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June 2024 - Year 26 - Issue 3

ISSN 1755-9715

A Pilgrim’s Odyssey

Robert Gillan studied Modern Languages at Oxford and Fine Art at the Kent Institute for Art and Design. He was the Summer Course Director for the Pilgrims Language in Action courses 1980-88 and the Director of the Pilgrims Adults’ and Teacher Training courses 1988-92. He was the Director of SEAL (The Society for Effective Affective Learning) 1997-2000 and ran his own Management Training Company 2000-2017.  Prior to those appointments he had an eleven-year career in the Military. Email:



This Odyssey is in four parts. Part One covers the years 1977 – 1988 during which I was heavily involved with Pilgrims children’s courses, “Language in Action”. Part Two covers the years 1988 – 1992 when I was employed full time by Pilgrims as the manager of the Adults’ Language and Teacher Training courses. Part Three covers the years 1992-2013 and might be termed “The Wilderness Years” during which time I had no direct contact with Pilgrims, though its influence informed and inspired the work I was doing then principally as a management trainer. Part Four covered the years 2013 – 2019 when I was readmitted to the Pilgrims fold.


Part One

My first experience of Pilgrims was by way of a massive culture shock.  It started when I answered an advertisement in the local paper which read something like “Teach English to Adults, £75 per week.” Back in 1977 £75 was a lot of money! I believed that, by virtue of being able to speak English, I would be able to teach English. How wrong I was! I experienced what I can only described as one of the most bizarre interviews imaginable, conducted by Jim Wingate, the creator of Language in Action. I should have realised that I was in for something bizarre. During my military past I had come across his uncle, Orde Wingate, creator of the Chindits who did much to turn the tide of World War 2 against the Japanese by his ultra-unorthodox tactics and of whom Winstone Churchill wrote after his (Wingate’s) untimely death in an aircraft crash “There was a man of genius who might well have become also a man of destiny.” Jim modelled himself on his uncle. I have a book entitled “Eccentric Soldiers”. Jim’s uncle, unsurprisingly, features prominently in that book. Jim himself was a product of Gordonstoun School, the creation of that educational pioneer Kurt Hahn.

After several weeks of waiting I was eventually contacted by Pilgrims and asked to present myself for an interview at the County Hotel, Canterbury. The receptionist at the hotel told me that “Mr Wingate” was to be found in Room such and such. I made my way to the room in question to find a large room in which there were many small tables with a number of fellow interviewees sitting at each table chatting to each other. In the centre of the room was Jim Wingate sporting a large ginger beard, seemingly writing, with a pith helmet (of the sort which his uncle would have worn) by his side. After spending quite some time chatting with those at my table, I felt it was time to make a move. I went up to Jim and asked him if he would like to interview me. All he said was “had you thought of teaching through art?” I replied that I had not but replied “no, but what a good idea!”. I was thanked and told that I was free to go.

I eventually heard back from Pilgrims to the effect that, because I had no experience teaching English as a Foreign Language, I would need to attend one of the introductory courses in such being conducted by Pilgrims at the apparently very generously reduced rate of £100 week. I subsequently discovered from Jim that what he had been doing while we were all sitting around chatting was observing how each of us was relating to the other interviewees and judging us by our interpersonal skills.

This reaction to my application to work for Pilgrims was in direct contrast to an application I had made to another Canterbury-based language school, at exactly the same time. That school offered me a job immediately and unconditionally and showed me precisely what I would be teaching on each particular day, at each particular time. I therefore had a choice between choosing to play very safe and enjoying a summer of security or taking a major risk by committing myself to an organisation which seemed at first to be distinctly disorganised and yet which displayed something refreshingly out of the ordinary. At the time I was a member of a part-time military organisation, the motto of which was “Who Dares Wins” and this seemed to be an opportunity to be daring by not playing safe, and so I chose Pilgrims.

