Learning Lessons Long-Distance
Anne Scherer teaches Australia's remote-area children via radio
ALICE SPRINGS, AUSTRALIA — ANNE SCHERER is checking to see if 10-year-old Louise Peacock knows what a caboose is. "You've probably never seen one, have you?" asks Miss Scherer.The answer is buried in the crackle of radio interference because Scherer is trying to teach Louise who is about 300 miles away in South Australia. The distance is what makes Scherer's job so demanding. A teacher at the School of the Air here, Scherer (no relation to this reporter) only sees her 8- to 10-year-old pupils five or six times a year. Most of the communication is through correspondence or via a scratchy radio link-up four times a week. Long-distance education is a necessity in Australia. The students live so far from schools that mail and radio link-ups are the only practical way to teach them. There are 14 other long-distance education centers employing 240 teachers responsible for 2,540 students aged 4 1/2 to 12 (preschool to seventh grade). Experienced teachers' pay ranges from $27,400 to $33,700. Australia is not unique in trying to cope with long-distance education. There are similar schools in Canada, Wales, and even the United States. Israel tried unsuccessfully to begin a non-classroom system during the Gulf War. Australia has a long history in distance education. The Alice Springs school, the first Australian long-distance school, was begun June 8, 1951. Long-distance education is a long-term commitment Australia is making to the families who have settled its sparsely populated "bush." These families work on stations (ranches) that can be thousands of square kilometers in size. In some cases it can take two hours to get to the nearest town, or even the front gate. "The School of the Air, and the recent development of electronic classrooms, or classrooms without walls - where scores of children scattered over thousands of kilometers are taught and coordinated by one teacher through the airwaves - have become an integral part of our education system," says John Dawkins, minister for the Office of Employment, Education, and Training in Canberra. After eight years of teaching at more conventional schools in Alice Springs, Scherer was attracted to the School of the Air seven years ago because of the challenge of teaching pupils she couldn't see. In her seven years at the School, Scherer has mainly taught sixth- and seventh-graders. This year, however, she has 13 fourth- and fifth-level students. The job includes some travel, which also appeals to her. d had enough of being stuck in the four walls of a classroom," she says. The travel mainly involves visits to the students at their remote stations. "The families are extremely appreciative of what you are doing. This is one of the buzzes you get teaching at the School of the Air," says Scherer. A visit by the teacher is a major event in remote areas. "There is no other situation where you get as close to the family," she says. It's during these trips that Scherer gets to develop a bond with her students and their families. Scherer has a scrap book with photos of each member of the class and their families. There are photos of Scherer eating witjuti grubs, sitting on a motor bike, trying to catch fish, or enjoying the solitude of the bush with a pupil. She takes the albums with her so students can see the other members of their class. Scherer also hauls along a photo album showing her house and her boyfriend as well as snapshots of her childhood at Whyte Yarcowie, a small South Australian town. Her efforts win over the students and their care-givers. "I don't give out much praise, but Anne is brilliant as a teacher," says Kerrie Mott, governess at the Mt. Swan Station, 175 miles northeast of Alice Springs. "She has a great ability to understand the problems that we face." Brenda Saint, mother of fourth-grader Alison, says Scherer "has the ability to make allowances for each family." For example, Mrs. Saint has three other children, which puts a lot of pressure on their governess. So Alison mainly has to work by herself. Alison says Scherer is good at recognizing that children have their ups and downs. "Sometimes we don't have good days when there's upsets on the station." What kind of upsets? "Like when a bull tries to kill Dad." Recognizing that the children need to communicate when they have such problems, Scherer always asks each child for news about his or her family. It can give her clues about why lessons may not be working. Scherer's principal, Cheryl Robert, calls Scherer's judgments, "spot on." Oral communication with the children is very limited. Each week Scherer has three 20-minute sessions on the radio with the whole class. Each student may get to answer five or six questions per session. Then there are 10-minute individual sessions with each student. The sessions aren't always successful. On a recent day, radio interference kept one boy from getting his 10 minutes. "It can be very frustrating for a child - not to be heard," says Scherer. The children and teachers also have to cope with the long delays in getting assignments. Pupils do 10 days of lessons before mailing them to the school. It will take four weeks for the pupils to get their papers back. This delay may soon end, however. The school is buying laptop computers for the students. The pupils will be able to send in their homework electronically and receive the teacher's comments the same way. It could cut weeks off the correspondence time. Scherer expects to teach on the air for a while, checking on pupils and bouncing along the corrugated roads to remote settlements. The reward, she says, is hearing a child's voice on the radio when the student discovers something new: "Kids are just full of great ideas waiting to get out, and often as a teacher you are in the best position to get hold of these and built on them."