Stories from our international boarding schools

Meet the team: Neil Abbott, EF Academy Torbay

 

Today, we’re interviewing another member of our amazing EF Academy staff. Pathway Manager Neil Abbott was kind enough to let us ask him about his life, career, and role at EF Academy Torbay. Grab a cup of tea and have a read about one of the team members helping to make life on campus feel like home.

1. Can you tell me a bit about your background?

I think my background can be defined in two ways; my career background and my emotional background.

My career background has seen me progress through a variety of different roles, all of which have been closely linked to interacting with people, of all ages. I have worked in sales, in sales/admin roles, and then from 1985-2013 in local protestant churches as a minister.

I trained at a Bible college from 1985-1988 and was then unleashed on the unsuspecting church population! Like so many newly ordained ministers, filled with all the new knowledge gained in college, I was persuaded that I would have the opportunity to both change the world and change the church. It never crossed my mind that it might change me instead, but change me it did!

Today, I am still involved in a local church but only as a member. So much for my career background, and now onto something far juicier; the emotional background! I believe that my emotional background is the sort of thing that a psychiatrist dreams of, to have me on their couch and poke around in my soul!

As a young boy, I was quite bright, top of the class material, and I quickly learned that by being so, I could gain the approval, affirmation, and ultimately the love, of my mom. I had inadvertently picked up a message of conditional love that would shape me for years to come. On top of all this, just before my 11th birthday, my dear father had a heart attack that all but killed him. Over the next five years, he had several more, before succumbing to a final illness just in the middle of my exams at the age of 15-16. My secondary education was in this way, neatly book-ended by the beginning of his ill health and his eventual demise. A beautiful symmetry, but not the type of symmetry that one ever wishes for!

I know what it is to be a teenager struggling with insecurities and fears and pressures. I believe this helps me to engage with and relate to people. These two aspects of who I am come together perfectly, I think, and provide me with the necessary life experience, and understanding to do the job before me.

 

2. What is your role at EF Academy like? What does it mean to be a Pathway Manager?

When I started at EF Academy, my job title was that of “Welfare Mentor”. It was a role similar to the one I fulfill today, but with today’s role having the added responsibility of academic oversight. When I began here in March 2013, a colleague said that “the one thing about the routine of the role is that there is no routine”. That still holds true today. I can move from a serious pastoral issue to helping a student open a bank account, and then go on to email a parent about payment for lunches all in the space of about 30 minutes.

However, alongside the important administrative tasks, there are those tasks which epitomize all that we hope to be as pathway managers – a point of contact for parents, admissions offices and students.

Unsurprisingly, the most important aspect for us is the students. Whether it’s being at the school entrance to welcome them in the morning, sharing biscuits with them at break time, or simply talking to them about their studies. We consider this great part of our role to be the most important and it’s probably also the most fulfilling.

It’s great to be able to engage with our students as fellow human beings, rather than just having a relationship of student/member of staff. It really does help to be able to relate to each other as equals! We are all in the same school, and we’re all working – them at their studies and us, at helping them to be successful.

 

3. Have you found your background in ministry has applied to your current role?

Yes, but not in the most obvious ways. Of course, pastoral care is part of the role, but two of the most surprising ways my previous experience has helped me has been the following:

I think I have an understanding of communities and how they function, based on years of working in the community of the church. I see the same dynamics at work in EF Academy Torbay. Relationships, goals, the overarching mission, the key influencers, the mutual support and care that is so often shown to fellow staff, alongside the obvious care exercised towards our students (just fewer angels!)

Secondly, I feel that my previous experience has helped me learn how to relate to parents. I am a parent and I feel that I am able to relate to our students’ parents because of this.

 

4. What is the most important advice you can give a student at EFA Torbay?

The most important advice that I could give to a student who comes to EF Academy is to be determined to make the most of their time here. To take advantage of all that is on offer and to learn how to celebrate the many differences that will be a challenge to them.

 

“I fear that we often mistake intelligence for wisdom and progress in terms of the acquisition of more and more… rather than the acquisition of character and self-understanding”

 

5. What is the most important advice you can give to a parent of a student who’s attending?

I think that I would want to reassure them that they have made a good decision in sending their child to EF Academy Torbay because they will be sending their child not just to a school, but to a family that does education. Because of this, we want them to feel that their child will be in an environment which considers the whole person as important, and not just their academic ability.

