Manawatu Guardian - 2021-11-25


Au revoir to longtime Boys’ High teacher Mrs Dickinson


Judith Lacy

Un, zwei, trois, vier — the numbers are staggering but for Alison Dickinson it’s her passion for languages that’s got her through 40 years of teaching. That and wanting to make a difference to her students at Palmerston North Boys’ High School. As Miss Hardy, she started at the school in February 1982 as a teacher of languages and English. In 1987, she become head of the languages department — a position she still holds until her retirement next month. Dickinson didn’t intend to stay for four decades, saying it was just the way things turned out. Over the years she has taught English, French, German, social studies, Japanese, reading, English to speakers of other languages, and learning assisted classes. Each year has been a bit different and the students are different. “There’s no time to be bored.” Like many Palmerston North stories, Dickinson’s began in Whanganui. The younger daughter of a brake specialist and a former secretary, she attended Whanganui Girls’ College where she developed a love for languages. She has always loved English and attended speech and drama classes from age 5. She read all the classics when she was young and kept a notebook of new vocabulary. A selfdescribed tomboy, Alison loved playing with her father’s hammer and nails and climbing trees. Dickinson graduated from Massey University with a Bachelor of Arts in French and German and then a BA with Honours in French. She went to Auckland Teachers’ College to train as a secondary teacher then taught in Noumea, New Caledonia, for a year. Despite being interviewed before Christmas, she didn’t find out she had got the Boys’ High job until the Saturday before school started due to a complication caused by another teacher applying who had priority rights. Her appointment had to be signed off by the Ministry of Education and notification arrived by telegram. There was no accommodation to be found in Palmy so she put an ad in the paper. Dennis Dickinson, a sales engineer originally from Lancashire, England, answered and in December they will have been married 35 years. She is the longest-serving female head of department and the longestserving female teacher at Boys’ High. When she started she felt as a woman she had to prove she should be there. Female teachers had to work 10 times harder than the male teachers to be even considered decent teachers, she says. There was still an attitude that women should be at home in the kitchen. If a kid made a sexist comment she would respond “good luck with finding a wife”. Attitudes have changed. It is important to have male teachers in girls’ schools and female teachers in boys’ schools as people need to be able to get on with everybody, she says. When she started at Boys’ High 10 of the 68 teachers were women, now 30 of the 113 teachers are. It is a disservice to young men if they are not given the tools to deal with their feelings, she says. “There’s nothing wrong with talking about your feelings. Women do it all the time — men don’t but it is changing.” Crying is not a sign of weakness but a biological reaction. “It’s okay to cry, it’s very cathartic, it kind of gets it out of your system.” Growing up, having one child in a Wherever possible, it is important for children to have a relationship with both parents. If boys don’t have good male role models they miss out on a lot, including examples of healthy, respectful relationships, she says. Kids today spend way too much time in front of screens. This means they don’t have as much time for faceto-face contact, which is actually the real world. It can be hard for them to tell the difference between the virtual world and reality and this can desensitise them to what is happening around them. Some students are up all night playing games or working long hours and come to school “absolutely knackered”. “You really only get one stab at an education so you have to try and do the best you can.” Dickinson is not a parent but says just because you don’t have children doesn’t mean you aren’t aware of what is happening, plus she deals with kids every day. A fan of the late Kiwi author Celia Lashlie, Dickinson advises allowing kids to make mistakes and don’t make excuses for them; there’s nothing wrong with making mistakes. “You can’t hold their hand all the way.” By learning another language you learn about English, develop your brain, learn how others live, and see things from a different perspective. Travel makes you think about your own culture and become more tolerant, appreciative and accepting of other ways of doing things. A highlight has been developing French and German language and culture tours for students providing first-hand experiences. At Dachau concentration camp in Germany in 2019, one visibly moved boy turned to her and asked “how did we ever let this happen?”. Travel is the greatest education as you see people in their home environment, she says. In all her travels, she has found the poorest are the most welcoming. Learning about other people and cultures makes you look at your own philosophy on life. Her husband has been on at her for a few years to retire as he’s already retired. She still loves teaching and the kids, she still has a passion for languages, but says she has done her bit. She wants to travel and do things she doesn’t have time to do as a teacher. Dickinson wants to leave while she’s still at the top of her game and doesn’t want to be teaching when she’s a “wizened old lady”. However, she will be back next year relieving as it is “incredibly unhealthy” to just stop teaching after so long so she will be weaning herself off. She finds it difficult to sit still and says she is going to have to learn to relax. She was teacher in charge of hockey for 27 years and has served under four rectors. She sees teaching as a vocation and a lifestyle, not a job or a career. One of her tasks last week was sourcing escargot from Auckland for the students to try. She says if you like garlic butter you will like snails. Back to un. “If I made a difference to one kid’s life then it will have been worth it.”


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