FeaturesBeans Abroad - Teacher with a 2000km Classroom

Beans Abroad – Teacher with a 2000km Classroom

Penny Whiley?s day starts at first light when she wakes to the warbling of bush birds in the gum trees. It?s 30C outside and set to rise to the mid-40s by lunchtime. The land is dry and dusty for hundreds of kilometres around, broken only by clusters of ancient rocks which change colour throughout the day.  She says this landscape ?just cries out to be painted?. It hardly ever rains, but when it does the dormant landscape sprouts a dramatic carpet of verdant shrubs and the dried up riverbeds temporarily gush water once again.


This is the environment that has been Jerseywoman Penny?s home for the past 18 years; the place she describes as the beating heart of Australia: Alice Springs.  It throbs with activity compared to the previous ten years she spent in Tennant Creek, a mining town of the same desert, which is, as she points out, in the middle of nowhere. But it?s all a very long way from the parish of Trinity where she grew up.


By 7.30 am Penny has arrived at the Centralian Senior College, which shares a campus with Charles Darwin University. Here she teaches English classes to the 15 ? 18 year olds. Sometimes she is called upon to teach French at night classes and she laments the fact that most Australians don?t realise the importance of learning other languages. Penny also happens to be the only Philosophy teacher in the entire Northern Territory and those students she is unable to teach face to face are linked via the use of interactive computer technology.  She calls this her ?2,000 km classroom? and her more remote pupils are spaced hundreds of kilometres apart in the vast area that spans Alice Springs in the centre of Australia to Darwin on the far north coast, and as far wide on either side.  In earlier times, these pupils were taught via CB radio, but now Penny has availed herself of modern technology to transmit data over the desert and to interact with her protégées. She says that her role as a virtual teacher is never over and she often meets with her students online during the evenings and at weekends. She recalls a wonderful moment last year chatting online with her pupils late one night – everyone dressed in pyjamas and discussing the meaning of life – and quips, ?This is education, Jim, but not as we know it!?.


Surprisingly, Penny confesses to being a Luddite (something of an irony when both her car?s registration plate and her Avatar bear this moniker!). She admits to struggling with her mobile phone?s technology, for instance. Yet in the past couple of years, not only did she familiarise herself with the computer technology encompassing many of Microsoft?s products such as PowerPoint, Photo Story, Movie Maker, MSN Messenger, Excel and Word, but she also adapted and used this very technology to create a virtual classroom community allowing her ?to bring an older-style subject into the modern age?. As a result, she was nominated for Microsoft?s Innovative Teacher Award and the computer giant flew her and other nominees as special guests to their Asia Pacific Conference in Phuket earlier this year. Despite her protestations that she?s no IT whiz kid, she eclipsed fellow nominees much younger then herself and took home the award for the Northern Territory.


Coincidentally for Penny, the keynote speaker at the Phuket conference was Dr Willie Smits, the Dutch animal rights activist, microbiologist and forester who founded the Orangutan Outreach Center in Borneo. This subject has actually been close to Penny?s heart for some years now and meeting Dr Smits was the catalyst for her visit to Borneo later this year to see for herself the damage caused by the pillage of palm trees for their oil, used extensively in food products, and the sterling work pioneered by Dr Smits in rescuing orphaned orangutans whose food source is consequently being decimated. So passionate is she about avoiding food containing palm oil that Penny is setting up a worldwide interactive project called ?Stop Eating the Rainforest? with recipes that are all palm oil-free. Proceeds from this project will go towards buying back the rainforest and for the rescue and rehabilitation of abandoned orangutans.


Did I mention that she has also written a book of poems and short stories? She says she started ?fiddling around with poetry about ten years ago? and entered a few short story competitions in the interim. One of these stories won a prize and is incorporated in her book of poetry and short stories, ?Green Umbrellas? which has recently been published by Seaviewpress. The idea for the anthology stemmed from a story that her father, David Phillips, used to read to her many years ago at bedtime. It was he who designed the front cover of her book – a black and white sketch of an old French house with adjacent terrace, sporting the eponymous green (sun) umbrella. Penny has dedicated the book to him with the wry quote: ?For Dad, who used to read to me until you fell asleep?.  Semi-autobiographical, comical and ironic, it is also a vehicle in which she explores thought-provoking issues, her memories of Jersey and the family left behind.


What does she miss the most from the Island? Apart from family, of course, she really misses our seasons. Although Alice Springs gets cold during winter (often dropping below zero degrees), snowdrops and daffodils don?t grow there (the latter being an exotic luxury, flown in from the coastal cities!). Being something of a seafood aficionada, Penny fondly recalls our fish market with its displays of chancre crabs and fresh mackerel. Her nostalgia is best summed up though in the final lines from her poem ?Inland Sea?, the last one to appear in her book and where she describes the dust bowl of the Northern Territory being transformed by rain :-


?For it has not rained in this Inland Sea

For many months.

But now the red earth opens

To swallow and swill the nourishing rain,

Leaving a newly cleansed land

Which smells of vraic

From my childhood home.

I can almost taste the fresh crab??




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