I duly turned up for the first day of my three-week course and was immediately reminded of the opening lines of “The Go Between” by L.P. Hartley “The past is like a foreign country. They do things differently there.” Here, though, it was not the past, it was Pilgrims which was like a foreign country, so different it was to what I knew and had been accustomed to. My tutors at the beginning of this Odyssey were Janice Abbott and Mario, two teachers the likes of whom I had never experienced before and initially I had great difficulty in letting go of my previous prejudices and norms, in order to submit myself to their methods of teaching. It took a few days to be converted because of the radically new way of teaching which I learned, not only from Janice and Mario but other trainers in that early cohort of trainers, trainers such as John Morgan, Saxon Menné (both of them alas no longer with us), Lou Spaventa, Richard and Marjorie Baudains, Sheelagh Deller, Cynthia Beresford (at the time a Social Assistant, until she blossomed into the charismatic trainer she soon became), and Christine Frank. I encountered publications which brought fun and freedom to teaching, books such as “Challenge to Think” by Christine Frank and Mario. I even read “Get up and Do it.” The format of these books was also new in that they were not by a single author but had been co-authored by two trainers, with Mario’s influence being ever-present.

It was not only the teaching I was experiencing at Pilgrims which was so new, it was also the idea of a community, a coming together of trainers from far afield, all exchanging their experiences and expertise. It was if Pilgrims was a kind of melting put out of which came a multitude of new ideas and new enthusiasms. Two things greatly helped this process and the experiences for the trainers. The first was the technical evenings in which new ideas would be introduced and explored. The second was the commune, that coming together of the trainers at the end of a day over a meal prepared by the teachers and trainers themselves. Accommodation in Keynes College was ideal for that with the trainers all accommodated on the same corridor, this being before the days of Park Wood accommodation with its greatly superior facilities. Those initial days in Keynes, let us not forget, were somewhat spartan with its bedrooms lacking en-suite facilities and washing-up bowls being provided with the expectation that trainers would happily fill their washing up bowls with warm water from the communal washrooms and then carry them back to their rooms and wash there. Many a washing up bowl ended up in the duck pond, left-overs from a game which involved skimming the bowls across the water. This all made for a certain intimacy among the corridor dwellers, much enhancing the idea of a community, not just a pedagogical one.

I later discovered much, much later that Mario and I had both studied at the same college at the same university (The Queen’s College, Oxford) but how different our paths had been since then. Mine had been ultra-conventional, ultra unimaginative but I had, between university and 1977 acquired a degree in Fine Art and this had awakened in me a dormant streak of creativity and so the methodologies used by Mario and the other trainers had an instant appeal. At the time I was teaching full time at a girls’ boarding school where tradition was writ large. I was particularly fortunate in that environment because I had been recruited by that school to set up History of Art ‘A’ Level courses and so I didn’t have to follow in anybody’s footsteps. I could teach in my own way, heavily influenced by the methodologies I had encountered during my summers working with Language in Action.

So it was that I would be teaching and lecturing in History of Art during the academic year with my summers being spent re-charging my batteries as I had my annual dose of new and more exciting ways of teaching, courtesy of Language in Action and the very special teachers and other staff recruited by Jim Wingate.


Part Two

Part Two of this Odyssey began with a letter from the Managing Director of Pilgrims containing copies of two advertisements, one advertising a new post of Managing Director of the Language in Action courses, the other advertising a new post of Managing Director of the Adult’s and Teacher Training courses and asking if I was “remotely interested in applying for either of those posts.” I responded immediately, expressing a very keen interest in applying for the latter post.

My interview for this post was almost as bizarre as the one I had had in order to work for Language in Action eleven years previously, but for a completely different reason. I was duly interviewed over lunch at The Flying Horse pub just around the corner from the Pilgrims offices in Vernon Place in Canterbury. As my new employer and I walked back to the Pilgrims offices I was explaining my thoughts on how Pilgrims might expand. I said that expansion of the Language in Action courses was relatively easy because all that was needed was to increase the number of centres because the perfect formula had already been achieved by Jim Wingate all those years previously. I mentioned that increasing the Adults’ language courses could be difficult because of the degree of competition and that it was relatively difficult to emphasize the quality of Pilgrims courses above that of the competition. This, I explained, was where the Teacher Training courses enabled Pilgrims to stand head and shoulders above that competition. I had a vision of countless language learners throughout Europe and beyond excelling because they had been taught by a Pilgrims-trained teacher. I was later to be vindicated in this by one of the Pilgrims overseas representatives, Gordon Allen in Brussels. He represented a number of other language schools and said that what singled Pilgrims out from all the others was because, as he said “Pilgrims has an R&D (Research and Development) department, namely its Teacher Training.” I do not believe that my ideas about a vision for Pilgrims were heard because my interviewer was busy telling me that he “expected to be able to sell Pilgrims for £6million with a service charge for Mario’s services.” I found it deeply alarming that, within no more than twenty minutes after my interview, mention was being made of selling the very organisation which had just offered me a job!

