Monday, 16 November 2015

A tribute to an inspiring lifelong educator: Nora Tomlinson (1938-2015)

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Ros Morpeth, Chief Executive National Extension College, writes:

The death of lifelong educator Nora Tomlinson and former NEC tutor in the summer took me back to an earlier era of adult learning. In the late 1960s and the 1970’s, when Nora worked with us at NEC, we had just introduced weekend courses, a national innovation at the time. In an eloquent personal tribute to Nora, Roger Lewis, a long-standing NEC course writer and former education director, recalls a discussion about washing machines at one of those NEC weekends: ‘...some of the students were, I recall, somewhat taken aback that their tutors spent time on such matters, assuming tutors only talked about things like Platonic philosophy and Middlemarch.’

As her obituary points out, Nora was a classic (and excellent) adult tutor - patient and enthusiastic with students; enthusiastic also about furthering her own learning (a key ingredient in successful adult tutoring). The patience and enthusiasm that Nora’s daughter Jane Shore remarks on in the obituary of her mother published in The Guardian are what foster the belief in even the least confident of students that they can succeed.

As well as her work for NEC, Nora worked at the OU for over 30 years, teaching English Literature, but also initially helping out with teaching the foundation Arts course (known as A100). She wrote teaching material for Arts preparatory and foundation courses and for second and third level literature courses, including a unit on the Nineteenth Century Novel – George Eliot remained one of Nora’s favourite novelists. It is clear that Nora was particularly good at communicating with her students and engaging them in lively debates – stubbornly and provocatively declaring, for instance, that Wordsworth was ‘boring’; and many found her an inspiring and subversive teacher.

There can be few places more constricting for adults learners than a prison cell. Understanding this, Nora’s sense of social justice led her through the gates of Bedford Prison to read to prisoners, something she managed to make time for alongside teaching for the NEC and the OU, protesting at Greenham Common, promoting fair trade, singing in several choirs, playing the piano and offering accommodation to striking miners.

The will to make prisons places for learning seems to have weakened over the last decade or so but there may be a new commitment to offender learning. At Conservative Party conference, the Prime Minister set out the vision of his government for prison education, a development welcomed by, amongst others, The Prisoners’ Education Trust. The announcement followed the news that Justice Secretary Michael Gove plans to give greater powers to prison governors for the education of prisoners to reduce re-offending rates.

Twin tub washing machines may have been superseded by front-loaders in most households since Nora shocked her students, but the wide-ranging curiosity that was such a central part of her character is at least as important for tutors now as it was then, whatever the history and background of the young people and adults who come to them for a second chance at learning.

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