Breaking out, last years in Portugal

Was there ever a time in your working life when you had just had enough?  This is my story.

The oil industry traditionally is one of boom and bust.  One day you are a Chief Geophysicist working on prospects off West Africa for the World Bank, the next you are giving extra English lessons to a German teenager.  So it goes.

I was rescued, if that’s the right word, by a kindly head teacher who was looking out both for my kids and his school I think.  The school thought the time right to introduce Information Technology to students from Year 3 through to Year 9.  In later years the students could optionally take computing at GCSE and IB (International Baccalaureate) levels under the guidance of the Head of IT who was also the IB Coordinator.

In those days it was difficult to find IT professionals who would take up a relatively low paid job teaching in Portugal.  Portugal in the 80’s was still finding its feet as a newish democracy quite different to that of today, although that’s a story for another time.

With my colleague, an excellent teacher of both keyboard and life skills, we set up a program of Information Technology in Years 3-6 (without computers) and another of Years 7-9 with some pretty basic office software running on the Amstrad PCW 8256.  This machine was designed as a Word Processor but could be used for more general tasks thanks to the CP/M operating system.  The older students used it for coding.  With one floppy drive they had first to save their word-processed Pascal code and then load a compiler to turn it into machine code they could then run.  A slow process but it did teach them to carefully hand-check their code before compiling.

In years 7-9 we used a package called Mini Office Professional to teach spreadsheets and databases for the CLAIT computer literacy programme as well as the built-in word processor LocoScript.

In Years 3-6 I developed a pre-IT curriculum based around concepts like Logo but all done on paper.  Students had to give instructions to guide a mouse through a maze for example.  They also learnt touch-typing with my colleague.  Both my son and my daughter have been very grateful users of that particular skill.

Better times were to come.  In my second year I was allowed to teach GCSE and a year or two after that IB Computer Science.  My senior colleague returned to the UK and I was promoted to Head of Computing Services and also appointed an IB Examiner for Computer Science.

All seemed quite rosy, my wife was a great success as the leader of the school fund-raising body and there were times when we, as a family, counted upwards of one million escudos in donations to the school.  Later, in the90’s she worked as a Librarian in the school.

Now the story turns a little sour.  I took over the leadership of the Staff Association (quite the mistake).   All was going well when an accountant with a vision showed up on the school executive board.  This guy was going to turn the school around with his Vision 2000 plan, we are going to have ultra-modern facilities, swimming pools, sport complexes, you name it.  The wife’s “pot and jam” activities weren’t going to cut it, we had to pay a professional fund-raiser to do the job.  We also hired a number of very highly paid consultants to put bones on this vision.  How many of these people were freemasons and the like is unknown and probably always will be.  I certainly personally received more than one funny handshake.

Of course, the school finances went down the toilet, the fund raiser was a net loss, by how much we’ll never know but suddenly there was no money, except that he got paid!  Negotiating a fair pay deal for staff was a nightmare, we had to threaten a strike, the kindly head teacher retired and was replaced by a man from the UK who, to be fair to him, was left in a very difficult situation.  I was a little too fired up myself at the way things had developed and at the same time had caused a bit of a storm by challenging the way the school’s governing body made its decisions (each founding member had 10 votes, the parents had one each – if they were English otherwise none!).

We were now a vastly under-resourced school for whom the cuts went as deep as not being able to buy textbooks.  One positive outcome was that I wrote a full set of notes for IB Computer Science which I was later able to turn into a website and subsequently a co-authored textbook for the subject.

In my final year I was miserable.  I had already made up my mind to quit whatever happened next.  My kids had completed their final years and were either in the UK or headed there.  I was ill often, not just the weather or the usual viruses that spread around a school but one of those emotions that leaves a sick, hollow feeling of desperation inside.

A colleague and I went to a job fair in London.  I snagged plum job in Singapore and have never looked back.  I was especially grateful that the two interviewers from the school declined to take references from my Head and Deputy Head teachers. Those two had certainly scuppered my chances of moving the previous year by giving, at the least, those kind of references that damn with faint praise.  I remain convinced they did that because it would have cost them dearly to recruit a competent IT teacher from the UK.

I’m very grateful for the education my children received although I’m not sure they both appreciated it or what was going on in the background. We still have friends in Portugal and visit when we can, most of the sixteen years we spent there were good ones after all.

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