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.
- Teaching resources
- Teacher development
- Teacher training