Drummer. Traveller. Husband. Teacher.
“One of the most fulfilling aspects is seeing the students improve and noting also that your colleagues notice that your teaching has improved as well.” Rob explains and I’m reminded that while Caffeine & Concrete has offered me the opportunity to meet and talk to some amazing people, I may not have otherwise known, it was born out of the realisation that there were people close to me who were forming and living amazing, transformative lives themselves.
I met Rob, now a friend of many years, while I was flipping and selling sausages on a barbeque in Cronulla many years ago. I’d noticed him as a staff member at Utopia Records, where I’d frequent to get my hands on obscure Progressive Rock albums. We’d soon discovered we shared many similar interests and I’ve had the pleasure of watching Rob’s inspiring transition, one he’s made later in life, when many would be forgiven their decision to plateau.
Studious, curious and humble, read on and enjoy Rob’s unique transition from rock band drummer, hard rock retail clerk and hotel security personnel, to return to study and becoming a Higher Learning English teacher. You’ll hear from someone who’s open-minded, introspective and ever-seeking feedback in an effort to constantly improve themselves.
I’m a teacher, specialising in English for year seven to twelve as well as ESL, so English as a Second Language which covers adult education as well. So, they would come to the English college specifically for help with their writing, essay writing in particular, and McDuff English college is where I work and we specialise in preparing students for the HSC (Higher School Certificate). So, they come in from Year 7 and usually go all the way through to Year 12.
"I knew it was going to be challenging but I also knew that I found it very invigorating learning these texts, giving presentations at University; the next step would be to impart that knowledge to students."
Family. My parents encouraged all the children, all four brothers and sisters to play an instrument - so I started with the piano. I didn’t enjoy that very much [laughs] and then when I was thirteen I got my first drum kit and both parents had been very supportive with music all my life and there’s music in the house because—mainly classical music—but there’s been music in the house from when I was a baby. Since I can remember, music has been integral.
Yes, that was an interesting experience. So, most of my touring with two bands, Storm Warning and Evening Fell. Started off in Storm Warning which was a band from school with my best friend Adrian and two other friends, Andrew and Tibor. We started that band when we were still in high school, I was in Year 9, they were in Year 8 and that was a band that started in high school. We broke up for a while, I moved to Queensland but my first touring experience was with Storm Warning as an eighteen year old when we first started doing gigs. And then two years later, I moved to Queensland where Adrian was playing bass in a band called Evening Fell, and I-- they lost their drummer and I joined their band and that led to a lot of touring as well.
Lorenzo: How did you find the touring?
Rob: Well,it took a bit of getting used to. We were young and full of energy. We enjoyed being able to play rehearse and practice most nights.
Lorenzo: Was this mainly in Queensland or…
Rob: It would be Queensland (Gold Coast/ Brisbane) and Sydney. There were some occasional gigs out of Sydney but the majority of the gigs were Sydney-based.
Lorenzo: How did you find the creative process of being in a band?
Rob: It was an interesting creative process, usually in both bands, the guitarists were the main songwriters but what I found was I contributed a lot to the lyrics, always being an English-type person, so I’d always contribute. Sometimes the lyrics would be in an embryo stage and I’d help to finalise them, or there may have been some things that needed to be edited but usually the music would be written by the guitarists and then played acoustically by the rest of the band, we’d talk about tempos and dynamics. I usually had a pretty free hand with the drumming side of things and then, I’d have a look at the lyrics and then help to modify the lyrics as well.
So, usually musically the songs were already half written by the time they came into the rehearsal room and then everyone would add their distinctive little stamps to the music as well.
Lorenzo: Did you prefer the playing or the creative process?
Rob: It’s good to have a song from its very earliest stages and then see the response of people when you play it live for the first time. So, playing it live for the first time is always because you’d know whether or not you’d hit the mark pretty much as soon as you’d played it, and also speaking to people afterwards. For me the biggest thrill was playing live, that was where you feel the energy of the audience back and the interaction between the players on stage. But there’s also something quite exciting about just having a song which may only have three or four basic chords and a very, very basic chorus structure and see that evolve into an actual song.