1988 was a seminal year in Pilgrims, not only because of the creation of the two new jobs, but also because it saw the addition of non-native speakers as part of the Teacher Training team. This came about thanks to a particularly strong relationship between the Director of the British Council in Poland and John Beresford, who handled the bulk of the administrative side of Pilgrims. I believe that it was the suggestion of the British Council that Poland had a number of top-quality trainers and would Pilgrims be interested in employing them on our courses? Thus it was that the team was joined and greatly enhanced in that first year by Ewa Kryszkowska-Budny, Mariola Bogozka, Malgosia Swaj and, of course, our much admired and esteemed Editor Hania Kryszewska! So successful was this addition to the team that, not only was it repeated each year thereafter, but the venture was later increased to include trainers from other countries. 

It was not until I was working full-time for Pilgrims and attending conferences (principally those run by IATEFL) that I came to appreciate how highly regarded our Teacher Training courses were. I will give one example. I was at an IATEFL Conference in Milan (April 1989) and noticed to my great indignation that a freelance teacher had inserted his business cards into all our brochures, knowing how popular information about our courses would be and no doubt hoping that his business cards would prompt people to enquire about the work which he was doing! Needless to say, I removed his cards and tried to find him to express my displeasure but it would appear that he had already left the conference.

During my four years as a full-time employee the Teacher Training courses expanded considerably, partly as a result of natural demand and partly because of the reputation which Pilgrims had earned prior to my arrival, a reputation much enhanced by Pilgrims Publications and their development into the Pilgrims Longmans Publications.

My enthusiasm for the Teacher Training aspect of Pilgrims was not met with universal approval, certainly not with the shareholders. Twice I was accused of “sabotaging the business” because the financial profit from the teacher training courses was considerably less than the profit from the language courses. It was becoming clear that there was a major discrepancy between my vision for Pilgrims and that of the shareholders, though it was never clear what their vision was, other than profit. It was a great pity that this discrepancy in vision was never discussed between me and my employers. One of the clauses in my contract was that I would have an annual appraisal meeting. I never had one in the four years as a full-time employee, even though I asked on three occasions when I was going to have one. On one occasion I was told “I want to get this one done first.” “this one” being an Assessment Meeting. The two types of meeting are very different. An Appraisal Meeting is an essentially human process, the aim being to discuss what is going well, what is not going so well, and agreeing steps to help the employee to improve. An Assessment Meeting is simply a meeting to measure the financial contribution an employee is making to the business. In my four years I had just one such meeting. in which I was told that my contribution to Pilgrims central costs was “significant.” There was no discussion of any human aspect of my job or of how I could make a contribution which was even more “significant.” I found this lack of the human dimension to my job somewhat distressing. I was asked on one occasion for example “How much are you buying your teachers for?” I found it to be distinctly odd and very worrying that teachers were being looked upon as an expense to be bought. One doesn’t “buy” teachers, one pays them. One “buys” commodities such as spare parts. Pilgrims was being run as if it were a manufacturing industry and not the service industry which it is. A Manufacturing Industry deals primarily with objects. A Service Industry deals primarily with people.

I was “let go,” to use a euphemism, in September 1992, the official reason being a need to restructure Pilgrims in the light of a deep recession, one in which many parts of our economy suffered. One thinks, for example, of the UK leaving the ERM (the Exchange Rate Mechanism) and its turbulent effect on our economy. In my case there was indeed that reason but I was also shown by one of the secretaries a letter she had been asked to type in which was explained the fact that “letting me go”  would “help to resolve a personnel issue I have.” This is not the place to elaborate on what that personnel issue was.


