TeachingEnglish
      Fitch O'Connell - biography

      While many people - perhaps most - can trace their chosen careers along a fairly smooth line, possibly progressing from design to opportunity, maybe my journey can best be described as one taken by a nomad who, while appearing to be lost at times, always thought he knew where he was, even if he didn't know, or care, where he was going.I studied music at the Royal College of Music in London because it never occurred to me that I would do anything else.  I was a precocious musician as a youngster, and once lied about my age so I could enter a music festival competition for adults - which I won.  It amazes me that I had time to study music properly, though, as my all consuming passion was for reading: I read any book that came my way and, being brought up in the city of Cambridge, a lot of books did come my way.  Once, when taking part in an orchestral performance involving a piece with long tacet periods for my instrument, I had a novel propped up on the music stand where the sheet music was and, engrossed as I was, missed a cue. Luckily it wasn't a solo and I think that only the conductor and myself noticed.After graduating I took my PGCE and then started teaching music and English in state schools in London.  After a few short years I realised that I had spent all of my life to that date in a classroom, either as a student or as a teacher, and I remember feeling guilty because those experiences didn't seem to qualify me to teach young people: I had little life experience to impart. I remembered my English teacher at school, who had taken the decision to spend seven years as a homeless person travelling around England and Ireland before returning to teaching.  He was a man who had stories to tell and who exuded a gentle confidence and a quiet, natural authority. He made literature come alive, even the texts we had to study for national exams. He made us think, examine, question and explore. He was my idol as a teacher.I didn't decide to live on the road, I probably wasn't brave enough, but I did start a nomadic career which must have alarmed my family as much as it filled me with adrenalin.  Amongst other jobs, this ranged from work in recording studios (where my claim to fame is having twiddled some knobs while the Beatles were recording their final album) to working for a theatre company as Assistant Stage Manager and scenery builder (I borrowed my grandfather's skills as a carpenter as he didn't seem to be using them at the time); from running children's play schemes around the country (this was the time when Adventure Playgrounds were being developed in various locations) to working in a bookshop (of course) before I found myself back in schools, but working with children with severe behavioural and social problems, part of the so-called vulnerable child scheme, or VCS, in Oxfordshire.  This led me to what was, at that time, to be my most prolonged period of work with one organisation - all of six years - when I took up the post of Education Projects Coordinator for Community Service Volunteers, or CSV (another permutation of the letters of my previous job). There I pioneered a school project aimed at integrating craft and design with physical disabled people and meshing it into the national curriculum with the production of teaching materials.  We used what was then latest in technology - slide shows (with real, 35mm slides), audio cassette recordings and early VHS video (our first one was in black and white).  This brought me my first contact with the British Council as the project had international implications and they helped me disseminate the work in Sweden and Denmark, and later in Germany and Japan.  I required another permutation of the acronym so I then managed the CVS, or Council for Voluntary Service, in Salford in Greater Manchester for a few years before I realised that I was becoming respectable and settled and needed to do something about that.The most radical, disgraceful thing I could think of was to become an English language teacher and so I ran away and joined the circus.  My children had grown up and left the nest but it was still a bit of a challenge for someone over 40 to do.  Nevertheless I'm still with the circus after 20 years, and still riding lions bareback and jumping through hoops and balancing precariously on tight ropes. I was disappointed not to find an organisation with the acronym of SVC or VSC to work for but eventually I settled for the British Council, which runs as fine a circus as one could imagine.  At first I worked as a teacher and it was a relief to be back in the classroom after all those years and finally to feel that I had something to offer the students.  I don't mean English - they could probably do that perfectly well by themselves - but a measure of what education was all about, the whole, rounded experience where the subject one was teaching was in fact just a means to another end.  The major goal in education, as far as I'm concerned, is unlocking imaginations along with the skills to guide the fruits of the imagination to creative, constructive and informed ends.After some years as a teacher with the British Council I had the good fortune to start working with some wonderful English language teachers in Portuguese state schools and with them and their teachers' association, APPI, we started on a new project which aimed to help teachers at secondary level cope with the demands of extensive reading.  The result was the BritLit project, which in the last few years has expanded outside of Portugal to become a worldwide resource of which, I have to admit, I am very proud.  I no longer have regular classes of my own though occasionally I borrow someone else's when they've gone to have coffee or are otherwise distracted, but I do a lot of teacher training, in Portugal and around the world and generally make a nuisance of myself whenever and wherever I can.The best part of the job, though, is not only do I get paid to read books - hundreds of them – but I get to meet the authors as well, and talk them about their books.  Interesting to discover where nomads end up.

