Birkbeck Inspires: Conversations with Alumni – Thomas Wingate (MA Victorian Studies)

The following blog is a transcript of a Birkbeck Inspires: Conversations with Alumni Podcast. Listen to the full podcast here

In this episode of the podcast series we hear from Thomas Wingate who studied MA Victorian Studies at Birkbeck in 2002. In 2016 Thomas started an international school in Mexico City providing education to 350 pupils representing some 40 different nationalities.

In the podcast Thomas talks about his time at Birkbeck, the lessons he learned along the way in starting an international school on the other side of the world and the values he instils in the children he teaches.

B: Hi Tom. Thank you so much for joining us today. Thank you so much for joining Birkbeck Inspires which is a way of staying engaged with our students and alumni. We have been featuring stories of how our alumni have been helping others in various fields. You got in touch because you have a really incredible story about a school that you have started in Mexico City. Thank you for joining us, like I said, we would really love to hear a bit more about it. Obviously, you are a Birkbeck alumni and I would really like to hear more about you time here at Birkbeck.

TW: Well, thank you for having me. It is wonderful to speak with you. Thank you.

Well, I was in a situation in London where I was working. I was actually working in a school in north London and I always wanted to be a lifelong learner and I saw this course at Birkbeck that offered Victorian studies, a fusion of history and literature and, immodestly, I know that I know quite a lot about both but I didn’t really have my ducks in a row. I really wanted to look at the Nineteenth Century and get a kind of philosophical underpinning of that fantastic age. So, I popped off to Birkbeck and met a great guy, I am still in touch with him, now professor emeritus, Michael Slater and he interviewed me. I can remember the room and some of the questions because I got onto the course. As we know, I think, one of the wonders of Birkbeck is its ability to deal with mature students, students already working and the flexibility of those evening classes.

I was tired I must admit. I was doing on the days when I went to Birkbeck something like 54 tube stations  and this incredible journey on the Northern Line and back and travelling is a little tiring. Anyway, it was well worth it. I had a fantastic group of fellow students. One was a policeman, I remember. There was a lady there who was an expert in genealogy, which was always something that fascinated me. We had this wonderful room where we could sit round and really chew the fat  and go into some really fantastic themes. I now have from Birkbeck a particular fascination. I was always interested in him but I now have a fascination for Dickens. Michael Slater is a wonderful Dickens expert, as people may know from reading his biography of the author.

The classes were just terrific and I had the good fortune to live in Bayswater, so I could go from there to Birkbeck. I was a little tired. I would go home and get into my essay and reading and get stuck in the whole cycle at the end of the Northern Line. So, I have very fond memories of Senate House and the room near there that we used. People are very generous with their time. Not just Michael but the other professors who gave us such wonderful insights into an age that has really created much of modern life, much of modern Britain and much of modern thinking. I am forever grateful to them. It added to other qualifications I have managed to get from other universities, at Kent, at Leeds, Georgia State and Atlanta. It was really something that helped make me as a teacher.  I was working as well and travelling on the Northern Line which was a bit of a nightmare, as I say. Afterwards I worked at the City of London School so when I was doing the new masters in Victorian Studies that really helped my A ’level teaching at this wonderful school. So Birkbeck is right up there with my favourite London memories, it really is.

B: That is wonderful to hear as well as the fact that you were able to use the room to chew the fat with  lot of fellow students. The people who choose to go to Birkbeck have that real level of commitment. They go there and it is a real choice and they know it will have a long-lasting impact on them. It is amazing to hear you speak so fondly about your lecturers. Birkbeck has such a rich history and we are coming up to our 200th anniversary in 2023.

TW: Right, right.

B: And it is wonderful how it has impacted. Education is obviously  a crucial part of London as a city. It is great to hear you speak so fondly of it all.

TW: One of the effects actually of the Dickens component that I took, I think it was Michael’s last lecture before he became an emeritus fellow, is that it simulated me to make quite an interesting collection of Nineteenth Century documents which I am now of course sharing in our secondary school, using display cases to help stimulate the thinking of the children as they get older. So, I now have quite a good collection of things related to the life and death of Charles Dickens in particular, quite apart from some other things reflecting Nineteenth Century culture,  politics and literature. So it has been great fun to have this new hobby later on in my life.

B:  Absolutely, and the ability to share that knowledge that you got at Birkbeck, which incredibly gets me to my next question. A lot of Birkbeck alumni have gone on to achieve some incredible things. Hearing about your story, about starting a school on the western edge of Mexico City. I would absolutely love to hear about the Wingate School and what takes someone from studying at Birkbeck to starting a school in Mexico.