"There’s been music in the house from when I was a baby."
Well, it’s always been a way for me-- in my late teens and early twenties, a lot of the jobs I had were part-time just so I could still be able to go on tour, etcetera. So, I’d do things like I’d go and work in sports stores like, The Athlete’s Foot but Utopia (Records) was a little bit different, Utopia was a store I went to as a teenager back in Martin Place, back in the day when I was buying vinyl initially.
And I’d always had a close contact with the store and made friends with people in the store and through the networking that went on, I’d heard they were going to be expanding into a bigger store, needing new staff and at this particular time in my life, I was working for a security company that did hotel security and one of the things they were looking at doing (at Utopia) was a lot of in-stores. And they were looking for someone with a lot of retail experience but also had a security license. So I’d had a lot of retail experience in sports retail as well as a huge love of music and I had a current security license so I guess really time and place was perfect for that.
And that became-- really that was a life changing job because it was a store I’d been a customer of since I was fourteen, then to be an employee on both sides of the counter was an interesting experience but also interacting with musicians and meeting many, many musical idols when they did their in-stores.
"I had to change just about every aspect of life."
Yes, my last year, which was 2005, sales were dwindling dramatically. By then, everybody was starting to download and those who were buying physical copies we’re just going to JB’s (JB Hi-Fi) and saving ten to twenty dollars on an item. So, I’d come to, I guess, the end of that stage with Utopia, I hadn’t had enough background training to really consider other career options. I went back to security mainly for financial reasons and because I knew the people I was working with-- they were a good team to work with but ultimately, the repetitive nature of the job, the associated dangers with doing security in the city; I was quite lucky that I-- I had a few narrow escapes from some serious situations, and the fact that I felt that it was a dead end job ultimately it meant that in order to progress I’d need to step outside of the comfort zone and my brother had already gone back to university and I was sort of speaking a lot to my family members and considering paths and so mature age entry level would have been my path in, but I hadn’t studied for twenty years.
So, it took a fair bit of convincing but ultimately in 2009 I decided to do a university preparation course so that would prepare me for university and that was my final year of security. So, I was working full-time and I was doing the UPC part-time and I did that over the course of a year. And ultimately that led to an offer and placement at Sydney University and I did a bachelor of arts.
So that was a pivotal year, 2009 was the transition from full-time work in security into a move, into part-time study which led into full-time study.
Lorenzo: What are the thoughts and fears going through your head as you made this transition?
Rob: I guess some of the challenges were, one, returning to study after such a long time and having to reteach myself, literally-- and being disciplined enough to study every night, learning how to speed read, take notes at university, take notes at lectures, re-appraise my entire approach to learning and I had to reteach myself from scratch. So my study habits had to be done from the most basic level, I had to change just about every aspect of life.
There was also the aspect of finance, because I’d been working full-time for most of my life and then, being a fulltime student. Having to survive on... basically on Austudy, and the financial restrictions that that meant. It was challenging but the main challenge was convincing myself that I could keep up with the workload and be able to complete assignments on time, when I hadn’t been studying for more than twenty years.
Lorenzo: You mentioned discipline, and it’s funny because when I think about “Rob”, I think ‘discipline’ as the things you’ve pursued, such as music, all take discipline. Did you always believe, regardless of the different subject matter in your studies, that you could do it?
Rob: I knew that I’d have to work really hard but, because I’d never really dropped off my reading per se, I’d always been a voracious reader, even if it was reading for pleasure. The main difference I guess from a discipline point of view is that everything was being done and being taken note of. So, if I was watching a film for a film studies course, I’d be analysing. If I was reading a book I’d be analysing the text and making notes. So, the discipline would be thinking that I may need to be able to produce some of this information in an assessment or in an essay or an exam.
