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"Chesh" bows out after 36 years!

Monday, 17 July, 2017 -- Helen Wilson

Retirement: the dreaded “R” word that the late and much lamented Tony Earl never allowed anyone to use when referring to his life after Eltham College. It seems strange that I am also now moving towards that milestone, particularly when the great majority of my contemporaries are still working. In fact, there is even one Eltham College teacher from our Sixth Form days (Jan Pringle) who is still going to be teaching at the school when I am no longer here.

But it isn’t really early retirement. I will be 60 in September and, much as I have loved teaching, I feel that 36 years of it (if you count teaching practice and a brief early stint at Eltham in 1981) is probably enough. I have plenty of other things to keep me occupied in the coming years.

My first experience of teaching was that brief time just mentioned, when I was called in at short notice to cover, part-time and for just a few weeks, for staff illness. Fresh out of university, I found myself joining the staff together with a number of now legendary characters; Julian Yarnold, Tim Hotham, Mark Stickings, Ian Thomson, Stephen Tint and others. This was an exciting time to be a young teacher at Eltham and so after a PGCE and seven years at a rural comprehensive school I jumped at the opportunity to join the staff permanently.

I joined the school as Head of German in succession to Mark Stickings in 1990. Having been in Tony Earl’s tutor group it seemed logical to be joining a department run by him and I hope that just a little of the personal commitment to pupils which he showed to us as Sixth Formers may have rubbed off. It was not in any way strange to be joining my old school as a teacher, partly because Tony had kept in touch as he was so marvellously good at doing, and partly because some of the 1981 intake of young staff had already become friends. It was also my eighth year of full-time teaching, so I already looked at schools with the eyes of a teacher rather than a pupil.

I was Head of German for 13 years, exactly the same length of time as my successor in the role, Ben Pollard. The two things I am most proud of from that time were our full-length production of Biedermann und die Brandstifter, performed in German in 1993, and the thriving contacts with our friends at our partner school the Besselgymnasium in Minden.

For me personally 13 years as a Head of Department was enough. I enjoyed the role but did not always enjoy the stress that inevitably comes around exam time. So when Ben Pollard and I swapped roles it was a move that was good for both of us. It meant I could develop a major new interest by teaching Religious Studies and, particularly, philosophy of religion alongside the usual German and occasional bit of French. Learning a new subject to teach is, of course, a major undertaking, but it’s not one which I have regretted for even a moment. It also paved the way for the activity which will be at the centre of my next few years, being a Licensed Lay Minister in the Church of England.

I am very pleased that there are now more OEs on the teaching staff than ever before. I have never understood why a bright Sixth Former or undergraduate should not see teaching as a high aspiration and the opportunities which I have been privileged to enjoy as a teacher at Eltham have been astonishing. How else could I have sung at Mass in St Mark’s Venice, or helped Sixth Formers to plan lessons to teach in a school in Tanzania, or accompanied a “side” of eleven-year-old Morris Men to perform Mummers’ plays outside a beer tent in Germany? And I have no hesitation in identifying the many years as a Year Seven tutor, unglamorous as that sounds compared with these highlights, as the most enjoyable, important and fulfilling role which I played in my teaching career.

The world has changed a great deal since I joined the school as a pupil in 1969. But there is much about Eltham College that has stayed essentially the same. And I hope that this will still be the case another 48 years down the line.