TALES FROM A FAR-NORTH FOREST

Her tu­tor­ing days in Iraq set Polly on the path to more mind­ful school­ing

NZ Life & Leisure - - Contents - WORDS POLL Y GREEK S

NORTH­ERN IRAQ WOULD be an ad­ven­ture. That’s how I sold it to James, a long time be­fore we put down roots in North­land. The on­line ad­vert in­vited read­ers to “help re­build a war-torn na­tion”. Fur­ther in­quiry re­vealed English teach­ers were be­ing sought in the au­ton­o­mous re­gion of Kur­dis­tan.

Googling Kur­dish moun­tains had pro­vided enough im­agery to conclude we’d be teach­ing bright-eyed urchins in some re­mote stone vil­lage where bleat­ing goats wan­dered be­neath thrust­ing crags. In­stead, we were es­corted from the air­port to a pa­trolled com­pound where armed guards swept us for bombs be­fore open­ing steel gates to a ster­ile box apart­ment.

This, then, was the way home for James and me. Armed guards at fre­quent road­blocks, land­mines in the hills, and beige tanks rum­bling through sun-scorched, dusty land­scapes set us on the path to a far-off stand of New Zealand forest. Dur­ing our year in Iraq, a se­cluded green val­ley be­came in­creas­ingly syn­ony­mous with free­dom.

That Kur­dish school steered me onto home-school­ing’s road. It was a mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar con­struc­tion into which a thou­sand kids trudged each day. Although it was my first time teach­ing, in­ex­pe­ri­ence didn’t mat­ter ac­cord­ing to the prin­ci­pal. Ev­ery bit of school­work was pre­scribed, point-by-point. As teach­ers, all we had to do was front up to class and de­liver the ma­te­rial in the cor­rect way. The stu­dents would suck up the in­for­ma­tion, pass their weekly ex­ams and rise to ever loftier heights of academia. Ob­sta­cles such as dys­lexia didn’t ex­ist if you fol­lowed the pro­gramme, we were told.

To en­force con­trol, we were is­sued a sheet of 49 pun­ish­able class­room of­fences called in­frac­tions, coded for easy ref­er­ence. Un­der our tute­lage chil­dren weren’t to smile, laugh, silently snig­ger, whis­per or scrape their chair. They mustn’t stand up or talk un­less in­vited to. Even if the po­ten­tial per­pe­tra­tors were sit­ting as still as stat­ues, we could get them for fail­ing to look in the right di­rec­tion.

It felt like a fac­tory, mass-pro­duc­ing hu­man units of stan­dard­ized data. Stand­ing at the black­board, I saw any pas­sion for learn­ing fade like light in my pupils’ eyes as mono­tone text­books dic­tated each les­son’s course. We all gazed long­ingly out the win­dows and no one in my class was pun­ished for do­ing so. As far as I was con­cerned, dis­tant hori­zons were the right place to be turn­ing one’s eyes.

Ein­stein said, “Ed­u­ca­tion is not the learn­ing of facts, but the train­ing of the mind to think.” A think­ing mind is one that’s in move­ment – able to leap lightly across shift­ing truths, ven­ture into un­known realms, tor­pedo down worm­holes of cu­rios­ity and ex­plore cur­rents that arise when you let your­self drift. Like an­i­mals in cap­tiv­ity, the Kur­dish chil­dren’s abil­i­ties to ex­plore their in­ter­ests and ex­pand their imag­i­na­tions were tightly con­fined – not just by the school’s con­crete walls but by a rigid cur­ricu­lum and a nar­row def­i­ni­tion of suc­cess.

Home school­ing six-year-old Vita feels like an an­ti­dote to the clock­work in­sti­tu­tion we taught at. In­stead of a syl­labus, we’re fol­low­ing her in­ter­ests and aware­ness and just be­cause they’ve led us into fairies, flow­ers and a fas­ci­na­tion with de­tec­tives doesn’t mean lit­er­acy and nu­mer­acy aren’t get­ting prac­tised.

Ed­u­ca­tion’s root word is ed­u­care – to draw out or bring forth; not to load up. I be­lieve it’s also my job as an ed­u­ca­tor to stoke the fire of cu­rios­ity so Vita and three-year-old Zen never stop want­ing to know why, and how and if it is pos­si­ble. Tak­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity for a child’s ed­u­ca­tion can be daunt­ing. I wor­ried at first that I might be de­priv­ing Vita of so­cial skills but she has friends young and old. She’s not dis­con­nected from the world; it’s her class­room and in it, she’s learn­ing con­stantly from ex­pe­ri­ence, not the­ory.

It costs us to home-school, both in time and lost in­come, but it pays hand­somely too. It’s true I some­times yearn for a day away from the kids, but watch­ing them un­fold their world is gold. En­gag­ing them with na­ture and turn­ing on lights in their heads has be­come a pas­sion. That I’m learn­ing too, all the time, is such an un­ex­pected bonus.

The school in the moun­tains of Kur­dis­tan where Polly taught.

In the next is­sue, the pet rab­bits teach mul­ti­pli­ca­tion.

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