So, unlike just picking up a book, reading for pleasure and taking something out of it. Picking up a book and analysing and realising I would be writing about it and doing some form of critique later on. That was going to be a challenge and having the discipline to know that; even if you’re not engaging with the material, it’s on the syllabus, you have to do it! And you have to focus a hundred percent on it and that-- it took a different type of discipline and it really meant-- the main thing for me was studying every night. Getting into a routine of-- regardless of how many lectures there’d been that day, I made sure I did at least two to three hours every night and that was just solidifying information. That would not be preparation for an essay of anything else, that would be on top of essay preparation for exam preparation or anything else.
So, a lot of mental discipline was needed and I guess, sacrificing of leisure time. That was the other thing, I realised that a lot of the time I had for leisure would have to be sacrificed in order to succeed at uni, so I guess a lot of social activities were cut down.
Lorenzo: Were there any added challenges being a mature age student, surrounded by younger people at the university?
Rob: That’s a good point you make, my first term when I saw the cohorts that I was, you know-- with the tutorial cohorts and being twenty years older than a lot of them and then feeling, okay, "I’m really going to have to--" and these are students straight from the HSC that are finely tuned, that are sharp. The first month was a little bit intimidating when I realised that these were very high achieving students. But then I just set myself a new goal and the new goal was; even if it meant working twice as hard, you’ll be able to do it.
So, the things that maybe, younger, sharper maybe students get, I just put more time and effort into and I found the extra time would bridge the gap and I was lucky that I actually made friends with some high achieving young students, students that were top of their schools, incredibly high ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admission Rank) marks and we found we had common interests outside of what we’re studying and then I found if I had any other serious issues about what I was studying, having a kind of study group helps. And having fresh perspectives also helped, but yes the first month was nerve racking because I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to keep up with the pace of note taking, the fact that there would be multiple assessments due on regular intervals... so, the workload. With the workload and knowing that there’d be a substantial amount of work everynight to do and on weekends. That took some time to get used to.
"I had to reteach myself from scratch."
That was an interesting story, both my parents were teachers. My father was a university lecturer-- physics lecturer and mum was a high school biology teacher and she ended up becoming a teacher trainer at UTS (University of Technology Sydney). Having two teachers as parents can be interesting, when I was talking about what I’d do after the BA-- after the Bachelor of Arts, I was not quite sure what direction I was going to take but I’d been a drum tutor/teacher on and off for about fifteen years and I really enjoy passing on knowledge but I wasn’t quite sure if I’d be able to translate that into an academic teaching position but when I started doing my subjects at university; Australian Literature, a lot of Ancient History units, Film Studies and I spoke to a lot of the tutors after lectures and tutorials, I started to think in my mind that perhaps-- in my mind that the next best choice for me would be English teaching.
So, I took more and more English units and in my final year, I dropped a lot of the History units and did additional English units in preparation for what I thought-- and if I did well enough, I thought that I’d apply for the Master of Teaching. So, that would have been my second choice apart from being, I guess, a drum tutor but being an English teacher, I knew it was going to be challenging but I also knew that I found it very invigorating learning these texts, giving presentations at University; the next step would be to impart that knowledge to students.
So, after many, many chats with friends and family I realised that English teaching would be a good fit.
Yes, it is a lot of work. All teachers will tell you that the majority of the work is not seen by people, it’s behind the scenes so whilst we get wonderful term breaks, they're not really breaks because we’re preparing for the next term and for the new texts that are coming through. One of the challenges for me is that-- 2019 there’s a new syllabus coming through-- new HSC syllabus. Last year I started to do much more teaching of Year 12 students, and this is my third year of teaching and I’ve found that the pace really increased in 2018. It was really what I wanted to do because I wanted to be able to focus on essays, focus on helping students improve their writing and as a result my teaching improved because I had really strong students.
So, I gained some insights from my students as well which in turn fell into the teaching. The other factor that was very important is my colleagues have been very supportive and in particular Craig McDuff, my boss at McDuff English College. He sees himself as a mentor, not just a colleague and, every step of the process we’ve been through together and I’m very happy and very grateful to have had a mentorship I would not have gotten in a regular school situation. So, in that regard I’ve been quite fortunate to be in a private English college.
