Red Nicholson

Story by Sonya Bloomfield

What makes a great teacher?

As a parent some of the greatest joy comes from watching your child learn something new. Sometimes being a parent is extraordinarily hard and I often admired teachers and have thought to myself, I could never be a teacher with all those kids. But I hadn’t connected the ‘why’ as to why people teach until I heard Red speak at the Our Place conference in Wellington recently.

He spoke of wanting to be a great teacher, and the process of teaching children to be great learners. It was an interesting moment and I wanted to find out more about what ‘great’ was.

Privilege and luck are two words that Red associates to his success.  “Growing up in Kingsland was pretty cool, Mum was a midwife and Dad was a teacher, I had a pretty normal upbringing.“ Having cerebral palsy was just another dimension to who he was.

Red is the eldest of four siblings, with a brother and two sisters. His parents always had high expectations of him and encouraged him to go out into the world and make his own journey. They expected him to do everything and never had any question about what he would accomplish. 

“They didn’t wrap me up in cotton wool”. 

Even though this was hard at times, looking back now he feels lucky that he learnt to develop his independence from a young age and in the safety of a family environment. He made mistakes sure, but learnt to work around different challenges as they came up. The privilege he feels, came from having this support around him.

Image was really important to Red; he was blessed with good conversational skills and a friendly personality. In some ways this strength allowed him to achieve the things he set out to do.  But it was in protecting this image that held him back from freedom and independence in ways that he didn’t even realise until he made the change to a power chair. 

Red’s transition to a power chair happened in year 13 when he was at Avondale College. He had been hesitant at first to go to a power chair because of what he thought it might say about him. 

The change for Red was dramatic.  

All of a sudden he had all this new-found freedom and independence. He didn’t need his friends to push him around any more. He could do the things he wanted to do, when he wanted to do it. He no longer had to rely on others. He even rebelled a bit just because he could.

“It was huge, it was really big. I could wag classes all by myself!” 

After college Red had a short stint at Auckland University doing a BA but he couldn’t see what was at the end of the degree so left and began working at Telecom on the Broadband helpdesk. He’d always been interested in technology and it was moving at such a fast pace he was fascinated to see how it all evolved.  Those few years were great and where he felt he grew up in a social context.

In 2007 he went back to university and completed a bachelor of communications and majored in radio.  When complete he tried his hand in the radio industry. “Most people start in promo and they go out in the promo trucks and wait for someone to be sick and they get their on-air opportunity. I couldn’t do that so I began with my techy experience.”

Radio was really controlled by advertising and quite a competitive environment, which he didn’t feel was where he wanted to be at the time. So he took off overseas for a couple of months and travelled through Europe with his then girlfriend.

Teaching was always something that had been in the back of his mind.  He initially went into teaching with the thought that it might help him grow a better work ethic and help develop his time management skills.  It wasn’t until he went on his first practicum and found it unexpectedly empowering to be responsible for the education of his students. 

“They responded really well to me and weren’t buzzed out by the wheelchair, all they cared about was what I could teach them.”

Red initially met Onehunga Principal Deidre Shea through a principal’s day.  “She mentioned that her school might possibly be the worst school for me to work at due to being built on a slope. But she also said that if I’m the best person for the job they will make it work”. When a job came up Red applied and got the role. “There have now been improvements made to the school through funding from the Ministry. It now has two lifts, a disabled toilet, bridges and ramps, it’s great.”

One of the challenges Red found with teaching was that it is steeped in tradition. This idea of writing on the whiteboard or even standing was never going to work for Red.  

“Just because it has always been done that way, doesn’t mean that it has to be that way.” 

“My motto going through Teachers College was that, I was never going to try and do what everyone else did, but do it worse. If I had tried to write on the whiteboard, it was never going to be very good. I had to not just approach thinks differently, but I had to develop better ways of doing things.”

Red bought the use of technology into the classroom and in many ways it’s better than writing on the whiteboard.  With information now at his and the students fingertips he can pull information up quickly and easily to refer back to. It doesn’t get lost in books, or rubbed off the board. “It’s forced me to rethink how teaching is done from someone who can’t stand up and access the white board.” Since Red’s successful e-learning ‘pilot’, his school is exploring ways to embed technology into teaching across all subjects.

As the Head of Department for Media Studies, he does have some management responsibilities but the buzz for Red is still in the classroom with the students. “The subject is very socially orientated and I’ve found the shifting media landscape interesting to watch and teach.”

With a new baby boy in the household a lot of Red’s spare time is at home with his wife Helen being new parents. Before Lachlan came along they loved exploring the city and their favourite thing to do was visit the art gallery, Helen likes the art and Red likes the café!

“I’ve also become really interested about how Auckland is growing and developing. I’m fascinated with the shared spaces and love Wynyard Quarter.” The new boardwalk by Westhaven Marina is bike and push chair friendly which suits their family and when they can they enjoy exploring the city and going for walks.

Outside of teaching he enjoys being part of the social movement towards society being less disabling. While Red has had the privilege of great parents and support while he was growing up he knows not everyone has that.  Their high expectations and view that he can do anything has definitely shaped who he is.  While it hasn’t always been easy he continues to develop and stretch and he definitely sees even bigger things in his future. I can’t wait to see what they are.