No, nothing to do with the book with the same name but there are, if unintended, similarities.
My teaching story has been inexorably linked with one colleague – Rita. Ever since she supervised me on my first teaching practicum many years ago our paths have managed to cross in different locations. Over the last three and a half years, we have shared a desk, made each other coffee, covered each other’s classes, team-taught on several occasions, laughed and cared about each other. With her grace, wisdom and impeccable respectfulness, Rita has helped me better understand and deal with students we teach. In return, I have helped her with a gentle lead into the crazy, hyper world of instructional technology.
Rita has been teaching mostly History and Society & Environment (old Social Studies) for 25 years across many public schools, first in Germany then in Australia. When I rang her tonight to ask for her permission to write about our conversation this afternoon she asked me not to disclose her age, but laughingly agreed to my ‘diplomatic’ description of her as “closer to retirement than to her first day in class”.
Not for the first time, Rita needed a little help with her computer this afternoon. Now let’s just say that Rita’s ICT skills would not rate very highly on some bean-counting ‘scale’ or ‘performance indicator’ belched out at an increasing pace by our bureaucracies (sorry, an open sore of mine, I’ll spare you). Over the years, I have helped her many times with lost temporary internet files, network connections, formatting documents, data projectors, organising folders, email attachments and so on. I have also introduced Rita to the ‘click and swear’ (although she never would actually swear) method of improving ICT skills. For the record, she says “what do I do next” less and less while saying “oops” more and more.
During the troubleshooting, the word got on to technology. “I just need a bit of basics, I really do” said Rita: “And then a bit of help sometimes to do things and then I will be OK…but I just don’t know how.” Never once has anyone in our room heard Rita saying “I am too old” or “I hate computers” or “It’s for young people only” or anything like that.
But if you thought Rita is a helpless ‘dummy’ when it comes to computers – well, you just haven’t met her. A few minutes into the conversation, Rita started to describe excitingly how she followed, via Internet, then got a reply from a fund-raising pair of travellers around Australia. Her excitement went further when she started to recount the experience of showing her husband how to use Google Earth and how they found the spot in Belgium where his grandfather died in World War 1 (and all of this on her beloved dial-up too!).
“We looked it all up, found these spots and all those things on the side and John said: “How did you do that?”. Then we tried to print it out but couldn’t fit so we played with landscape print and a couple of pages of paper later we had it all. So now when we go and travel we have it all and …
I looked at the four video cameras strewn across my desk as leftovers from my Media class but it was just too late to record, rewind or repeat the moments passed. A repeat performance for the camera would be just that – a performance, not doing justice to Rita and the wonderful enthusiasm and sense of achievement she was radiating at the time. I may not have digitised it but it had seared in my mind, hence this post.
As Rita finished describing her experience I got on to my ICT/edu-philosophy wagon and just gently flagged the possibilities technology has to change the often downright inhumane ways ‘the system’ has taught and treated teachers and students for the last 250 years (I am 2 metres tall, have a loud voice and often display many mannerisms the Slavs are (in)famously known for so ‘gently’ is a loose description here at best).
As Rita simply listened and nodded, I could feel her mind opening further. I thought to myself – here she is, nearing retirement yet listening and clearly thinking “this is exciting, what can I do” instead of closing up and saying ‘that’s all fine but I have done well over the past 25 years by doing so and so why change”. She may not suddenly jump and start “web-two-oh-ing” on the spot, she may not even use a fraction of these tools out there and ready to engage the kids in thousands of new ways. But she is a learner – active, willing, fallible, with good and bad days (hope your shoulder gets better soon Rita).
Rita epitomises the qualities of a good teacher, ICT or not. After all the titles, skills, technical abilities and other bells and whistles for the CV – she is always willing to learn and always willing to understand and help people better. Her students, impressionable teenagers with most acutely developed BS detectors, will see it, appreciate it, respect it (in their own ways) and hopefully emulate it.
Over the next couple of weeks, Rita may actually start to write her own blog. She could be euphemistically labelled as a ‘lifelong learner’ (yeeech!). To me, she is a bloody hero for making what can frankly be a frightening leap into the crazy world shaped by infinite combinations of 1’s and 0’s and endless human creativity (the good, the bad and the ugly). By doing so, trying, failing and succeeding, she will gain credibility with fellow teachers that a thousand ‘geeks’ together could not muster. Watch out for telling her mates what she can do!
At the end – a favour to ask. If you have recognised a part of you (or people you know) in this story, please leave a line or two (or more) in the comments section below. You may even pass the story on, the choice is yours of course. I will pass all your thoughts and comments to Rita to show her just how wonderfully real and human this new, connected world can be.