"The things that maybe, younger, sharper maybe students get, I just put more time and effort into and I found the extra time would bridge the gap."
I think with the advent now of options for learning, distance education, non-linear pathways—some of which my brother has explored—I think it’s important to-- to look at the options that work best for the student because with greater options in learning it means that individual styles can be catered to. It means that some students who may not have thrived in the traditional sense may find different modes of learning work best for them. For me, the best situation would be a small classroom situation, I think it’s very difficult if you’re in a public school in the New South Wales system where you can have up to thirty five students in a classroom. It’s very hard to meet the individual needs of these students.
In the smaller settings and with the benefit of things like private colleges and tutors, some people go to people’s homes and tutor for example, but I’m at a college. We really work at bridging the gaps for those students that are not really getting all their needs fulfilled in the regular school system. And there are private schools with smaller classes too, but with an English college that can actually tailor programs to the individual needs of the students, that’s I think, a benefit.
I think the school system-- the Australian school system may have had some issues in the past but I think having more options for learning is going to be a benefit long term for students. And with the advent of technology as well, with flipped classrooms and with long distance learning you don’t necessarily have to be in a classroom physically to still benefit, but I do think you need interaction with the teacher on a daily basis. Whether or not that’s face-to-face or whether that’s in a Skype-type situation, you do need feedback, that’s imperative and immediate feedback, I think that’s really important.
That’s why an English college is kind of like the best of both worlds. In a state school, you may not be able to give individual feedback to all the students, whereas in a private college you can and that’s what they need. So, model examples of what you want the students to do, in a smaller group and that’s more effective than, again, when you’re having to address things such as behaviour management; you may have some kids playing up at the back of the classroom etcetera but in a college or a smaller group environment, it’d be fair to say that more teaching is done, definitely.
I was reflecting on that when I was speaking to my wife recently about some of the changes, thinking about where I was ten years ago compared to today and looking at-- well it’s twenty nineteen now and my journey began in twenty-o-nine so it’s a very pertinent question to ask. There’s always more to do as a teacher, there’s always more to learn, always different approaches that can be taken and I find the learning doesn’t stop but luckily I like that. I like the fact that I still know there’s still a journey ahead, even though I know it’s been a massive change.
The biggest difference though is the fact that there is work to be done at home, such as marking, lesson preparation, looking at the next text to be included and also self-appraisal, I find that, as a teacher, I’m also expected to look at my results with my students and look at ways to improve. I’ve previously been in jobs where I’ve finished for the day and I’d go home and I wouldn’t think about work all night. With teaching it’s the sort of job where you do need to be quite introspective and you do need to reflect upon your own performances. Particularly if you’re working in a small team, and we’re a small college, so it’s very important to establish a hard work ethic and trust but the main thing I’ve noticed - the biggest difference is, that there’s always some work to do. There’s always some form of preparation, there’s always something to be reflected upon after hours which is something I’ve spoken to a lot of teachers about which is across the board with teachers, even in the summer holiday break they’re going to be looking ahead to what semester one will have in store.
But the biggest change for me is knowing that there’ll be work to do over the holiday period, new texts and like I said, there’s a new syllabus, so I’ll be making sure I’m familiar with all the new syllabus texts going into twenty nineteen.
Lorenzo: Is that also a reflection of a more purposeful path?
Rob: Yes! There wasn’t a lot of job fulfilment with security, there were often times I’d feel like I could be doing more with my life and I think that was one of the major reasons for a return to study and then a return to something that would be challenging, something to keep me mentally nimble because that was one thing that-- as much as I loved working at Utopia, it was retail and even though I did have some good periods working security, it was security. There’s limits to how much fulfillment you can have in those roles.
