Man who stepped off a cliff

11th June 2004 at 01:00
Tony Wilson was so good at telling stories that he decided to give up FE lecturing and do it full time. Martin Whittaker reports

Once upon a time there was a further education lecturer who found he had a real talent for telling stories. As he entertained a group of young children one day, a colleague told him: "You're good at this - you should do it for a living." So he did.

And he is living happily ever after. It is now five years since Tony Wilson gave up teaching at North Tyneside college to become a full-time professional storyteller. Since then he has worked in 600 schools and colleges across the UK, from the Shetland Isles to the south coast.

He works with mothers and babies in family centres, with primary-age children to improve their creative thinking and writing, and with pupils in education action zones. His skills are increasingly in demand in further education. A growing proportion of his work is in storytelling workshops for teachers and nursery nurse training in FE colleges.

"The Government is giving a great push towards creativity and they're trying to emphasise that it's not just the writing skills, it's also the content," he says. "And a lot of education action zones are recognising the need to develop creativity in children and adults."

Tony Wilson's career path is as long and varied as his collection of tales.

After gaining a degree in zoology he spent much of the 1970s as a singer in folk clubs in Germany and Holland. "I was very lucky as a child - my father and mother used to tell me stories all the time," he says. "But my own experience of storytelling started with my children, who are now in their early 20s."

As a parent helper in his children's primary school he became interested in teaching and took a postgraduate certificate in education in his mid-30s.

Then after seven years as a primary school teacher he moved into further education and became a lecturer in early-years development.

"I was working with nursery nurses," he says. "I went to a nursery one day and lots of the children were ill. While the nursery nurse and teacher were mopping up after children being sick, I said I'd tell a story to the children. And the teacher said you could do that for a living.

"So while I was still part-time lecturing, I tested the water. I did a bit of market research and wound up doing a few schools for free to see whether I could do it. And when the work was coming in so much that I was having to turn work down, because of the lecturing, I just decided to do it full time. I stepped off the cliff."

Tony, aged 51, from South Shields, tells tales from a variety of sources.

Many are traditional stories like The Gingerbread Man, Little Red Riding Hood and Jack and the Beanstalk. Others are folk tales whose origins include Northumberland, Slovakia, India, Japan and Native American. He collects tales from storytelling clubs and by poring over manuscripts at the Literary and Philosophical Society library in Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tony also writes his own stories. He says his experience as a teacher and a performer gives him an insight into how to give children confidence and strategies to develop their creative work.

Schools have employed him to develop creative writing and tell stories linked to school book weeks and personal social and health education projects, as well as in-service training workshops for teachers. He has also worked with FE colleges in Durham, using storytelling to help students who struggle with writing essays. "I would go in and demonstrate how a story would sound and how you could make up a story. It's getting them to put pen to paper and realising that the world won't come to an end if you write a sentence in the wrong place."

And he runs training for nursery nurses, looking at how storytelling can be used to give children important messages.

"It's not just the fact that there was Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

There are messages in there about not wandering away from home," he says.

Does he miss his old day job? "When the work wasn't coming in as much as the mortgage would need, there were times when I thought what on earth have I done?

"But five years later, I'm absolutely convinced that it was the right thing to do. I think storytelling gives us understanding of social structure, it gives us morals, it teaches us how to communicate. In some instances it gives us coping strategies.

"A lot of the time in TV soaps it seems to be crisis management all the time, where people fall out and kill each other. Whereas a lot of the traditional stories show how people can overcome conflict."

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