Having spent quite a lot of time examining who I am, recently, through a recent recurrence of my depression, this post will focus more on the “what I do” part, although I quite fancy exploring the further back in time bit of “who I am” too… As others have done, I am going to focus on the educational aspects of everything, seeing as this will also be appearing on a collaborative EduBlog, an’ all… 😉
I have always been a knowledge-addict. I remember having intense little conversations with my uncle, when he came to stay, about the difference between Bactrian camels and dromedaries, and who would win a fight out of a Triceratops and a Dimetrodon. Alongside this facet to my personality, creativity has always driven me. Along with my brother, we never followed the plans for our various Lego models, instead inventing ever more elaborate vehicles and spacecraft (usually trying to improve on Star Wars designs, of course). I am proud to say that my parents still have a painting pinned up in their attic of a flying tractor which I painted when I was at playschool… and that I have never really stopped drawing or painting since then.
When I was about 10, my parents got a call from the village school, asking them to attend a meeting with the Headmistress, Mrs Hedges. I can’t remember if I was present or not, but what transpired has been proudly retold so often that I know it off-by-heart; my parents waited ashen-faced for Mrs Hedges to relate tales of me stabbing classmates with a compass or some such awful infraction… only to find themselves smirking with still slightly ill-placed pride when they were instead told that I had been disrupting classmates still working by stridently humming Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture”, complete with cannons and everything.
Mrs Hedges recommended that another school might be better suited to my needs – and after a fair amount of soul (and wallet) searching, poor old mum and dad embarked on 15 or so years of stumping up for school fees for me, and then my brother and sister too, in turn. Who knows how things would have turned out if my course had been different, from the age of 10 onwards? I have wrested with the notion of private v. state education for some time; I initially embarked on my career as a teacher in a comprehensive school in South London, but have since reverted to teaching in a private school in Hampshire, echoing my own school days, and I can’t say I’ve ever been entirely comfortable with this, philosophically – but pragmatism has perhaps triumphed over the idealism with which I strode naively into my first classroom… More on that later.
Life at Edinburgh House School, with the slight rose-tint of fairly distant hindsight, now seems increasingly idyllic. There were only about 120 of us, as I recall (all boys), knocking about in a fairly big old mansion, with loads of grounds, including woods for camp-building, a small golf course, cricket nets, a zip-wire (can you imagine that in today’s Elf and Safety-conscious times?!) and so on. Our teachers were a mixed bunch, with a few real legends, including Mr Hartley, the eccentric French teacher who set me on my way to loving languages (and also retro comedy, through his introduction to old recordings of “Hancock’s Half Hour”). We were tackling O-Level standard material for fun, by the age of 12, me and my fellow classmates…
Of course, it wasn’t all joy unconfined. I was a very fussy eater, and school meals became a minefield to be negotiated with a range of skillful tricks; spreading the offending vegetables around the plate immediately prior to plate-stacking time, and squidging your neighbour’s plate swiftly on top of it, so as to hide the guilty secret; sweeping small quantities of food onto the floor in a cleverly clumsy manner; arranging to be one of the “assistant servers” on days when you knew that one of your least favourite meals was on the menu, so as to be able to cunningly serve yourself the minimum possible without attracting undue attention from the dreaded Mr Hutchinson and his hawk-like vision (and nose!).
