Master builder

21st April 2000 at 01:00
In his other job, teacher Robert Hall is a plumber,a bricklayer, a carpenter and a plasterer. Andy Farquarson meets the man with the mortar board.

Robert Hall lives and works in the heart of the Black Country. Once described as "the workshop of the world", it is an area with a strong tradition of skilled craftsmanship and Mr Hall, 50, is no stranger to getting his hands dirty. You are as likely to find him digging drains or slating a roof as sitting behind a desk. For while most of us have a stab at DIY from time to time, Mr Hall, teacher placement organiser for Sandwell education business partnership, says building is his greatest passion.

Despite this admission, he says he finds his "day job" extremely rewarding. "The partnership shows teachers what business offers and how it functions. Every teacher is a careers teacher in that they communicate a hidden curriculum about the world of work. By giving them time away from the classroom, my job liberates teachers to learn."

After school in his native Gloucester, Mr Hall trained at the West Midlands college of education as a primary teacher before starting his career at Leamore junior school, Walsall, in 1970. After two years, he moved to Hamstead infants school in neighbouring West Bromwich.

"I loved teaching that age group - it taught me a great deal. I learned not to expect too much of children; it's better to let them grow and develop. When I started, child-centred learning was very much to the fore. Nowadays teaching is much more curriculum-centred. There needs to be a balance between the two approaches. Unfortunately, the history of education is characterised by swings from one dogma or enthusiasm to another, when the best course is usually the middle way."

His passion for building goes back nearly as far as his career. When he and his wife were both newly qualified teachers - they now have two sons and a daughter - cash was tight, although they found a terrace house they could afford.

"The trouble was it had been 'modernised' by a real cowboy builder," says Mr Hall. "The work had been badly done, it was unfinished and it failed the building inspection. A dispute between the builder and the mortgage company meant the work was unlikely to be completed and I realised we faced substantial bills if we hired professionals to put it right." So he decided to have a go himself.

"It was a daunting prospect," he says. "I went to the local library and read just about everything they had on building and home improvement." His reading paid off - he completed the outstanding work to the standards required by building regulations.

"My first job was the plumbing. I had to redo the entire central heating system, and that included digging up a solid floor to uncover the pipework." But that was only the beginning - he then had to tackle flooring, rewiring and plastering. "When the inspector passed the work, I was immensely proud," says Mr Hall. "But the satisfaction went much deeper than simply meeting regulations. Here was something real, enduring, solid, that I had achieved. Every day I could see the results of my efforts."

So how does this sense of completion and visible result compare with the rewards of a classroom career? "Teaching is all about interpersonal relationships. Because learning is a lifelong experience, and a teacher may be with a class for only one academic year, it is often difficult to see any immediate outcome of your effort, let alone the end product. You know, of course, that you are doing something worthwhile and you hope you are making a real contribution to the lives of your pupils. But you seldom have the reward of seeing the outcome."

By cntrast, the outcome of his handiwork brought a tangible reward. His house was snapped up in two days when he put it on the market - he believes his hand-built pitched slate roof (which replaced a felted flat one on an extension at the back) clinched the sale. There was another benefit, too:

"There's a lot of arithmetic involved in building a traditional roof, and the joinery work taught me a great deal about geometry - practical mathematics which I could pass on to pupils."

After 11 years at Hamstead infants, Mr Hall transferred to the junior school on the same site. For a year, he divided his time between the two establishments because the staff complement of each required half a teacher. "I was part-time for both and that added up to a full-time post," he explains. "It was a fascinating experience, shuttling from one world to another. One staffroom would be an oasis of tranquillity, the other a whirlpool." He spent a further nine years at the junior school before taking up his present post in 1992.

He's now rebuilt a second house, still his home, and has worked on two dozen other properties for friends, relatives and colleagues. "Word soon gets around," he smiles. "All the skills I've learned have been driven by people's needs." The list of jobs is impressive - foundations and footings, roofing, bricklaying, replacing solid and boarded floors, renewing ceilings, complete hot and cold water systems, window and door fittings, plastering, dry-lining, electrical work, painting and decorating, installing drains, fencing, laying paths and patios.

Such a multifaceted passion doesn't come cheap. He estimates that he has amassed around pound;10,000-worth of building equipment over the years. "I'm fanatical about good quality tools," he says, "and I invest in manuals and copies of building regulations." But not all of his skills are acquired from books. He learned bricklaying at night school, for example, and has picked up countless tips from professional builders and other keen amateurs.

And he admits this experience has made him a staunch traditionalist. Take, for instance, window frames. "A good wooden window frame will last forever if it's maintained and painted properly. Some of the windows in my present house are more than 100 years old."

Unsurprisingly, holidays are a busy time for Robert Hall. Last summer was typical: rather than putting his feet up or going away, he spent the whole break on building work. "I often worked 10-hour days," he says. "I not only got the satisfaction of the end result but, after a term spent at a desk, the physical effort made me fit again."

What sort of building work really gets him going? "Anything challenging. I particularly enjoy learning new techniques, tackling the unfamiliar, stretching myself. My current project is certainly testing my bricklaying skills." The "project" is a garden wall - but not the low front-garden affair a beginner might tackle. This one will be head-height, and more than 75ft long. It will eventually contain 3,500 bricks.

And what of the future? Robert Hall realises redundancy from teaching is always a possibility. "If I had to leave education, I would love to run a small building firm," he says. "Teaching calls for a lot of organisational ability and, perhaps without realising it, teachers develop management skills which can be applied to business. I've also found that clear communication is essential when you're working on other people's property and if teaching is about anything, it's about effective communication. And in both building and teaching, you are investing in the future - both demand integrity, both have long and honourable traditions."

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