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Story: Simpson, Myrtle May

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Simpson, Myrtle May


Teacher, school inspector, educationalist

This biography, written by Margaret Lovell-Smith, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.

Myrtle May Simpson was born in Christchurch on 18 April 1905, the daughter of Amelia Snell and her husband, Henry Simpson, a foreman of works. Growing up in Christchurch’s eastern suburbs, she received her primary school education at East Christchurch School and New Brighton School. After attending Christchurch Girls’ High School from 1919 to 1921, she became a pupil-teacher at Burwood School for two years. In 1924 she went to Christchurch Training College, qualifying in 1925.

Myrtle Simpson’s early teaching experience continued with one-year positions at Waimate and Phillipstown (in Christchurch), and two years as a sole-charge country teacher at Eyreton. While teaching at Burwood School for a further eight years she completed an MA in history and graduated from Canterbury University College in 1936. Three years at Hornby School were interrupted, in 1939, by a year as an exchange teacher in England.

In October 1943 Simpson was appointed as one of two visiting teachers. These were new positions created by the Canterbury Education Board to help children displaying unsuitable behaviour, or failing to make reasonable progress at school. The preventive work of the visiting teachers was so successful they became an integral part of the education system. After 2½ years in this post she joined the staff of Christchurch Normal School’s special class and taught remedial reading. She was awarded a diploma in education by Canterbury University College in 1947.

Myrtle Simpson became a tutor–lecturer at the recently established Ardmore Teachers’ Training College in Auckland in 1948. Her job included counselling students in the ‘pressure cooker’ training scheme who were transferring from other employment. Promotion to the school inspectorate came in September 1951, when she was appointed staff inspector in Wellington, thereby becoming the first woman primary school inspector in New Zealand. In 1955 she travelled to England to observe the work of schools, and in 1957 was transferred to the Christchurch inspectorate. Five years later she was promoted to senior inspector of schools.

In 1959 Simpson was appointed editor of the new series of infant readers written specifically for New Zealand children to replace the British ‘Janet and John’ books. She consulted widely with teachers and other educationalists, and edited the draft texts to ensure they conformed with graded vocabulary. The end result was the ‘Ready to Read’ series, consisting of 12 small (16-page) books and six readers containing several stories each. To accompany these publications she wrote a handbook for teachers entitled Suggestions for teaching reading in infant classes .

The ‘Ready to Read’ books were trialled in 30 schools in 1960, and after final revision were first issued in 1963. Basic to Simpson’s approach was the belief that teaching reading was ‘most effectively done in the course of a flexible programme, which gives the teacher the opportunity to observe the children at work’. Simpson’s contribution to infant reading was recognised with an International Reading Association medal in the early 1970s, and life membership of the organisation’s Canterbury branch.

Myrtle Simpson retired in April 1964 and immediately went overseas for an extended holiday. She did not adjust to retirement well, and during her second year in London returned to work, spending two terms as a relieving tutor and lecturer in the child development department of the Institute of Education. She also lectured at a summer school in Dublin organised by the Nursery School Association of Great Britain. By July 1966 Simpson had returned home and was working as an assistant curriculum development officer with the Department of Education. Later in her retirement she wrote a booklet for the New Zealand Free Kindergarten Union, outlining the history and current practices of kindergartens in New Zealand.

An attractive woman with many friends, mainly from education circles, Simpson always thought the best of people. She read widely, was meticulous in her professional work, and was particularly good at expressing a viewpoint, either verbally or in writing. In her personal life she was humble, unassuming and often forgetful. Certain at the beginning of her career she did not want to teach infants, she went on to become an authority on infant reading, and to win respect as an inspirational and perceptive teacher and school inspector. Myrtle Simpson never married, and died in Christchurch on 21 May 1981.

How to cite this page:

Margaret Lovell-Smith. 'Simpson, Myrtle May', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2000. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/5s20/simpson-myrtle-may (accessed 1 December 2023)