Sandra Gibbins self-determination and entrepreneurial and fiercely independent spirit has taken her on a journey down a varied and memorable career path in her thirty years living in Turin. London born and originally trained as a nurse, life took an unexpected but not completely unpredictable turn one cold, grey November morning in 1972 as she stepped off the train at Porta Nuova. Intending to stay just a few weeks with family friends and working as an English Language Teacher, Turin wove its magic spell and Sandra is still here today. I caught up with her at a talk she was giving about her life to the International Women’s Club in Turin…
Thirty years ago, Sandra says, Turin was a vastly different place to the one it is today. Once better known for its industrial might, strict work ethic and almost Victorian conservatism that took root in middle class sitting rooms and largely defined local culture, it was a shock for the young woman brought up in multi-cultural London with a deeply engrained autonomous streak. Perhaps it was a surprise she stayed; but it should come as no great surprise that Sandra (along with her Italian husband) pioneered to inject some avant-garde verve and frivolity into local culture through English Language learning. This became hugely popular with left-wing intellectuals keen to try out new ideas and adopt some of the trends already rooted in some education systems abroad.
The almost revolutionary Christopher Robin Nursery School opened in the Collina district of Torino in 1974. Set in a villa it covered two spacious floors and included a garden outside teeming with plants and shrubs and trees to climb. Plenty of opportunity for doing childishly artistic stuff with soil and sand was also to hand for the little ones enrolled. Sandra and her husband employed trained and experienced nursery school teachers from the UK. All activities were in English and the emphasis was on learning through fun, games and entertainment with a well-deserved nap in the afternoon before home time. Many famous left-wing intellectuals enrolled at the school. In the 1970s, during the years of tense political activism, many parents left their children at the school and then went off to occupy university buildings. She also remembers a two-year old Giovanni Agnelli coming to look around with his parents, delicately kissing her hand as he greeted her and as manners and etiquette had taught him.
Sandra reminisces that these were some of the best times of her life. However, the school was not without its controversies. Many parents, despite their liberal leanings, didn’t like the idea of their children getting their carefully chosen threads dirty at playtime and Sandra recalls how they had to dust off soil and bits of twig, and scrub grass stains off trouser knees before delivering the little ones to their parents. Others disliked the school because they said it didn’t go far enough in its liberal approach to language learning.
Unfortunately, Sandra and her husband were forced to close the school doors for the last time 10 years later. She admits that they weren’t business-minded enough and spent most of the profits on the equipment.
Now, of course, Torino has lost much of its grey, industrial image and tempered its conservatism while the Italian state school system and other private nurseries have adopted some of the interactive and fun approach to language learning that Sandra first pioneered locally.
These days, after many memorable and productive years working in the Italian state school system herself, as well as for San Paolo Bank, and the University of Turin, Sandra works as a language consultant at her son’s language school Just Talk in via Saluzzo, 4. Here the emphasis is on keeping class sizes to a maximum of six, careful pricing and a home from home environment in which to learn. In fact, the school is so relaxing and homely I warned Sandra that I might be moving in! The decor is light with warm coloured tones, dark oak desks and coffee tables, transparent moulded plastic chairs, deep, comfy sofas and home style light fittings instead of the usual standard white walls, grey plastic tables and strip lighting that furnishes so many private language schools. You can even pop round for a cup of tea and nibbles at their monthly evening social event. If you are interesting in signing up for the event you can go to the Just Talk Facebook page. For courses go to www.justtalk.it/ or firstname.lastname@example.org
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