Part Three

Part Three of this Odyssey was a time of fascination, exploration, discovery, uncertainty, delight and a multitude of different professional experiences. I had no immediate future in the world of EFL because I had no formal qualification because I had been “home-grown” by that course I had attended with Janice Abbott and Mario way back in 1977. With my departure from Pilgrims being in a September there were no qualifying courses (e.g. an RSA Preparatory Certificate in the Teaching of Adults) until the following summer. The priority was to find work as soon as possible.

My aim was to become a management trainer. I had heard somebody say at some conference or other “management trainers get really well paid!” I decided, therefore, to become a management trainer! That was my primary and initial motivation, namely to make money, pure and simple. To that end I needed to retrain in order to have credibility in the world of business and this I did by enrolling on a course run by the Institute for Independent Business. This was an excellent course which I would recommend to anybody not able to follow any of the better known and longer business courses, such as those run by INSEAD or the many other longer courses.

That, then, was the intention, to become a management trainer. It did not happen as quickly as I had planned because of what one might call a “diversion”, but a thoroughly enjoyable one. In early 1989 John Miles, the then marketing manager at Pilgrims alerted me to an upcoming conference being held at Reading University by an organisation called SEAL (The Society for Effective Affective Learning). John felt that I might find it useful to attend because it might be a source of good trainers. Other Pilgrims folk at that conference in Reading included Cynthia Beresford, Sheelagh Deller and Wojt Krajewski. That conference was one of those things which was to change my life. The Society’s Mission Statement was “We are doing much more than just improving learning and teaching methods. We are showing students and teachers how the classroom can be a place of excitement and fulfilment, a place where unsuspected talents and interests are discovered, visions of a future glimpsed and relationships deepened.” (Michael Lawlor. 1930-1997)

Such a Mission Statement, and one with such a sense of purpose had an instant appeal. There and then I became a member of the Society. In 1991 I joined the committee. In 1995 I assumed responsibility for marketing and, inspired by the Pilgrims “overseas reps” scheme, set about creating, or helping to create, overseas SEAL societies in countries such as Argentina, The Netherlands, Belgium, Israel, Finland and Italy. Each of these countries would hold a conference of their own every other year, with SEAL holding its conferences in the intervening years. In 1997 I was the Conference Manager for the conference being held at Bath University. At that conference there was what one might call “trouble at the top.” The Finance Director had a row with the Director and walked out the day before the conference was due to begin and the Director resigned at the end of the conference. I was asked to take over as Director, a post I held until 2000 when my plan to become a management trainer really took off.

I founded my own management training company, very much with an international flavour and for the next fourteen years I was kept exceptionally busy training a multitude of topics, with a multitude of companies and organisations, with the training being delivered sometimes in German, sometimes in French but normally in English. I mentioned the fact that the principal aim of this new direction in my life had been to make money “pure and simple.” That was until the following. I had a trainer whose speciality was Conflict Resolution. He told me one day how his then five-year-old daughter had asked him “Daddy, what do you do?” he could have answered something along the lines of “I am a management trainer specialising in Conflict Management.” Instead, his answer was “I help people to be kind to each other.” I was so struck by the human dimension of his definition of what he did that I asked myself “what is it that I do?” It occurred to me that what I was doing was helping people to be the best they can be. That seemed to be such a worthy aim to have in one’s professional life that it was that which became my motivation and raison d’être, and it brought a whole new dimension to my professional life.


