September 2011 – Teacher’s Pet – by Nick Tomalin

Last week I was persuaded to spend a morning discussing the finer points of birdwatching with a group of twenty or so 10-13 year old girl guides. They were on a week long camp and a friend of mine who leads guide groups asked if I would walk them up the river to point out the assorted avifauna. Never was the term ‘guided walk’ more appropriate! So, off we went, armed with a checklist of ten birds that I suspected we would encounter. I even offered prizes (fluffy albatross toys that make real albatross sounds!) as an incentive, and in an effort to add some form of education and learning, I asked them to link six different foods to the birds that ate them.

In my head I envisaged groups of enthralled youngsters whooping for delight as we spotted our first redshank. I foresaw the straining of raised hands querying the foraging habits of the curlew. I even dared to hope that some of them would point out birds not on our list and flick through the guide book in the hopes of discovering something new. OK, so I was too optimistic, but at least the promise of prizes lured virtually all of them into spotting everything on the list. I may be fooling myself into thinking that they learned something from the experience, but let us not forget that from small acorns mighty oak trees grow!

Formal education is not a frequent part of our work programme, but that does not mean to say it has little value or significance. When you consider that every talk, walk, or event that we do will involve, for some period at least, communicating with other people, the opportunities for ‘education’ in its widest sense are enormous. This very article seeks to inform, question and indeed provoke a response to test and further the knowledge and opinions of your good selves.

Now that all sounds very grand, but if you weren’t slightly interested, you wouldn’t be reading it. I once heard someone say that there is no such thing as an uninteresting subject, just an uninterested person. How very true, though there are times when those of us with more ‘specialist’ hobbies wonder whether some things are inherently more interesting than others. Or perhaps they are simply marketed more effectively. Few will dispute that the traditional image of the ornithologist (the very word does nothing to inspire!) is not immediately associated with trendy youthfulness, though I believe the days of bearded men with raincoats may be coming to an end (I do have a raincoat, but am yet to inflict a beard on the nation).

So whilst I may have been a little disappointed that none of the guide group instantly rushed off to buy binoculars and take out a life membership of the RSPB, I like to think that I may have made a small difference. And if just one or two of the girls have picked up some new piece of information, or some extra sense of enjoyment of the environment, then I consider that a success. When I think back to my own fledgling interest, I am sure that it grew slowly and developed over many years, although I do recall one particular moment of epiphany when I saw my first kingfisher. If all seven year olds could share that experience I am convinced that my job would be a lot easier.

We hear a lot about the next generation, the youth of today, and how they are disillusioned, disenfranchised, and various other words starting with ‘dis-‘. But they really are our greatest hope for saving our species and protecting our planet. This is why education in its most literal sense is so important. The army of teachers, parents, guide leaders, and volunteers trying to achieve this are to be commended on their efforts, but reminded why it is more important now than ever to redouble those efforts. That’s not to say that the rest of us can’t play our part, but I do find it more difficult to assimilate new information as readily as when I was younger.

Starting out as a pre-teen I lapped up facts and figures and they stuck. Now I feel like I’m close to capacity, and remembering that a bar-tailed godwit has an upturned bill but a black-tailed godwit does not may push out some vital piece of knowledge like how to tie my shoelaces. I certainly have plenty left to learn, but I struggle to retain it in the way I used to.

So I feel that those of us with some little knowledge to impart have a duty to do so, regardless of whether it fits our job descriptions or not. I recently heard a lady thank a colleague of mine for introducing her and her family to the RSPB, claiming that it had ‘changed their lives’, as the kids were now begging to be taken out for walks every day instead of playing computer games. Who knows what influence these children will have as they pursue this interest into their adult lives? I hope they end up as mighty oaks.

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