach was relatively uncommon at the time but was later widely practised in New Zealand schools. Mabel's pupils prepared work for the district's annual show and took part in monster craft bazaars and concerts in support of various projects. When the Taranaki Education Board asked its teachers to collate the pioneer history of their districts, Mabel Whitaker, with the aid of the Norfolk womenfolk and schoolchildren, produced the major part of a handwritten and -illustrated booklet, 'A survey of the district, 1841–1939'. The project was an ambitious foray into local history. It drew on a range of sources, including the reminiscences of the 'oldest inhabitants'. Instead of following a strict chronology the booklet is arranged under subject headings and is written in an anecdotal style. Perhaps the main interest of the work today is the glimpse it provides of the attitudes and prejudices of a rural settler community.
Mabel Whitaker was a foundation member of the Norfolk Women's Institute in 1931. She formed a choir in Inglewood in the mid 1940s for the Women's Institute and the local branch of the Women's Division of the New Zealand Farmers' Union. After leaving Norfolk School in 1935 she did occasional relieving work until 1939. During the Second World War she was involved in numerous activities, notably with the St John Ambulance Brigade. She also helped run handcraft sales to raise money towards a Spitfire plane for the British government. Her son Edward had joined the Royal New Zealand Air Force, and was presumed killed in Europe on 28 December 1941. From 1949 she taught infrequently as a relieving teacher.
Walter Whitaker died at New Plymouth in November 1952. Mabel Whitaker finally resigned from teaching in 1957. Her career had spanned nearly 50 years and she was widely recognised for her innovative methods, especially in the area of craft work. After her retirement she lived in New Plymouth. During her latter years she wrote and illustrated 'Pioneer tales from Taranaki's rough north-east backblocks', a collection of stories, lyrics, photographs and drawings. Like the earlier school project, this work celebrates the deeds of the pioneer settlers but claims to see the past from a woman's perspective. In her introduction Mabel states that the reader will obtain 'side-lights of which a man may be dimly aware but never sufficiently so to acknowledge their existence in so many words, but which, to a woman, are the fibres of the life.' The manuscript has never been published, but is held at the Taranaki Museum. On 10 July 1976, at the age of 92, Mabel Whitaker died at the Barrett Street Hospital, New Plymouth. She was buried in the Awanui cemetery.