Illness as an educator #lessonswecanlearnfromteachers

14 March 2016

This article is an extract from a forthcoming book, The Long Game: The Lessons We Can Learn From Long-Serving Teachers. The aim was to interview long-serving teachers, listen to their stories and see if I could draw out any lessons from their experiences. Constructive comments are welcome; they will help me make it a better book.

It appears that it wasn’t school that caused Barry Wellington to fall in love with his specialist subject, History, but a bout of serious illness. Barry, who grew up in the 1950s in a very remote tiny Cornish village, Sweethouse, told me at his home:

I wanted to do History from the age of eight. I was quite ill in that period, people would bring me books and things because I was off school for about a term, I had quite severe bronchitis. I didn’t seem to be getting over it. People kept bringing me history books to read. I found I was reading avidly to pass the time. I read the Pageant of History and soon could trot off all the Kings and Queens of England. I was a good reader and have always loved reading. I read Jane Eyre at the age of eight. I didn’t entirely understand it, but I was determined to get through it. I think I loved History because I grew up in a community which was quite old fashioned, full of remnants of the past, and I surrounded by the artefacts of history as a consequence. I’ve always been a visual learner; my father had a friend who had pictures on the walls. Prince Albert, Princess Alexandra, and Gladstone were hanging there because it was a liberal area. My grandmother too had a picture which has always fascinated me an engraving of David Wilkie’s ‘Chelsea Pensioners Receiving the London Gazette Extraordinary of Thursday, June 22 1815, Announcing the Battle of Waterloo’.It took me three hundred quid and thirty five years to find another engraving because they are rare. I’ve had that one framed (points to it hanging on his wall). I was quizzy and curious as a child and asked all about the pictures, learning about history in the process. Because my family didn’t have a huge amount of money, they had furnished the house in about 1900, it was much the same in the 1950s. So I grew up with these Victorian artefacts and pictures all around me.  I loved to spend time with them. My grandmother was invalid, and she would talk about the past; she was a land girl in the First World War, and she had got nice stories about it. I had to sit with my great-grandfather, who was born in the 1870s, because he was blind, and he used to tell me what it was like working for the Viscount on the local estate. He’d seen Queen Victoria, the thought of which entranced me. So you see there was all that contact with the past; it was very vibrant and informed.

The best thing is that I could listen: I used to find out what people thought about things through listening. And I can retain. Above all, I lived these stories in my imagination because they were fascinating.

It is interesting how Barry’s true love of history happened, in part, because he was ill and entertained himself with the history books he was given. However, as he points out, there were other factors at play: he was surrounded by the visual reminders of the past in the general “mis-en-scene”. Furthermore, the stories of his elderly relatives gave him a strong, living link to history. Unlike other those teachers who grew up in a London which was re-built all around them, Barry’s locale was very similar to what it had been a hundred years before. His consciousness of this was unusual I think; there is a sense that his illness made him aware of the fragility and fleetingness of life and that when his relatives died much of what would remain of their past would be his memories of their stories.

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