2014 reflections: Alison Hobbie

I find myself beginning to write this reflection as I enjoy the beauty of a South African winter morning.  It is my final day, the sun rising through a gentle haze, a breeze stirring the leaves of African trees, and I am grateful.  What an honor it has again been to be a member of a team of such dedicated educators who have given their time and professional skills so generously to assist their South African colleagues.  Those who have joined me in providing these workshops are simply outstanding individuals: selfless, joyful, caring, fun-loving, enthusiastic, dedicated.  In fact, though I did not feel it was possible, this year’s team seems to be even stronger than the last.  “Talking shop” often, both about our math or science disciplines or about workshop pedagogy, the company they provided has been stimulating and energizing.  I will miss them, and take much from their professional companionship back with me to my own teaching. The focus of my efforts this year as a member of the TAB-SA team differed from my last experience, in 2012.  First, we were offering workshops this year to teachers of a broader range of student ages, from 4th grade through 12th grade.  This presented us with the challenge of providing appropriate activities for teachers of the most elementary to the most advanced students.  Creating engaging workshops for teachers of 4-6 graders was especially daunting for me.  I thank my TAB-SA colleagues for their assistance and creativity in helping put together science workshops that were well received for both their spot-on content level and the ideas they provided for more engagement in the classroom. The second change in focus for my efforts during this set of workshops was prompted by my recognition that my South African colleagues needed more than just practical and engaging activities, but could also benefit from the modelling of a different teaching method.   I designed my workshops around simple, nearly cost-less activities again this year, but spent more time asking the teachers to discuss how they might help their students to “own” the explanations for what they had observed.  Too often these teachers have been taught by rote, by memorizing important statements, and that is how they have designed their own teaching pedagogy.  It was my hope that by asking workshop teachers to discuss, write out, and then peer-edit their own explanations for different phenomena, I was providing a different model of how to teach, how to make students more responsible for and thus more engaged in their learning.  I was pleased to receive much positive feedback from my SA colleagues, who felt more energized and empowered by the thought of teaching their students in this new and likely more successful method. One of the unintended consequences of these workshops is the camaraderie that develops among the teachers who attend.  Many work in small rural schools, where they are the only science/math teacher.  By bringing these professionals together, they quickly find they have much in common and form strong collegial connections.  Recognizing they are not alone in their struggles, sharing their ideas as well as their frustrations with each other, they are emboldened to continue striving to make a difference for their students despite the lack of even the simplest of resources.  What a joy it was to watch these relationships grow over the week, and to feel that I, too, have gained more colleagues through my participation in the workshops. As I climbed onto the first airplane on my long journey home to my “luxury” classroom and educational infrastructure, I was feeling truly humbled.  I am so very thankful to have had the opportunity to assist these courageous teachers in the daunting task that they are faced with in the classroom every day.  If I have made the journey a bit easier for just a few of these amazing colleagues, I have accomplished even more than what I set out to do.  What these teachers may never know, however, is how much they have given me.  Leading these workshops has not only strengthened my commitment to teaching.  These teachers have reached my heart in ways that influence all that I do, and for that I am truly grateful. Alison Hobbie, TAB-SA 2014