September 4, 2008
A Teacher at Heart
By HARVEY, Helen
She might not agree, but Linda Brown has defined her life in relation to teaching others. Helen Harvey meets a born educator.
SOMETIMES Linda Brown sits down and reads the dictionary . . . all the way through. She'll suddenly start wondering about words, like why some have TION at the end and others SION. So, she works her way through the dictionary until she can find a pattern. She tried it with words ending in ER and OR, but didn't find an answer.
Linda loves words, loves reading and loves crosswords. And she writes letters, the old- fashioned kind that are posted in the mail, to numerous pen pals in far-flung corners of the world, such as Chile, Croatia and Germany. They love getting her letters, she says. They tell her that the way she writes enables them to picture what she is talking about. Linda says she writes like she talks. She talks fluently, no ums or ahs, and she is articulate. She writes letters instead of emailing because she can enclose things that may be of interest, such as articles or pictures. And she writes out her lessons for her adult literacy students in longhand as well. Linda keeps the work and books in a separate bag for each student. She works out the next lesson as soon as the student leaves, while it is all fresh in her mind.
There is quite a problem with people leaving school without literacy skills, she says. "It is a growing market."
At the moment, Linda has five adult students. The number fluctuates. Last year, she had nine, which was too many. Each student gets an individual programme, so preparing lessons is time- consuming. "I like to work with adults because they tend to have a hard work ethic. They really want to learn."
With high school and primary school students, the interest isn't always there. The adult students have good memories. They have to remember phone numbers, recipes, appointments, because they can't write it down. And they get clever at hiding their problem. They put up a smokescreen - they might say they haven't got their glasses, their hands are dirty, they had a late night.
"By the time they have come to me, they have made the decision that they need to take hold of the problem and do something about it."
Linda believes every student is a locked door and she needs to find the key. Sometimes people need to be taught differently and once she has discovered the key, they take off. Her students are in their 20s, 30s and 40s and the men outnumber the women. "One student, the other day, got a (building) permit to get a fire and when he walked out, he realised he had written down his name and address for the first time - things in day-to-day life we don't think about." Another student who is in his late 40s couldn't spell his own name when he first came to Linda. Now he is using a computer, a cellphone, reading books and writing pages and pages every day.
"I think if I teach something and the students don't get it, that's me. I need to change the way I teach so they get it. It's an amazing feeling when they do get it. It opens up doors of possibilities."
Linda has written seven books - four on adult literacy and three on English as a second language - and the publishers want her to write one on adult reading skills. The books have sold well in New Zealand and, for some reason, Thailand. Linda doesn't know why, but thinks maybe a former student may have recommended the books when he went home.
There are not as many foreign high school students as there used to be, she says. Ten years ago, she had a diverse range of English language students, including a woman from Yugoslavia who had fled because of the war. "So she was not just dealing with English, but coping with the loss of her country." Nowadays Linda mainly teaches English to Japanese students at her old school, Inglewood High School.
It was "really weird" going back as a teacher. On her first day, she saw nine teachers who had taught her as a teenager.
"Learning to call them by their first names is not easy."
Linda was born in Palmerston North, but has spent all her life in Inglewood, where the Brown family is well established. Her grandfather Bob Brown was mayor for 30 years, from 1941 to 1971. Linda grew up on the family farm, which was in the news this year when the hay barn was demolished by a tornado. She was dux of Inglewood Primary School and after secondary school, Linda was accepted into teachers' college. However, she had found a job at the BNZ, so started work instead. She stayed at the bank for eight years working in Inglewood, Hawera and New Plymouth. It was OK, she says. But you have to be a certain type of person to work in a bank and she wasn't that type.
She spent two years working in taxi dispatch in Hawera, then 10 years ago she came back to Inglewood where she lives, happily single, with her two cats.
Theo, her beloved cat of 15 years, died last year and Linda "couldn't handle it" without him. So she got Sophie, a Burmese, off Trade Me. Recently she got a kitten, Harvey, from the SPCA. There are cat magnets on the fridge and a cat covered tray is on display. A picture of Theo hangs above the bookcase.
On Sunday afternoons, various friends and rellies arrive at Linda's to play board games. Sorry, which is a bit like Ludo, has the potential to be very nasty, she says. "You can plan your moves."
She also lists a couple of health problems, which she has accepted she can't do much about, among her hobbies and interests. Linda wears glasses with pink lenses. Very pink. She can't process blue, green and yellow, so everything looks "normal" to her through the dark pink. For anyone else trying on the specs, the world would take on a decidedly pink glow.
The glasses have changed Linda's life. She had 10 years of taking medication to try to control epilepsy (she would have seizures in her sleep) and migraines. She saw an ad for the special lenses and decided to give them a go. Since she has been wearing the pink specs, she has not had any migraines and neither has she needed the medication.
Her other "hobby" is urticaria - a skin condition caused through change in body temperature. She comes out in "lovely, sexy red spots". Linda takes medication for the problem every day. Swimming is permanently off the agenda and she can't go out in the midday sun.
In summer, Linda gets up early and does the gardening, then stays inside baking, playing the keyboard or doing her cross stitch. Linda has to take care when walking to work and not just because of the sun. Even a dog suddenly barking and giving her a fright can set the condition off. She has had it for 18 years. It starts in a person's 20s and is supposed to end in the 40s, so Linda, who has just had her 40th birthday, has the end in sight.
As well as getting urticaria in her 20s, Linda also had an early mid- life crisis. She didn't enjoy what she was doing, so made some changes.
"I left the bank, which I hated, and looked around for something else to do." She thought she would try teaching, as it was something she had always fancied, so did a course on teaching English as a second language. About six years ago, she did a course in teaching adult literacy. Linda also teaches children who are struggling in the classroom and tutors three primary-age girls. She has taken them right back to the basics.
"They need to feel they can do something. Work at school is getting harder and harder and they are stuck."
She also teaches basic maths and when teaching division, she will divide 20 marbles into groups of five. That way people can see it and understand better. Not everyone has the skill to visualise things in their heads. Linda says 90 percent of regular schoolwork is based on visual learning.
"A student last week couldn't concentrate to read a book, so I read it on to a tape. He could sit there and listen and answer questions, but he wasn't wired to sit and read it."
She enjoys sitting down and doing the assessments, working out how people learn and the best way to teach them. This includes writing games and puzzles. With the adults, she needs to find out what they want to do - write Christmas cards, read letters from the bank, read their child a book at night. "I work out what they can do . . . get an idea of what skills they have, plan the lessons and away we go . . . It's very rewarding. I learn so much from my students' needs. Some research, a new approach, extends me as a teacher."
Linda often thinks about the student who couldn't spell his name and what he might have achieved had he received help at school.
"What could he have done with all that potential? I think about that a lot."
FIVE QUESTIONS FOR LINDA BROWN:
David Bain: Guilty or innocent? I'm undecided about that one.
What is your favourite drink? Tea.
Have you ever called in sick when you weren't? No.
Do you run orange lights? No. I don't have a car.
Who is your favourite politician? Helen Clark, she's a good ambassador for New Zealand.
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