'I'm ordinary, not a hero'

23rd March 2007 at 00:00
These teachers lead a double life: they're not just heroic in the classroom but outside it too. Yet often pupils, and even colleagues, have no idea that they spend their spare time putting themselves on the front line.

Celia Dodd talks to three teachers who hate being labelled heroes AUSTIN VINCE, ADVENTURE MOTORCYCLIST

Austin Vince, 41, became a legend in the world of adventure motorcycling when he and a group of friends took a year out to ride the longest land route round the world in the shortest possible time - 14 months. The television shows of their epic trips became cult viewing and Ewan McGregor's team sought their advice before the actor made his own world trip. Vince teaches maths at a prep school in Northwood, Middlesex.

I have a dual existence. If my colleagues saw the motorcycling part of my life they'd think it was completely mad; all they know is that I motorcycle to work, just like the IT technician. Yet in the world of adventure motorcycling I am universally well-known.

I don't want the kids to say 'Sir, that's amazing' when I talk about my trips -Jand they were much more impressed when I was on That'll Teach 'Em on Channel 4 - but I would love it if I had encouraged them to go on a big bike trip when they are grown up. I try to drip feed the message that almost anything in life can be achieved with a small amount of determination.

I'm an ordinary guy, not a hero. For both trips - Mondo Enduro (a 44,000 mile trip) in 1995 and Terra Circa (22,000 miles) in 2001 - we had no sponsorship, no skill and no particular expertise. Our bikes were small and second-hand and we were totally unprepared - despite more than two years'

planning. We had several crashes and breakdowns and there were soul-crushing, awful times when we felt completely out of our depth.

The worst was in the Zilov Gap in Siberia, where there was literally no road and the mud meant it could take three hours to cover 300 metres. The scariest moment was in Mexico, when we were convinced we were going to be shot but that was just our ridiculous, middle-class imaginations.

If I hadn't gone on those trips I'd have a mortgage and a nice house by now; instead I live on a canal boat. I absolutely love teaching, but motorcycling is my life.


Anne Robertson, 44, is a member of the Cave Rescue Organisation, the busiest cave rescue team in Britain, a charity that operates in the north of England; so is her husband, Nigel. Anne teaches French and PE at Queen Elizabeth School in Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria, and has two sons, Lachlan, 12 and Aonghas, seven.

I was called out last Christmas Day evening when a caver broke his pelvis 200 feet underground. It took the 70-strong team 12 hours to get him out.

Sometimes we get calls at weekends when we're just about to go out with the boys. The boys don't seem to mind as we've taken them both caving and they quite enjoy the fact that we're involved in the rescue team.

I go out on about five rescues a year; when I was single I did more. Now that we have children Nigel and I try not to go out together in case either of us has an accident. But if there is a big shout we both go. Incidents vary from people who are too cold and tired to carry on, to fractured limbs, head injuries and hypothermia. Sometimes we deal with fatalities. It can be dangerous, and sometimes our members get into difficulties. Once I was almost swept away trying to get into a cave where a lot of water goes underground when it floods. I lost my footing and got pulled under. Because we always go in teams and I was attached to a rope the other members of the team managed to get me out. But it was scary. In the end it was just too dangerous so we had to wait until the water levels dropped and it was safe enough to go in.

A rescue like that certainly makes you think twice about putting yourself on the front line all the time. But cave rescue isn't something you can be half-hearted about. At the end of the day if somebody needs rescuing and it's a life or death situation you just have to have a go. The rescue team is on call all the time. Occasionally we have call-outs during the school day and when I get back the class asks where I've been. They think it's quite exciting.

My colleagues are understanding; the caving community is very much part of the wider community. We often get called out for Duke of Edinburgh groups who are lost or cold so I think people are aware that one day it might be our pupils.



David Perkin, 51, left, is assistant mechanic on the Exmouth lifeboat and teaches ICT and design and technology at Exmouth Community College in East Devon. He has a son, Paul, 24 and daughter, Sarah, 22 I've pulled pupils out of the water now and again - they're not always that impressed to see me, but I don't broadcast what I do on the lifeboat at school. It's just something I've always done, same as my dad and my grandad. I never worry about the danger; I get more worried on my motorbike.

Once I was in the smaller, in-shore boat when it was caught by a big wave and capsized. I think we all thought we might drown; you can't swim when the sea is really rough and you're wearing a lifejacket. But we were fortunate; we were washed ashore.

I get called away from school two or three times a year; most shouts are in the evenings. The governors are supportive: they have a pager and when mine goes off they find another teacher to cover for me.

I always go straight to school after a shout, even when I've been up all night and I'm exhausted. I've even turned up with my pyjamas under my jeans. My attitude is it's your lesson, your job, so you've got to get on with it.

The majority of lifeboat work is fun, but now and again it's hard.

Drownings go with the territory. Often when you're out searching you know deep down it's a lost cause, but you have to carry on. What is more upsetting is coming back and meeting parents who've lost their kids and you haven't been able to find them

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