      Average: 4.7 (24 votes)

      Comments

      susanh's picture
      susanh
      Submitted on 25 June, 2010 - 16:43

      Hi Fitch. Very interesting for me to read your bio........never realised you were from the music world! I like your definition of the goal of education. Mine is: to help learners find out who they are......( and it's generally through active, creative work of their own)
      Didn't know you'd worked in Community Services.....but it explains a lot!
      Just been in touch with Sandie and entered her blog......now going for yours! And watching Portugal v Brazil match......so it's all coming together today!
      From one nomad to another.
      Susan Hillyard

      fitch's picture
      fitch
      TE Team
      Submitted on 25 June, 2010 - 19:45

      Hi Susan.  Seems, then, we could hardly put a cigarette paper between our educational goals.  One of the defining moments of my early days as a teacher, in a south London school which was, how shall we put it? testing, was advice from one of the grey beards in the staff room.  He asked me if I knew how to tell which were good and which were not so good teachers.  I shook my head, as acolytes are supposed to.  He said to ask them what they taught and if they answered 'maths' or 'English' or 'history' or somesuch then best be careful.  If, on the other hand they answer 'children' then you know you are probably on to a winner.  While there are clearly flaws in that definition, it does in general stand the test of time.And you mention another teacher who puts creativity at the heart (and soul) of her work - Sandie Mourão.  Her new website dedicated to picture books looks like it is going to be a wonderful resource for teachers of younger learners.  For those who don't know it - http://picturebooksinelt.blogspot.com/I trust Argentina is treating you wellFitch 

      vlnraojagatha's picture
      vlnraojagatha
      Submitted on 26 June, 2010 - 03:34

      Dear Fitch, Your biography makes an interesting read.You seem to be a multifaceted personality. Though you say you are a nomad, you have a great purpose in life.I think you are a nomadic juggler and English teacher of great repute.Your brit lit project is a great project which needs worth mentioning Yours sincerely, JVL NARASIMHAO INDIA  

      fitch's picture
      fitch
      TE Team
      Submitted on 26 June, 2010 - 18:17

      ....... though quite an adventure!  Thank you for the image; I shall use it in the future!  Glad to hear your feelings about BritLit.  Don't you think we should do some Indian stories soon?bestFitch

      Chris Lima's picture
      Chris Lima
      Submitted on 27 June, 2010 - 13:05

      Fascinating! Especially the music part because with me it was the contrary. I come from a lit background and just later I discovered music. I still cannot play a tamborine - not even to save my life - but I'm very much into Metal music, also because the literary connections, at least with the bands I like, are very strong indeed.Glad you decided to join the circus :)Cheers - Chris

      fitch's picture
      fitch
      TE Team
      Submitted on 28 June, 2010 - 00:05

      ... would certainly be learned by you rather rapidly if your life did depend on it!Interesting your comment about getting into Metal band music because of the literary links.  That's a point where I don't connect - in fact I have a problem with words and music together: music being the extension of abstract expression at the point where words become too difficult. Thus songs are too often just musical accompaniment to poetry which is fine and enjoyable but, for me, not pure music and so exists on a different plane.  I like best the stuff where I simply can't put into words a single thought I had when having my spine tingled!There is probably a discussion here about circus music.  Any one wish to start it?!|

      303round's picture
      303round
      Submitted on 28 June, 2010 - 12:24

      Yes. You are so right Fitch. Right about teachers with real life experience outside the institutional life of school , college or university and then back to school. I remember the good teachers at my school and their were too few. However , each one had worked outside of education at some stage. I used to say ,when my children were at school, all teachers should work at least one year in industry before going back to school. I have, fortunately had 30 years in industry before taking up teaching and I think my classes benefit from ythe experience.

      Chris Lima's picture
      Chris Lima
      Submitted on 28 June, 2010 - 12:42

      Well, the tamborine perhaps but I would certainly not go further than that...When you say 'pure' music, do you mean classical/instrumental? I can see your point, since classical music is my second favourite genre and it is precisely the combination of lyrics and extremely elaborate instrumental music, especially in the solos and rifs, that makes Metal music so fascinating, in my opinion.Thanks Heavens there is music for all tastes. As there are books, stories and poems...Chris

      bern's picture
      bern
      Submitted on 28 June, 2010 - 14:18

      I was particularly interested in your comments on how you felt having spent so much time in a classroom wasn´t advantageous to your students.  I, and recently my husband, came into teaching late following years in business management, finance, training and military service.  We don´t have degrees but we do have TEFL qualifications, experience working with children, training experience etc.  We have a wealth of experiences (both business and personal) and stories to tell we have also lived in many different countries and almost all areas of the UK. I have been lucky and found work easily having started in a small school and following on from that found schools who were prepared to give me a chance.  Now I have 10 years under my belt and that experience stands me in good stead.  My husband on the other hand is really struggling to even get an interview - of course he´s also 10 years older!  But that´s another matter - is TEFL becoming ageist??What a fantastic job - reading and helping young people to enjoy reading too.A really interesting blogThanks 

      fitch's picture
      fitch
      TE Team
      Submitted on 28 June, 2010 - 19:13

      ... as in instrumental, yes, though not necessarily classical (though I walk a long way for music of the period of the Enlightenment!)  And yes, isn't it great that there is so much music from all over the world.  Always something new and exciting to discover; truly seems to mirror the soul.Fitch