TW: I don’t want to sound too dramatic but perhaps I was kidnapped! What happened was I met this wonderful young Mexican lady in the days of my youth when I was at the University of Kent. I was doing my first degree, my undergraduate degree in English and History and the Theory of Art. I met Elena who was doing a Masters in Economics , on the battlements of Allington Castle. How about that? Quite Arthurian. Anyway, to cut a long story short we got married and we weren’t in England long as we wanted to raise our family in Mexico. So, what happened was that I went to Mexico. That was in the early 80s. Goodness. Elena had a very interesting and successful career in the Mexican diplomatic service and that took us all over the place but it also took us back to London where she was the trade commissioner. That’s how as a teacher of English, I was the sort of exportable component and that’s how I managed to do my teaching in London and also go back and study at a British University again, with Birkbeck That’s how I ended up back in Bayswater.

It’s been quite a roller-coaster, I wouldn’t recommend that path to many because you have to kind of stop and start. In education, as I say, you are sort of exportable. People do want someone who has some knowledge of the English language and English Literature as well perhaps and so it worked out very well. We have also been in Atlanta. I have been in Mexico City in a good international school several times as I come and go with Elena’s job. Then it came to pass that we are here and the moment, that fusion of what I thought was the right experience with a little bit of ‘the ready’. The finances, you know, you have to have that. I thought to myself I am not going to be looking over my shoulder at the age of 89 and saying ‘what if?’. Although to be honest, if I could wave a magic wand, it would have been great to have founded the school, the school we have, the Wingate School, twenty years ago and watch it develop even more. You have to make these choices in life. But here we are and we are starting our fifth academic year and it is terrific!

It has been very difficult getting building permits, overseeing construction, acquiring the staff, having the right team around you. It is all about the team. It’s not about one person saying I am going to found a school. You know you lead a team. You know I alluded to King Arthur a moment ago, you know it’s sitting around a round table, it’s not about the head of the table. You meet people in education who know more than you do and people who you know more than they do.  But you have got to be able to listen very carefully and if you have got that skill, much good will happen. And that is how we ended up on the western edge of Mexico City. I am now pretty well rooted here. I have a place in London but I am rooted here. We started just the other day online with the children, after some very intensive staff training and sharing of skills. So that’s the story. That’s how we got over here and eventually, with a big breath, said: ‘Right. Let’s do this!’. We have one crack at this thing we call life, I believe, and let’s do it well. Here we are!

B: Fantastic  As with the rest of the world we have watched things changing. We are now a few months in. I read a little about your evolution to online learning. As you said, you have started the academic year is it entirely online?

TW:  You have to play ball with the authorities here.  Well, I think you should do in any country. So here we have the Secretaria de Educacion Publica (SEP). and the SEP tells the private sector what to do in terms of calendars. In the private sector you can get back to them and say we are a British international school . We have 40 nationalities. We have 350 children on the school rolls this year. We have grown by 90, which in a pandemic is a real compliment to the work of the staff. So, the SEP rules on behalf of the government and the Ministry of Education. We have a traffic lights system. The trouble is – to be honest with you-  is that we have a federal traffic light, with the obvious colours but the federal government has actually slipped in an extra colour: it’s red-organge-yellow-green. Then you have the state authorities. We have 32 states here and there is sometimes a little friction between the state and the federal authority, in education anyway, and they say you can change back (to face to face teaching) when it is green. But nowhere is it green at the moment.

It’s very easy to be an armchair expert, isn’t it. You sit and watch the television and see various ministers make pronouncements and you think ‘why are they doing that? Why don’t you do this?’ Perhaps they see more than we do. Mexico is still in the grip of the pandemic, so we are online. Big plans are being made for when we go back. We very much hope it will be a hybrid model, particularly with classes that involve socialisation. The trouble is that when you talk to the children, as we have started to do, as we are online, some of them have been holed up in flats in the city for months. I mean that is going to have a tremendous psychological effect on children. Others have been swanning around. One child has gone off to his homeland. He was born in Copenhagen and he flits between Denmark and Sweden. We have children tuning in from Korea. As I say, we are a very international school. So, we pay great attention to that socialising part, therefore when they come back they can do some sports with social distancing.

We are very lucky now because we have expanded the school. We have doubled the space to over 6,000 sq m for both building and play areas and the like, things like basketball courts. We have added a field, we have a second field and we really want to see those children running around in those green areas. People think that Mexico City is wall- to-wall concrete but we are not. Here on the edge we have Swiss-style green areas. If you look at pictures of the city you can see that we have some really beautiful green areas with forests and valleys and in the centre we have got a wonderful park.

So, we are online now. I really want to get a hybrid as soon as we can. We have to wait for the authorities.

B: That sounds like an incredible journey Tom that you have been on to get to the school and it sounds like there’s a real need for it there. Having a Mexican wife, did it then feel like a natural move to set the school up in Mexico City?

TW: You have to have self-belief, don’t you? There’s something about if you have had the privilege of a good education, you have got to say ‘look, much has been given to me and I owe something’ and I owe something to this wonderful Mexican society that has given me so much. It is a fantastic land. It has problems, as everybody does. I look at the news. England has been guided, or not guided. I could get political! It looks a little messy at the moment in terms of  the pandemic.

