In for the long haul

12th September 2003 at 01:00
Nigel Welch has two loves: teaching and travel. So he splits his working life between a London primary school and the cabin of a British Airways 747. David Newnham meets a real high-flyer

Nigel Welch will never be bored in his work. After a month in the classroom at his north London school, he steps on to a plane and flies halfway round the world. Then, before the high life has a chance to pall, he's back at Byron Court primary, in the borough of Brent, preparing for Sats or providing lesson cover for his full-time colleagues.

At 44, Nigel believes he has found the ideal work arrangement, dividing his year equally between teaching and working as a member of a British Airways cabin crew based at Heathrow airport.

His teaching career started in 1981 when he worked for five years at a middle school in Ealing and then for a further two years in Brent. But although he loved teaching, Nigel also had an urge to travel. "I had very itchy feet," he says, "and teaching salaries of the day wouldn't have got me to Margate. So I hit on this ideal combination, doing a bit of supply teaching and seeing other schools in the borough, but also doing a bit of flying on a part-time contract with BA." Before long, he was hooked on flying. "I absolutely loved meeting people and I fitted into it straight away."

When BA offered him a full-time contract after four months, he took it, and for the next seven years did not teach at all. But when in the mid-1990s BA began offering part-time contracts again, Nigel found himself drawn back to that dream dual career.

Now, he has a month-on, month-off contract with BA and works 16 days over two months at ByronCourt. "There's no contract in teaching where you can work one month on, one month off," he says. "But I'm very lucky to have a supportive head and an excellent deputy. I count in their figures as 0.4 of a member of staff, two days a week, although I do the lion's share of it in my non-flying month."

Byron Court's headteacher, Timothy Jones, is happy with the arrangement.

"It works very well," he says. "It's actually quite good to have people in your staffroom who have experience of a world other than schools. It adds a different perspective."

Nigel Welch's colleagues - in both jobs - find his parallel life intriguing.

"I spend the entire time talking about my other job," he says. "It's really quite weird. Cabin crew are desperately interested to know what goes on in school, and teachers are desperately interested to know what goes on when you're flying. So when I first went back to teaching, I was bursting to know about all the changes in education, but nobody wanted to tell me. They just wanted to know where had I been and what had I been doing.

"Likewise in flying. Because a lot of people have children or godchildren, they want to know what does this mean and what are Sats and what age should a child be reading and so on. Sometimes I want to say, 'Let's just talk about the job on the day'."

If that day happens to be a flying day, then Nigel's job as a purser means he is in charge of a cabin - either first, club or world traveller class - on a 747 or 777, bound for just about anywhere in the world.

"I only do long-haul trips. Sixty per cent of those are to the States, and the remainder are outside Europe. The further afield you go, the more time off you have, so you get adequate rest." These stopovers usually last a minimum of 24 hours. But they can be for two nights, and sometimes even three. Which means that when he's not in the classroom, Nigel really is seeing the world.

"People always ask me where is my favourite place, but it's impossible to narrow it down. Sydney, Singapore, New York and Rio are my top spots. But everywhere is so different that I have at least two favourite places on each continent."

And, incredible as it might seem, there are occasions when Nigel really would prefer to be in the classroom rather than jetting around the world.

Like when his flying days clash with a key point in the school year.

"It's one of the downsides of having a fixed 28 days on and 28 days off flying," he explains. "The last time we had Sats it was on my flying block.

I would love to have gone in and given the kids a little bit of extra boosting, but I was in Bangladesh and New York.

"A lot of people can't always see the benefits of their job from within full-time teaching or flying, but when you have both, then you really appreciate them both."

And although it would be hard to find two jobs that are apparently so different, NigelWelch believes they have much in common. "People skills are vital to both," he says, "and if I'm really honest, I don't think I had that many until I joined British Airways. Flying has taught me so much about managing and organising large groups of people, and that's relevant to teaching.

"Then there are communication skills. Obviously you have to alter your approach. I've never been tempted to tell customers to sit down and get on with their work, and I don't think I've ever asked a child whether they want chicken or beef - not yet, anyway. But although the customer has different needs from the child and other teachers, they still have expectations of you.

"I've also learned from both jobs that preparation is vital. But probably the most important of the transferable skills I have learned is being able to think on my feet.

"I don't think I was very flexible when I was a full-time teacher. I think I was formal, more worried about getting the lesson done and following the scheme of work to the letter.

"But if you're doing something that is unpalatable to either the child or the customer, then you have to rethink it; working with BA has taught me that. There's no blueprint, and that's why I like it."

It's one of the aspects of the job that attracts people from all sorts of professions, and Nigel often finds himself working alongside doctors, nurses and police officers, as well as other teachers and ex-teachers. And with retirement age for cabin crew now set at 55, he reckons on maintaining his ideal lifestyle for another decade at least.

"Teachers say to me, 'Why are you teaching when you could be flying around the world?' and cabin crew say to me, 'Why are you here when you could be in the classroom moulding the future generation?' But I have a foot in both worlds. I have been able to pull the two main strands of my life together, and I don't want to change that unless I have to."

Does he not find having two high-adrenalin jobs just a bit scary? "You hear horror stories, in the classroom and in aeroplanes," he says. "But I've been lucky so far. After September 11, things changed in terms of security, but not in terms of morale. People are more resilient than we give them credit for.

"And it's the same in the classroom. When I went back to teaching, I realised that it had changed in every way, but also that it hadn't changed at all."

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