Part Four

Part Four of this Odyssey was a kind of resolution, a return to the fold and it came about as follows. In 2003 it occurred to me that the business world is excellent at providing courses in Leadership, whether those courses are called “Supervisory Skills Courses,” or “First Line Management Courses” or whatever, but that there is no such training in Leadership for teachers. It further occurred to me that the role of the teacher had changed enormously in the last forty years or so because of radical social changes. Until about forty years ago the growing child could rely on a number of certainties, but which were no longer there. The first such certainty was the “nuclear family” consisting of two parents and two (or more!) children. That is almost no longer the norm nowadays as more and more children grow up without a male role model in their lives. There is the frightening statistic that 50% of boys whose parents divorce lose all contact with their fathers within two years. The second certainty was the extended family where grandparents, uncles, aunts, and other family members lived nearby and all had a contribution to make in the child’s development. The third certainty we no longer have is the local community where others in the community such as the local doctor, priest, elder or whatever could have an input into the child’s life. There is an African proverb which says “It takes a whole village to educate a child.” What the lack of these certainties means is that it is very often the teacher who is the one element of certainty and continuity and this puts a whole lot of additional pressures on the teacher, pressures for which they have had no training.

My initial intention has been to address this situation by means of a book and that is still the intention. In this venture I have been joined by my friend and colleague Mercedes Pérez Berbain from Argentina, one of my SEAL colleagues. In about 2013 we had the idea of trying out some of the material we had developed so far and immediately thought of Pilgrims being the ideal testing ground by virtue of its pioneering work in teacher training. Much had happened with Pilgrims since my last contact. In 2006 it had been sold, not for the £6million which had been mentioned to me back in 1988 but for a great deal less, to Till Gins owner of OISE and several other language schools. I am informed that Till, whom I have met on a number of occasions, has a very different attitude to the previous owner towards Teacher Training and has brought a real sense of vision and commitment to that aspect of his portfolio of language schools. As for Pilgrims in Canterbury, the Pilgrims I had left in 1992, I had heard from John Beresford a while previously that the Teacher Training operation was now being run by Jim Wright and that he was doing an excellent job. I had known Jim ever since he joined Pilgrims as an office boy and I had great respect for him. He had spent the intervening years conscientiously going about his job, observing all the while how Pilgrims operated. He was in many ways the ideal person to be managing the teacher training – and the teacher trainers, who required a very special type of leadership, a type in which Jim excelled. In this he was very ably supported by his wife Lizzie Wojtkowska-Wright who was managing the administrative aspect of the operation with the same excellence and commitment as Jim.

Mercedes and I duly contacted Pilgrims with our intention of trialling our idea of leadership courses for teachers and, not surprisingly, Jim gave us his wholehearted support and so began my return to the Pilgrims fold. A number of things had changed, during what I have described above as The Wilderness Years e.g. no longer using Keynes College but instead the Cornwallis Building and all trainers and teachers now being accommodated in Park Wood. In spite of such changes much had stayed the same, and it really did feel like a homecoming with many of the trainers, especially Hania, Silvia Stephan, Paul Davis and Bonnie Tsai (both of whom, very tragically, are longer with us) still steering the Pilgrims ship of innovation. New trainers had joined the crew, such as Phil Dexter, Mike Shreeve, Kati Somogyi-Toth and Judith Féher, the latter two hailing from Hungary. Not only was the team of trainers from overseas increasing, but the administrative team was too with the super-efficient Éva Pató Szebényi from Hungary running the Resources Room. Technical evenings still operated, as did the idea of the commune in which Park Wood was ideal. One thing which had not changed at all was that atmosphere of constant innovation which had characterised Pilgrims ever since those early days mentioned in Part One of this Odyssey.



One wonders how many thousands, if not millions of learners worldwide have benefited from and been inspired by Pilgrims Teacher Training. It has been both a pleasure and privilege to have been a part of that.


Please check the Pilgrims f2f courses at Pilgrims website.

Please check the Pilgrims online courses at Pilgrims website.

  • The Pilgrims Trainer: Charismatic Non-conformism!
    Till Gins, Lead Officer, Pilgrims

  • A Pilgrim’s Odyssey
    Robert Gillan, UK

  • The Humanistic Experience
    Sharka Dohnalova, Czechia

  • My Pilgrims Dream
    Marta Bujakowska, Poland

  • Another Reason Why Pilgrims is the “World”
    Stefania Ballotto, Italy and RSA

  • My Experience at Pilgrims – How It All Began
    Linda Yael, Argentina