So, anyway, here it is about reaching out and touching lives. I saw a need. There are many great schools in Mexico but what we have done is, we have a philosophy of education which re-emphasises values. So we have got a school here that has attracted quite a big slice of the diplomatic community’s families and international companies, who need a high quality English education because if they end up in Brazil or Moscow or Berlin, or somewhere, this common language, this English, apart from Chinese, is the world language. It is so useful, so exportable.

We want to teach – not great history courses, maths, or whatever – we want to teach great children. We want to form great ethical children so that wherever they go in the world, they do it to the best of their ability and it has a cascade effect on the people whom they come into contact with who will experience something very beneficial because they are in the presence of someone who is well-prepared, centred, confident and ethical.

We really need that, that ethical side. So we know a guy called Dr Thomas Lickona who is from New York University and he is one of the founders of the School of Character, so within our school we also have the school of character which is uniquely fused with the International Primary Curriculum and the younger version for the kinder (sic). We are growing  our secondary school. It gives use the opportunity to get the children to really understand what our school motto is: to strive, learn and serve. And that service part – to give back, is huge for us. So there’s one big rule for the school. I don’t have a directory of rules. I really don’t. It’s called respect. The children sign a document in the front of their agendas, the school diary, where they agree and I agree, and the parent and the teacher agree that ‘respect’ is the number one rule of the Wingate School. Concurrent with that is that our teachers are collegial. I really do insist on that. A great idea is duplicated, not diluted. So the collegial staff will a tremendous extra dimension to it. So then it is a school which has niche – I hate to say it – market. It sounds very business-like but it deals well with high quality education in English. We are not a bilingual school. It could expand, of course, but it is a 80 – 20 English and Spanish curriculum. We touch the international community. We touch a huge slice of the community here in Mexico City and we fuse the curriculum with values.

B: What we fetch out of education is incredibly important. I think what you are doing is trying to educate these students to go on to great success in life. Obviously, of course, with a strong understanding of Charles Dickens!

TW: Oh! I am known as a kind of  obsessed man about it. It comes into assemblies, with anecdotes about childhood and Dickens’ attitude to it and the importance of play. I’ve got a fund of stories for them. I have got to be very inventive about that and not bore them! But his philosophy is an influence, of course!

Int: Thank you so much. And in parting form one another. You have obviously had an incredible journey since leaving Birkbeck and it sounds like it really did have an impact on you. It would be really great if, perhaps, you could share a little piece of advice with our students and alumni who may have grand plans and are wondering how to take that first step into starting a life changing venture as you did? Is there something you would like to say to them?

TW Sure. I don’t want to sound flippant but find someone as good as Elena, my dear wife, in your life. It’s about the team in your life. You meet the great people in your life who inspire you, the great teachers at Birkbeck and they did, they inspired me. So be confident. You are getting a good education at Birkbeck. Use your talents in an aligned way. Line up your talents with an interest that you have, then you can take it further. Don’t do anything just for the job, just for the money. Sometimes I understand that we need to put bread on the table and we might have to do a job that we don’t particularly like. It’s happened to me in my now fairly long life. So seize the moment!

There are certain situations where you have got to say, ‘well give it a go!’. And look, heck! If it didn’t work, the sun comes up in the sky the next morning. Start over! Like, you know, Robert the Bruce and the cave, watching the spider coming down that thread and climbing to the top. He was in big trouble against the English at that time and the story goes that he reassessed his life and got to the top, went off and won a great victory.

Work with people who are like minded, people who support you and you can support them – and never give up! I hope I don’t sound that I’ve got to the top of the mountain. I’ve not. When you get to the top of the mountain you take a big breath and then you see there’s another mountain range ahead.

So, my last piece of advice, and Birkbeck has really underscored this as it was the reason it was founded, be a lifelong learner. Those things together is the advice I would give to people. Life is there for the seizing. Take calculated, well thought through challenges. There’s always an element of luck, I get it. It’s great to do something that you’re are really interested in with other people who are also really interested in it. I think if you follow that kind of line, good things can happen.

B: I think that what you are saying is very much the importance of teams and having people around you ho support you and finding common cause. Thank you so, so much Tom for coming on.

TW: Not at all.

B: It was really incredible to hear about the journey and incredible opportunities. I said at the start that we are featuring stories about alumni helping people in various fields. Your are helping to maintain a strong contingent of students  who are educated with the value of ‘respect’ which we also try and instil at Birkbeck as well and hopefully they will be lifelong learners too, just as you have with your students. So thank you very much for all you are doing. It’s been wonderful.

TW: That’s most kind of you. If I could make a warm ‘salut’ from  from Mexico City to all of the Mexican community at Birkbeck! I am sure they are all there and to all the other different nationalities there. This is a fascinating thing that you are doing. Greetings also to any professors of mine who are still there. I’m delighted to say hello to you and to thank you for all you have done for me.

B:Thanks Tom.TW: Thank you

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