I can still remember that Tuesday lunchtime as though it were yesterday. Coleslaw. Still have trouble with it, if I’m honest. I banked on the fact that nobody would notice one weedy little boy missing off my table… but hadn’t factored in Mr Pockett’s determination to ensure that all boys be subjected to coleslaw on his duty day. I felt sure that my hiding place in the dense bamboo section of the woods would keep me safe until the end of lunch… but Mr Pockett found me, and by the scruff of my neck I was brought back to take my punishment! The following year, things started to change; I remember Mrs Lamb and Mr Hutchinson having a stand-up row in lunch when she took our side in the great “Do All Pupils Have To Eat Prunes” battle…
Edinburgh House also first brought me into contact with a highly formative figure in my subsequent life, my late friend, mentor and Art teacher Mary de Castro. I have written about her before, here, so I won’t say more at length – suffice to say that she, perhaps as much as anyone outside my immediate family, has determined who I am and what I do, both as a person and as a professional educator. I still think of here every day, whenever I look at the painting she gave my wife and I for our wedding – and at the ones I painted at her house over a period of years, both when completely well and when going through periods of depression. I am nowhere near as good as Mary was at focusing on the positive, but I do it better than I used to, and her philosophy of cheerfully yet teeth-grittedly cajoling the best possible work out of all her pupils has influenced my own, without any doubt. Along with my consumption of cake and biccies… Being a pupil in Mary’s Art Room was not like being a pupil, really – I would say it was more akin to being a crew-mate on a creative pirate ship, setting your compass by the light of her incomparably infectious enthusiasm, and plundering the glittering islands along its course for treasure and goodies galore. Literal glittering islands, each Easter holiday, when she took groups of us to the Scilly Isles for painting holidays (see the picture at the top of the post…),where we had the freedom of the island of Tresco to live real-life Swallow and Amazon adventures… A couple of years ago, my current Headteacher themed his weekly assemblies using an extended metaphor of the school as a ship, and I think it works well, in the sense that everyone is a crewmate, and the school hasn’t truly reached its destination unless everyone on board buys in and contributes in their own way.
I still miss Mary.
After EHS, I had a go at the scholarship entrance exam for Canford School, and was subsequently told that, if I had written more than just my name on the Maths paper, I would have been given an award. However, I proved determinedly unwilling to compromise my belief that Maths was the work of the Devil, and in that way probably cost my mum and dad about £12,000… Which probably did mix itself into my tendency to beat myself up for stuff, in later years, yes! Life at Canford began badly – my arrival at the school coincided with the final throes of the old-fashioned bullying culture which many associate with boarding schools, and an event like having your head held under the hot water gushing out of a radiator spigot is not a very nice memory. This, along with the food thing from prep school, has I think made me a determined fighter against senseless bullying whenever I see it, and has got me in trouble a few times when I have done so without thinking about what could be the resultant outcome…
But as I moved up the school, Canford turned into a wonderful place to be. I will forever be grateful to my parents for affording me the opportunities presented to me – and for helping me be the kind of person that grasped these opportunities with both hands, whenever possible. Academic studies, art, drama, outward bound-style activities, leadership responsibilities… all within an atmosphere of tremendous security, imbued with the feeling that you could try stuff out without worrying about falling on your face, too much. As I said before, I struggle from time to time with the philosophical implications of teaching in a private school. I would love for every pupil to have the opportunities I was granted, and I know that it is perhaps naive to suggest that this be possible – but nothing from what I have just listed is dependent upon the nature of the school…
I left school aged 17 and a year abroad seemed to be a sensible idea for a rather immature person about to tackle a languages degree, so I headed for Paris, to work in a Beaubourg wine shop (thanks to the connections of another uncle). Don’t think I have ever done so much growing up in such a short period of time; initially accommodated in the rather small flat of my French penfriend’s family, I belatedly realised that I had overstayed my welcome, and suddenly found myself looking for a place to stay in a strange city. There were a few times over that year that I felt very alone, and this was one of them, although once I found my feet, I think it was also a tremendously formative time. And you can’t really complain when the view out of your tiny garret’s “kitchen” window includes la cathédrale de Notre-Dame de Paris… 😉
Paris is still my favourite place in the world (don’t tell my wife, an adopted Marseillaise!), and I feel like a different person whenever I get back there; almost as though redder blood flows in my veins, and I’m slightly taller. I can still smell the smells when I flick back through the sketchbooks I filled when I was there, and the various volumes of the diary I wrote that year are about 8 inches thick, all-in-all. (Excruciating reading, of course, but there you go!)
