by Moira Laidlaw
Moira Laidlaw, Virtual Teacher
I’m 55 and all my professional life I have been a teacher and loved it. It’s a vocation for me and I think that makes me very lucky. But it hasn’t always been a smooth road to travel.
In 2001, being unmarried and without children, I went to China as a volunteer with Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) as a teacher-trainer in a poor western college.
Six years later I contracted a virulent and painful form of rheumatoid arthritis in both feet, which meant I very quickly became disabled and had to give up my placement and come back to Britain.
Suddenly I was leading the life of someone twenty years older, confined to the house, coping with excessive pain and wondering how on earth I was supposed to carry on. Earning a living was the last thing on my mind. I just wanted to find a way of getting through the agonising days. Thank heavens I lived in a country like Britain, however, with its National Health Service and services that could help me learn to cope.
Once I had overcome the worst of the adjustments I had to make – developing a fear of being outside and being stared at in a wheelchair, coping with being largely immobile, dealing with chronic severe pain, relying on the kindness of friends and family – and I had always been so independent – I began to realise that my situation didn’t simply hinge on my disability, but on a sense of self-worth as a capable human being who wasn’t using any of my gifts.
It wasn’t just a case of wanting to be employed again, it was also about wanting to be useful. As a teacher I had had a role, played a part, made a contribution. That was important to me. I could, theoretically, stay on Incapacity Benefit and Disability allowance and make ends meet, but I didn’t want just that.
A friend suggested I look at possibilities at the Open University, in other words find out if I might be employable in some capacity that wouldn’t require me to leave the house. I wasn’t sure at first. I was still feeling fairly incompetent and vulnerable, but I realised as well that the only person who could change this situation would be me.
And so now, for the second year running, I am a tutor on a Masters course called Education for Development at the OU.
My students are living in countries like Ethiopia, The Ivory Coast, Burundi, South Korea, Italy, Germany, the UK, Eire and other parts of Europe. Some of them are from my old organisation, VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas), some work with financial organisations concerned with development.
Some are teachers, and some have no connections at present with either of the two main strands of the course. I work entirely over the internet with them, through email, skype, telephone sometimes, and through synchronous tutorials using a technology called Elluminate.
The first time I ran this course – starting in October 2009 for six months – I found all the new technology and ways of working quite difficult. It seemed strange never to meet my students, but as time has gone on and now at the start of my new module-group, I realise that the technology really does enable me to work with people very closely and although I’m a virtual teacher I’m just as real a teacher as I ever was.
This has had a profound effect on my sense of self, done my self-esteem a lot of good living as I do in a world in which now I am “the one over there in the wheelchair”. I feel happier, more fulfilled, purposeful and have a sense of making a significant contribution.
It’s a part-time job, but that suits me really well, given the pain-levels I have to negotiate daily in terms of when and how I work. Flexibility is really important to me.
I think this is probably the most creative and productive thing to have come out of my change in circumstances. I really was scared about changing things that seemed to point towards who I was. In fact the challenge has shown me that being disabled is genuinely only a part of my current experiences. Being in pain all the time continues to be a pain, but it’s no longer so prescriptive.
My life belongs to me again.
Moira Laidlaw, 21.11.10.
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