Pop goes the teacher

10th October 2003 at 01:00
Who needs a career with EastEnders and Pink Floyd when there's a class out there waiting to be taught? Lisa Hutchins explains why Geoff Benson returned to the job he loves

Have you ever dreamed about giving up teaching for a more glamorous and well-paid career? Well, meet Geoff Benson, the man who quit the job of a lifetime in the music business to return to the classroomI because he missed teaching. He turned his back on a career that saw him work with household names such as Pink Floyd, Paul Simon, Whitney Houston, Fleetwood Mac and Duran Duran.

Mr Benson, 50, is a class teacher and ICT co-ordinator at Geoffrey Field junior school in Whitley, Reading, a deprived area in an otherwise prosperous town. As a college-leaver in the 1970s, he had taken the decision to teach nursery infants - unusual for a man then.

"Very simply, the reason I chose to do it is that I like children," he says. "I wasn't sure if I wanted to be a teacher. But I did my first teaching practice and I thought: 'This is great'. After qualifying, I taught for just over four years in Reading, but then I left teaching completely."

This sudden career change had its roots in his college years and a summer job at the Reading rock festival. After qualifying, he stuck with his festival work during the school holidays. "Through that, I got a job with the company behind the festival. It was the job of a lifetime. I had to give it a go."

That led to a post at Shepperton Studios working on music video lighting for the likes of Duran Duran and the Sisters of Mercy, and television commercials for British Airways. He went on to work for Britannia Row Productions, Pink Floyd's company. Their clients then were big names such as Paul Simon and Whitney Houston.

A period in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire, saw him working with Marillion and Level 42, before he moved into television; after Top of the Pops, EastEnders and The Tube, he worked on Jean Michel Jarre's "Destination Docklands" extravaganza in 1988.

But the next show changed everything: "I was approaching 40. It was the biggest show I ever did, an outdoor event in a football stadium for the Sultan of Oman." The Sultan was celebrating his birthday, and also unveiling a new economic policy.

"It was just after the first Gulf War," says Geoff, "and I remember flying out and seeing the burning oilfields. I was representing my company with a staff of about 15 to 20. I had to do the financial negotiations with the Omani government.

"I remember saying, 'Right - this is the top. This is the highest I can ever get in this career. And it is not enough.'

"And I thought: 'This is great, it is a really good job, but ultimately it doesn't matter'."

After talking it over with his wife, he took a courageous decision - to return to primary schools. "I had been out of teaching for 12 years, and the national curriculum had been introduced. The first day was a bit hectic, but it's the old thing about being able to ride a bike. I must admit, on the first day back, I couldn't even find the pedals. But it was OK. And never, ever, since that point, have I regretted going back to teaching."

After two terms on a temporary contract, Mr Benson went to Geoffrey Field, switching to junior teaching simply because that was the job on offer. He was delighted to be back in the classroom - and is determined to stay there.

"I don't want to be a headteacher. I have done management. I have got that out of my system."

Now in his tenth year, he is still going strong - although subject to the male primary teacher's occupational hazard of being called Miss. "They know I'm Mr Benson, but Miss is their word for a teacher. It doesn't bother me."

He feels his experiences in other walks of life have left him with a different outlook, and with more to offer pupils, especially boys. "I feel strongly that boys need men around, particularly in the earlier years. A lot of children we teach in Reading, like anywhere else, are from single-parent families. It's about seeing there's not one way to be as men, but lots of different ways. I think there is a real big issue for young boys growing up in society nowadays.

Charlie Clare, the headteacher at Geoffrey Field, acknowledges how valuable this different perspective is. "Geoff is an inspirational teacher. He has lost none of the initial enthusiasm for teaching that made him give up his career in the entertainment business. "He still gets excited about children's learning. They sense his enthusiasm and go the extra mile for him."

As well as Mr Benson the teacher and Mr Benson who has worked on EastEnders, his pupils sometimes see Mr Benson the family man.

"When my own children come to my school, my class sees me being a father.

They know where I live, I talk about decorating my bathroom, and I talk about disputes I have with my own children, and how I resolve them, or not.

"They see me at Reading Football Club, my other passion in life. The boys see that it's OK to be a boy. Because I think a lot of the signals they receive are that actually it isn't. And I do think that boys get a tough break in primary school."

How do pupils react to his earlier career?

"They find the television work exciting. Less so the pop groups - they haven't necessarily heard of Pink Floyd."

Still, age has its consolations. "It is nice to have males in schools who are not all in their early twenties. I have just turned 50, and I can still teach PE and, as I say to them, maybe my hair's gone, but I can still hear you."

But his days of visiting the Reading Festival are over. "No, I don't go any more. That part of my life is past."

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