Before I headed for uni, I had a couple of months to kill, so I headed for my best schoolmate, by now back in Canada and about to start university himself, in Toronto. A “dry run” for my own Freshers’ Week proved anything but dry, and I woke up one morning on Colin’s hall of residence floor with my ear pierced, and nothing but a very fuzzy recall of how it had transpired! (Infuriatingly, when my mum came to pick me up from Heathrow a few weeks later on my return, she determinedly avoided mentioning it until we got home, despite me practically waving my earlobe in her direction and awaiting her explosion!)
Canada was another roller-coaster of experiences, ranging from the utterly incredible to the dreadfully lonely. My father’s heart trouble recurred, leaving me thousands of miles away and completely powerless to do anything to help my mum or the rest of my family. I still have a charcoal picture I made of how I felt at that time… head plunged in hands, background burned black with bleak despair as I contemplated a life without the opportunity to get to know him better, now that his time working far too hard to put us all through school was reaching an enforced end. Fortunately, he is still with us, and that opportunity has been granted me… we have shared some cherished moments over the past 20 years, and I am forever grateful for that. I am sure that my desire to grab nettles as they present themselves has much to do with this period in my life.
Next stop, Nottingham. I had tried to follow in my father’s footsteps, and aimed for Cambridge more out of a sense of duty rather than in the expectation of success – or indeed that it was the right course for me. His college happened to be the top one in the academic rankings for the past couple of years, as it turned out, and my chances were strictly limited, but hey… I got fished out of “the Pool” by two other colleges for interview, but when neither of them offered me a place even when I got my three As and 1 Distinction at S-level, I headed for Robin Hood Country! Rutland Hall was my home for the first year – the smallest Hall of Residence, but a tight-knit little community with a proud tradition of always raising the most cash for charity in the annual rag week extravaganza, which we maintained the year I joined, with bells on. Some of my best friends are people from the next four years, again extremely formative and incredibly rewarding. Memories from this time are a mixture of vivid and rather hazy! Educationally, I recall a strange mixture of professors, some of whom had an extraordinary mastery of their material but an almost cartoon-like inability to enthuse their audience with any real desire to engage with it. Others were perhaps more “down with the kids”, but lacked the intellectual weight to attract my attention. My favourite professor of the lot was Steve Bamforth, who lectured me in French Translation, and with whom I and my mates jousted merrily over the merits of our approaches to the texts at hand. Steve and I have in common our delight in (and belief in the educational value of) massive tangential swoops into areas entirely divergent from the actual subject matter of the lecture. My classes nowadays are fully cognizant of the need to keep their metaphorical seat-belts on in our lessons, lest the room hurtle suddenly and unpredictably in a totally different direction… What is a Scheme of Work, anyway, but a rough idea of what you may or may not be covering over a certain period of time? 😉
My proudest memory of my time at Nottingham remains this one… In my second year, I had taken part in a production of the stage version of “Zazie dans le métro” (I was Tonton Gabriel the transvestite, for those of you familiar with the film… nobody say “type-casting”!), which we had subsequently decided to take up to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, following a week of huge success on-campus. And that was that, until a week or three before we were due to head for Scotland, the executors of Louis Malle’s will (the director of the original movie) contacted us to say that we were to be denied permission to perform the play. Immediately almost everyone pulled out, leaving us with a venue booking but no cast or play! The six remaining stalwarts hurriedly found an alternative play (“Le Voyage de Monsieur Perrichon” – a very different piece of work, but the only one we could find that matched the acting personnel we had left!) and set off for Edinburgh. In the week before we opened, in Leith Masonic Lodge, we learned our lines; built the set; sorted out costumes; publicised the production on the streets of the city; watched the occasional other production (“War and Peace” as a one-man-show in a phone box, anyone?); rehearsed between 2 a.m. and 9 a.m., the only time when the venue was not being used by other productions; slept in our tents on a hillside outside the city. Bleurgh. And we DID it! Yes – there were never more people in the audience than there were onstage, and on the final night our tents were ripped to shreds by a big storm, forcing us into a barn for shelter… but we DID it. I learned an awful lot, that fortnight…
At this stage I still had no idea what I wanted to be if or when I grew up – and so having spent a year working on my French in Paris, I determined to spend the entire third year of my course in Germany and signed up, like many of my year-mates, as an English Assistant in a German school. In my case, this was the Mariengymnasium in Bocholt – a grammar school in a town famous for having the most bicycles per head of population in Europe. (Google it.)
