Schools Onwards and upwards

STEM teacher Gary Bass. Photo: Meredith O'Shea

Former Macleod College physics teacher Gary Bass was inspecting home renovations during the first week of term in October 2012 when he fell backwards. “I hit the floor and the impact shattered my spine, squeezing the spinal cord, but didn’t nick it,” the AEU member recalls when we meet at his current workplace, distance education outpost Virtual School Victoria (VSV).

His bright and breezy demeanour doesn’t betray a hint of that past trauma just over seven years ago, which left the 6-foot-6 big friendly giant a quadriplegic. Now walking with the aid of a stick, at the time the prognosis was bleak. Rushed to the Austin Hospital, he spent two weeks in intensive care following an operation before moving to the Royal Talbot Rehabilitation Centre in Kew. He’s effusive about the support he received at both institutions, and from his school colleagues.

A former senior officer with the former Victorian Secondary Teachers Association (VSTA), Gary says he also got invaluable support from the union. “I didn’t want to retire, so the union offered me all the options. There was no penalty for staying on leave, so that’s what I did. The AEU advice was so comprehensive, there was no need for any follow-up.”

“It’s all about continuous improvement. This didn’t work today – we’ll give it another go tomorrow.”

Gary Bass

As movement gradually returned to his fingers, Gary was given simple exercises. “They wanted me to do them three times a day, but I looked at it and said, ‘Well, I can do that three times an hour’.”

This positive mental attitude put his recovery in good stead during his six-month stay at Royal Talbot. “My attitude was, ‘You’re not dead yet, you can still do things’.

“And that optimism is pretty much how I’ve described teaching, in that you’re a constantly disappointed optimist. It’s all about continuous improvement. This didn’t work today – we’ll give it another go tomorrow.”

Gary used the convalescence to build up his background in IT as an Apple Distinguished Educator. “At first, I only had the use of my right knuckle, but I had been training people how to use iPads and realised I could use a stand and voice-to-text.”

Noting that social media can only divert you so much, he used the time to develop online IT resources and wrote educational apps for schools. “So, for example, we had the virtual protractor, so you could point the iPad at something and just measure the angle off the screen, or work out the range and find out how far away it is… Just really simple tools. Using the iPad as a tool, rather than an end device.”

After being released from hospital in June 2013, Gary used a wheelchair until November that year, when he regained enough mobility to reclaim his driver’s license. He notes that every pathway to recovery is different.

“A lot of people in wheelchairs are quads, so they’ve got some movement in their hands, but there’s no rule. If you’ve met one, quad or para, you’ve only met one, because every condition is different, right? It’s like the way we understand neurodiversity in schools now.”

Gary signed up for a Google-backed algorithmics course. That led to a gig rewriting the physics courses for the then Distance Education Centre Victoria (now VSV), followed by an offer to assist writing the 2016 IT textbook. “As it turns out, I’d done the answer-checking for that particular book, and they needed someone to read through line by line,” he says.

Given how tedious it can be checking line by line for grammar, clarity and correctness, he is amazed anyone can do this stuff at the end of an exhausting day-job. His recovery gave him the time and focus he needed, and the rigour.

With time to spare, Gary also focused on designing course texts on computing, data analytics and software development. “It’s a matter of being able to convert the information into knowledge and then repackage it in such a way that’s accessible.”

Having moved into teaching Informatics (now called data analytics) at VSV, Gary has recently been invited to step back into physics. “Everything’s an opportunity,” he insists. “Falling over and breaking my neck, I saw an opportunity to do something different – not by choice, but because the other options were no longer an option.”

Gary’s drive and passion for STEM subjects, and his infectious brand of optimism, ensures his students are in good hands. It’s all about empowering teachers, he says, and IT opens pathways, bed-bound or not. “If you can spark a bit of passion from a teacher or a learner, then they’ll teach themselves.”

And another thing… 10 questions for Gary Bass

The most important thing I take into my job every day is… optimistic energy.

The most important things to leave at home is… thinking I know all the answers.

The best advice I ever received was… ask, don’t tell. Listening is not learning, telling is not teaching.

My top piece of advice to someone starting out in disability support would be… just because you’ve met someone with disability doesn’t mean that has anything to do with the next person you meet. Everyone is an individual. Start with a clean page every time.

My favourite teacher at school was… my Year 8 science teacher Neil Appleby, because we were always doing new stuff. I also loved Michael Blake, who took after-school theatre. That group ended up building the theatre in St Georges Road.

The people I admire most are… the energetic optimists. How do they do it?

The book that changed my life was… You Can Negotiate Anything by Herb Cohen. It’s spectacular, because you realise everything is a chess game and everyone is just going for positioning.

In my other life, I am… calmer and more relaxed.

If I met the education minister… you start with a compliment and then you make the pitch. Trust in the teachers and remove the hierarchy.

The most important thing the union does for its members is… trust its members and care for them, because you mightn’t always agree, but it’s a crowdsource thing. You put that many people together and it has a life of its own.

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