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Call of the Highlands is too strong to ignore

Gail Robertson, 29, a biology graduate, lives in Portree, Skye, and is the health promoting schools officer with Skye and Lochalsh. She is about to qualify as a primary teacher through the part-time Aberdeen University course, and, like other trainees, has been guaranteed a teaching post in August.

"I had the option of going away for a year or staying at home and doing the distance learning course over two years. I am settled and did not want to move away from home and family. I like the quality of life here and the strong sense of community."

Ms Robertson was attracted to teaching from an early age but persuaded to take a different direction while at school in Glasgow by the poor press teaching often gets. "So, I got a degree in biology. But working in a lab without much contact with people didn't appeal. I wanted to move to Highland where my family belonged. So, I got a drugs and alcohol education job with the health board in Inverness.

"I liked it but it was more about policy rather than working directly with youngsters, which is something I always enjoyed."

Her decision to train as a primary, rather than secondary, teacher was taken "because I like the idea of teaching a bit of everything and integrating it all".

Learning to teach the expressive arts would be a challenge to most scientists, without the difficulties of having to do so online. "You need to experience lessons in these subjects," she says. "So network days were mainly about them.

"We had Highland tutors for music, PE, drama and art - specialist teachers who would come along to network days and provide support for assessments or on placements."

Inevitably there were some teething problems with such an innovative and ambitious course, says Ms Robertson. "These were mainly about technology.

We had a few system crashes but they got sorted out in the first term, and Highland generously lent computers and printers to any student who needed them."

The part-time course was identical in structure to the full-time course, with university tutors in each subject posting the same material on the web as used on campus. "The PowerPoint lecture a tutor would give on campus would be available to us online, often high-tech too, with zooming-in and video clips."

Tutorial discussions and activities, a key component of university learning, were slightly more of a problem for distance learning. "We worked with our study buddies. Five of us in Skye and Lochalsh met up once a week and did all the tutorial exercises the full-time students did."

The four school placements during the course were all within reasonable travelling distance, says Ms Robertson, and she felt well prepared for them.

"We were also encouraged to spend a day in class a few weeks before, and that was very useful.

"The whole cohort of students bonded really well, and kept in touch by phone and email. It would have been a lot harder without that feeling of being part of a student community.

"In an ideal world we would have liked more face-to-face contact with tutors. But that's one of the compromises you accept if you want to stay at home."

It has been a challenging two years, juggling work, family and studies, says Ms Robertson. "But we all knew it wouldn't be easy. We are really looking forward to the start of our teaching careers."

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