I loved it.
I can honestly say that my life took a new direction from this point, and although readers of a previous blog post will know that teaching has not always been a rock-free road since then (in common with so many colleagues, as I have become aware), I would not have chosen any other path. I was rather surprised to find the classes of my English teacher-mentor rather unruly, rude and disengaged – not the orderly, efficient automatons I expected a combination of grammar school and German kids to be! And so when the teacher started to realise that he was going to be able to let me take over almost entirely and sneak off for a fag and a read of the paper in the staffroom, I started doing my own thing, not only in the sense both of subject matter and lesson plans, but also in terms of requiring the students to listen and face me when I was talking! OK, it wasn’t quite Samuel L Jackson in “187” (Google that too… ;), but it certainly meant that, by the time I did my real teaching practice 2 years later on, I had a bit of an advantage in that I knew more or less what would happen in certain scenarios, which buttons not to press, and so on.
And so on, after my final year back at Nottingham and a successful outcome (although I only really got my First after my mate Callie looked at my certificate and said “You got more than that in that module! Go and complain!” – thanks, Cal!), it was off to a brand-new joint PGCE/French Maîtrise de Français Langue Etrangère, based in South London for the teaching practice element and Aix-en-Provence for the 4 month compressed Masters segment. THE most challenging intellectual challenge of my life, the latter – one of two English students in a class of about 24, attending lectures in French on Linguistics, French history, educational theory… etc. and outscoring the French in one Unité de Valeur 🙂 Plus it was also where I met Catherine, who would ultimately become my wife, some years later…
Life in my first real teaching job, after qualifying, brought with it both the magical rewards and the harsh realities of an educator’s life. Again, I am not going to pick over old bones already covered in a previous post, but instead to choose to focus on the positives. Life at John Fisher School taught me the value of relationships both with colleagues and pupils – some of both I still count amongst my friends, despite having moved away many years ago. I cut my teeth on some pretty tricky groups, including one Year 8 group who I taught last thing on a Friday afternoon in my first year of teaching, and whose ranks were thinned by 8 permanent exclusions before Easter that year. I learned the difficulty of balancing a social life with the extra hours of marking, planning and paperwork that teaching practice can never really prepare you for, and how it can kill stone-dead a relationship if that relationship is not built to last.
A bit like one of my lessons, this post is meandering to a sort of close… I am now teaching French, German, ICT and PE to children between Y3 and Y11 in a private school in the New Forest, and in the 12 years I have been there have enjoyed every minute of it and hated every second, depending on when you ask me. I have thrown myself into all areas of school life, and learned the hard way the vital skill of when to say “no”. I have developed my own way of doing things – and this has coincided with the advent of social media, and with the upsurge in networking between educators across the UK and the World, and the ability for an individual to share ideas, resources and materials with colleagues from New Milton to New Zealand. I have participated in TeachMeets and MFL Show and Tells from Newcastle to Oldham to Coventry to London, and even Northern Ireland, via the miracle of Skype. I have seen the rise and rise of the awesome MFL Twitterati! And all this has been accomplished despite the old Black Dog grinning in my rear-view mirror, from time to time, and it is what I am going to keep on doing until I am well past 70, probably, if that nice Mr Gove has his way…
My name is Alex Bellars, and that is who I am and what I do.