But for teaching, one of the most fulfilling aspects is seeing the students improve and noting also that your colleagues notice that your teaching has improved as well. But, it doesn’t come easy, it means there’s a lot of work so-- that’s also part of the pleasure of it though, is that knowing that what you’re doing does make a difference to other people’s lives, even though you’re at the beginning of-- or I’m at the beginning of, this particular career. It’s only the third year in and some people have been doing it, their whole career, since they first got their qualifications. But I think the biggest difference is knowing you're working in academia, you’re working in a job which is going to require you to have that mental discipline to work every night and to accept new challenges along the way. That’s also a part of the teaching - like being thrown a new text by a student and asked to evaluate it and evaluate what they’ve written on that particular text even if it’s unfamiliar to me. That is something that I’d never have been able to do pre-study for example, so it does have a lot of associate, I guess-- there is extra work involved, there’s less free time but on the same note it seems to suit my lifestyle.
"With teaching it’s the sort of job where you do need to be quiet introspective and you do need to reflect upon your own performances."
I think-- especially if you-- especially living in Australia where so many people have an insular life, it broadens your perspective so much when you travel. I’m lucky enough to have family, and my wife also has family in Europe, so we’ve been travelling regularly each year now and it gives us fresh perspectives on how people live their lives in different environments. Environments which are totally foreign to what we’re used to, and travelling also gives us an idea of just how immense the world is and there’s so much to explore; both in terms of people and in terms of things such as nature, in terms of appreciating landscapes, the fauna.
Last year, for example, my wife and I went to Norway which was a lifelong dream and it was like entering another world, literally like entering another world yet it is only a flight away. So I think travelling-- everyone can benefit and get new perspectives from travelling, whether you’re a child or a middle aged person or an elderly person. It’s a big world to see. I guess you have to be fortunate enough to be able to do it or be in a position financially to travel too but travelling just opens up your whole world and gives you an new insight into the different layers in which people live and you don’t really know that when you are living in Sydney.
It’s very easy to just be in your own bubble. Whereas when you travel and you see people in different socio-economic standards, from rich to poor and everything in-between and the way they deal with that. Seeing abject poverty one street away from luxury in the same city is a bit of a culture shock as well. So, I think travelling, like the need to continually learn is something we want to keep exploring because it is such a big world to explore.
Well, I’m enjoying English teaching immensely, I think ultimately down the track, the college is expanding and I’m hoping to expand with the college and just be at the point where I can cover all aspects of teaching. I’ve done a bit of tutoring of primary school students as well...
Ultimately, I’d like to be able to be an English teacher that can cover any text, any age and who knows what’s down the track. With the ESL qualification I’m qualified to work overseas and having a German wife I’ve considered down the track I’d want to live overseas, perhaps? That could be an avenue but I’d like to stick with teaching because I’ve found that English teaching is a challenging job. It’s not boring because the texts keep rotating and the syllabus will change.
I don’t necessarily have lofty ambitions as far as climbing any sort of hierarchy, just to refining my teaching and be the most effective teacher I can be for at least the next fifteen to twenty years and I think that would be good because then I’ve had some pretty broad life experiences. I haven’t just done the one career or the one type of job, over and over and teaching does allow me that freedom with the terms of course, to keep travelling. So teaching works well for my lifestyle, works well for my wife's lifestyle and I think yeah, in the future I’ll keep doing it.
I could never had predicted this path, when I was a touring drummer the last thing I would have imagined would have been studying texts at night and marking assignments and homework. But touring drummer Rob seems like a lifetime ago, it seems like a-- it’s the younger version of myself that I can look back on fondly, but is so far removed from where I’m at now that’s it’s like two distinct people.
But twenty-one year old Rob would never have conceived to be in this position, and I’m almost forty-eight so… I’d have never have picked this path, never. It’s ironic that my parents were teachers-- it’s the last thing I expected to be, I always thought that my future would lie within music somewhere but it’s ironic that I’ve come full circle and actually embrace this lifestyle but I must say I do owe a huge debt to both my parents for both a great education and wonderful career advice because they said I could make a go of it, and I didn’t believe them. I took a fair bit of convincing and I’m very glad that I finally followed some very wise words.
Find Rob teaching classes at McDuff English College.
Proofreading by Luke Yates. Photography by Lorenzo Princi.