I would want to also advise and encourage parents to try and trust us as we seek to accompany their children academically, emotionally, and psychologically. We really do want the best for them. To leave one’s child in the care of unknown people is a lot to ask of a parent and I would love to be able to say to them, “Don’t worry, we take the responsibility of caring for your child very seriously!”

 

6. What’s something you’ve found surprising in your time as a pastoral care worker?

I think that one of the things that I have found most surprising during my time as a pastoral care worker is the great struggle that the vast majority of us have in understanding ourselves and understanding that which is going on within.

I have been repeatedly surprised, if not astounded, by the lack of understanding of who we are and what it is that makes us tick. I feel that it is a great malaise in our Western Culture, and I fear that we often mistake intelligence for wisdom and progress in terms of the acquisition of more and more – this could be through wealth, property, qualifications, roles, and promotions, etc – rather than the acquisition of character and self-understanding.

It’s not surprising really, as these are the bargaining tools of the West that generally define success. The tragedy is that when we are defined by these things, our true worth, and that of others can easily be lost or condemned to the waste bin as an irrelevancy in the 21 Century.

 

7. How can parents and students deal with setbacks in their goals or time living abroad?

I think that setbacks can best be handled by sharing the difficulty with others. Friends obviously, but also people who are not emotionally involved and who can provide us with an unbiased view of a situation. For parents, it might mean listening to the advice that we as a school would give.

Secondly, setbacks can be better managed by managing our expectations. Sometimes expectations don’t correspond to the ongoing reality so it’s essential to be able to take a step back from them and think again.

It’s also important to place this period within the context of the rest of life. Time spent here in EF Academy Torbay is a fantastic opportunity to be given. But it is only a stepping stone to what will take place afterward. It is an important stepping stone, but it is only that, and I think students and their parents need to be able to see that.

 

“I want each of our students to know that they are of great value as human beings, irrespective of their ability to perform.”

 

8. Do you have any memorable stories that stand out to you?

I suppose one of the most memorable stories that stand out was when a student came into my office wearing a surgical mask. This was not something that shocked me, as many of our students wear masks during cold and flu season, what surprised me was the reason. His reason? To avoid contracting cholera. I was happy to remind him that the last outbreak of this disease in the UK was in the mid-1800s.

Another event that sticks in mind was that of a student who came to school on the day that we were going on a two-day trip where we would be outdoors the entire time, canoeing and doing various courses. He arrived at the school in attire that perfectly suited the occasion; a very impractical white suit.

My first day at EF Academy Torbay also proved to be a memorable one. Within minutes of my arrival, I was asked to accompany a colleague as she went to a student’s bedroom where we had to conduct a search. Unknown to the procedures, and unknown to the students, I simply stood there like a brooding, menacing, silent presence in the corner of the room.

Once my colleague had finished the search, we left. The rest of the day was spent getting to know colleagues and systems but during this time, the student rumor mill had been grinding out information. It was “fake news” before the term “fake news” had even been invented! According to the rumors, I was a plainclothes police officer who had come to work at the school!

 

9. What advice would you give to other counselors or pastoral care workers?

I don’t feel as if I have any advice to give to others. I do my best to be a conscientious and caring person but I’m not some sort of guru that has all the answers.

One thing that I feel is very important is to try and encourage others, whether they are students or colleagues. So many of us live in a world devoid of encouragement, where we don’t know from one day to the next whether we are appreciated or not, or whether anyone has noticed that we even exist. An encouraging word can make such a difference for others.

As we all know, we live in a highly pressurized world where one’s mistakes can haunt us. To hear genuine words of appreciation for what we do and perhaps more importantly, for who we are, can be a great source of strength. I think that the same applies for both young people and adults (who are, of course, just older young people)!

 

10. What’s one thing you want students to know?

I want each of our students to know that they are of great value as human beings, irrespective of their ability to perform. I want our students to be diligent in their studies but I also want them to find their self-worth in who they are and understand that in this way they can make a difference to the world.

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