Roots and Routes

When I was growing up in Worcestershire, the compulsory education system was split into three sections; primary school (4-9 yrs), middle school (9-12 yrs) and high school (12-16 yrs). After that cornucopia of transitional delights, A-levels beckoned. In the case of my high school, the VIth form occupied buildings on the main school campus which one was not allowed into unless one was a bona fide VIth former. Consequently I spent most of my time sneaking into said buildings, until I actually joined VIth form, after which the mystically alluring pull of the previously unknown lost some of its sheen…

Anyhow… In the transition in between middle school and high school we moved house from one town to another, from Kidderminster to Stourport, and in doing so, I moved into the first year of Stourport on Severn High School not really knowing anyone.

I met Mr Nicol (John) in my first year at high school. He was the drama teacher at the time and along with a lady called Mrs Lane (Dilys) was responsible for fostering the passionate, fun, slightly tilted environment of the Drama and Music block. There were other passionate and inspiring faces contributing to my development too – Miss Ballinger, (favoured overt Brechtian emphasis in Keatley’s My Mother Said I Never Should…, Mr Roberts (a Dylan Thomas evangelical) and Mr Ockendon (creakingly aged advocate of Joyce, pipe smoke-stained beard, chalk-dusted three piece suit and scribbler-extraordinaire of intelligible red commentary over my criticisms of Larkin’s more morose verse). All brilliant, gifted educationalists…

The Drama and Music block atmosphere was one of inclusive, yet demanding participation; nothing stopped until 7, 8, 9 at night. It gave rise to a continual merry-go-round of epic musicals and frequent concerts which now sit as a Joycean stream of consciousness; these large performative feasts themselves continually fed off the annual whirling diet of harmonies and dramatic action, and band practices, and improvisation class and after school clubs and debates (always Stanisalvski or Brecht – never did quite get that binary) and playing Beatles hits by woodwind at the Severn Valley Railway at Christmas (strange arrangements were the norm) and trying to choreograph serious movement montages to New Order’s Blue Monday in a TIE piece we took to Germany and it went on and on held together by a chaotic colourful collision of practice rooms, and definitely-not-safety-checked stage lighting and prop making and ubiquitous trails of industrial gaffer tape. Always gaffer tape. Hugely formative; the most valuable and inspirational environment possible for a teenage mind looking for a direction, and non of it assessed or counting for anything but fun.

Of this cast, all played a part but John in particular has to take a huge slice of responsibility for setting me on the path I’m on now, and for the immense reward and fun I find in my life. Without SHS it would have been a very different picture – there was no drama provision at the high school I would have attended in Kidderminster had we not moved. John started the ball rolling by gatecrashing a year 9 geography class (our geography teacher had needed to step away) and playing games with us in the last 15 minutes because he couldn’t see the point of the exercise we’d been set. I was hooked, through A-levels and into my first degree and beyond – the die was cast.

Unsurprisingly, we’ve stayed in touch. Last weekend, it was a delight to go to his 60th birthday party.


Fast forward (or backwards) to 2004 and I met another person who has shaped me, my life and the values and the principles of thought I hold central to my professional practice. Moving from freelance theatre making into academia, I applied for a lectureship at Bath Spa University and met Gunduz Kalic.


I worked under Gunduz for 4 years until his retirement in 2008. Those Bath Spa years were another leap forward in my life and the time there helped me leave later on in 2011 not recognising myself. If John was the one to give me a push onto the ride, Gunduz’s thinking and tutelage have been the major part of the ride so far and continue to be fundamental in shaping not just how I think about theatre, but about my values as an educationalist, the purpose of education, knowledge, the role of play in the endeavour of learning, and much more (Gunduz’s Fo-esque attitude is directly responsible for my healthy disregard for grandiose hierarchy – this alone has helped me accomplish things I wouldn’t have otherwise looked at). ‘Indebted’ just isn’t a big enough word – it simply can’t convey what I owe, so I’m trying to pay it forward into my work and the way I do whatever I do next… As a pictorial aside, below is a picture of the acknowledgement page on my PhD; I was very proud to send John and Gunduz a copy.


I have also been grateful to stay in contact with Gunduz, although due to the physical limits of time and geographical distance, I’ve only been able to skype for a couple of years. But – happily, and, with all things being well, through dint of the various planets being alignment, I’m going to see him next Friday. I can’t wait.

I started writing this post with these two people in mind, knowing that, in very different spheres, there was something to unpick between a 60th birthday and planned visit with my mentor on Friday. I think it’s about a connectedness, and acknowledging ones roots as a means of determining… not the exact direction forward as a fixed route, but more of the compass with which to positively and productively explore the territory ahead.

Flashing back to Salford for a moment (I really haven’t planned this one) and my work as Pro-VC Student Experience, that last thought feels very pertinent as we re-orientate our university towards Industrial Collaboration Zones; they’re contemporary echoes of our past and a route forward which offers exploration and fresh thinking for roots that go way back.

See you next week.


Author: samgrogan

I am many sided; Pro Vice-Chancellor Student Experience at Salford University, Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, driven Tough Mudder runner, and a lover of the outdoors. I live in the heart of the beautiful Peak District with my wife and our pets. On weekends, you'll find me out in the countryside with the dog, running or walking up a hill, or typically cooking for friends (I'm getting better, so they say) My role at Salford is one I cherish. I'm one of the fortunate few who wake up excited about the day ahead. It's really not work when it's this much fun. As part of the Vice-Chancellor's Executive Team I work alongside a gifted and dedicated team of creative educationalists passionate about being better tomorrow than we are today. As PVC SE at Salford I hold executive responsibility for both the assurance of quality and standards of our institutional academic portfolio, and its strategic direction and character. Intertwined with this facet of my role, I am responsible for strategic leadership and enhancement of the wider student experience and the development of a distinctive Salford learning environment. My overall purpose, driven by these two key parts of my role, is to develop a bold, playful learning landscape at Salford which delivers holistic sustainable success, preparing our students for life. I'm fascinated by how people learn, and how we might collectively make that experience result in a profound expansion of personal and professional horizons and an extension of possibilities for all parties involved. My greatest reward comes from seeing thresholds crossed, barriers broken, new habits formed and changes made. To this end, I'm also endlessly absorbed in considering how we might develop better, more useful ways of integrating the digital landscape and other technologies, emerging and present, into the act of learning. I think we're just beginning - a brave new world awaits... My background is in performance - Before undertaking my PhD and before spending the first half of my university career as a lecturer, programme leader and head of department, in my early career I acted, danced and made theatre across the world. This ten year experience continues to be fundamental in shaping the way I think about teaching and learning. At its best I see it as a facilitated journey of discovery, play, risk and adventure anchored in 'reflective doing'. Not 'knowing' in this context is often a signal that a useful path is being trodden - Thinking on its own is just rehearsal...

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