Here in Australia, the academic year is drawing to a close. This means I have been grading papers, attending meetings and dealing with administrative issues, none of which, as a part timer, is onerous, but I have wondered how I managed when I worked full time. I have also been cleaning out my office cubicle, deciding which teaching resources to keep (and if I don’t intend to teach again why am I bothering?) and coming to terms with the idea that I have entered the final weeks of a 45 year career in education.
Anyone who has faced a major life transformation (and that’s all of us) knows a major change brings waves of excitement followed by a deluge of doubts. Will I regret my decision? Will I get bored? How will we pay the bills? Most of my friends are retired, some because of ill-health, others because, despite loving their work, they want to take things easy and enjoy life while they can. A few, like me, retired because they no longer found their work satisfying. Teaching was not my career choice, it was my mother’s and although I have occasionally resented it, I have to admit she was right. Teaching is a good career, mostly because you meet interesting, caring people from all walks of life. I started teacher’s college in 1970 where I met two extraordinary women who have remained dear friends. I have also had the privilege of teaching some delightful people. I started teaching junior primary (aka elementary) students. One of them became a lifelong friend of my youngest son. I moved on, in the late eighties, to teaching women returning to work or study. Many of these women had, to say the least, difficult lives. The stories I heard, the courage I witnessed, the hope these women expressed, was humbling. I am currently working with first year university students wishing to improve their written English skills, so I have had a varied and fascinating career. Working with dedicated and talented colleagues meant I have learnt a lot about myself, life and other people. I think that is why stayed with teaching; I love to learn. I am, in fact, a bit of a ‘learning junkie’. I have a teaching diploma from way back in last century, a graduate diploma in teaching (with a major in women’s education), a diploma in counselling, a creative arts degree and now a doctorate but I am already thinking about classes I can enrol in after I retire. Dancing classes, perhaps? French? Photography? A course in setting up and managing a website?
I am not much of a traveller; I don’t like flying so I tend to travel in my mind. Looking up one word in the dictionary leads me to a dozen others; a reference at the bottom of an article leads me to five other papers, usually unrelated to my research. I will sit at the computer for hours, tracking down books, articles and websites on a range of subjects. Why do I have such an inquiring mind? I am not sure, but I recently started reading about neuroscience and brain plasticity (a new passion; I have even contemplated doing a degree in it). Experts in neuroplasticity confirm something every mother knows; a baby’s mind is amazingly open and receptive, and what he or she learns at the beginning of life shapes the remainder of their years.
I spent the first four years of my life living in a house with four adults: my parents and my paternal grandparents. I was surrounded by loving people who talked (and often argued, but that’s another story) constantly to each other, and to me. My grandfather and my mother loved to read. My mother, particularly, always had a book nearby. My grandmother played the piano and enjoyed singing. She was a milliner and dressmaker and was constantly sewing, as was my mother who made all of my, and her, clothes. My father was one of the funniest, kindest and most patient of men who enjoyed solving problems and repairing things. My grandparents held parties where food, drink and conversation flowed around and above me; no one moderated their words just because I was nearby. Unlike a lot of toddlers of my era, I was not alone at home with my mother, a few siblings and a father I saw only on week nights and weekends. I spent my early years in a stimulating, vociferous, creative environment and I thrived. My mind as well as my body was nourished; I could read when I was three and conversed confidently with adults who seemed happy enough to talk with me. I also had a clutch of cousins, from both sides of my family, to play with although I always felt more comfortable with adults. No wonder I was unhappy when I started school; it must have seemed boring alongside the fascinating comings and goings I witnessed at home. I was also blessed on my mother’s side. My maternal grandfather was Welsh and my grandmother was a Scot; a visit to their home meant freshly baked bread, Dundee cake, songs from their homelands and stories of their new life in outback South Australia in the 1920s. Mine was a rich childhood that, I believe, fostered a lifelong love of learning, although I often wonder if that is because I am still trying to figure out why adults behave the way they do. Maybe a degree in psychology would help?
In Australia, schools, colleges and universities are now called institutions, and education is just another industry whose purpose is making a profit. I am uncomfortable with this. Places of learning are where people gather, where minds, and sometimes bodies and souls, are fed, stimulated and comforted, where ideas are exchanged, examined, discussed, argued, and laughed over. When we think of schools as ‘institutions’ and education as an ‘industry’ we lose sight of the joy on a child’s face when those marks on a page suddenly make perfect sense, or when a woman casts off the shackles of abuse, takes charge of her own life and decides, at 30 and raising four children on her own, to enrol at university and earn her degree. Can an institution know what it feels like to be awarded your doctorate, to have your two year old granddaughter attend the graduation ceremony and tell her she can, if she chooses, have one of these one day?
The last 45 years have taught me something precious; people learn best when their skills are recognised, when they are respected, and when they are valued. Institutions don’t do that, people do.
What do you think? Is learning important to you? Who, or what, fostered your love of learning?