Thursday, August 1, 2013

Betta's Story

I met Betta at the Ballyneety English Summer Camp.  She has brought a group of 35 Italian teenagers on a 2-week summer camp to study English in Ireland.  The camps are a mix of English lesson and fun activities and are taught by volunteers such as Steve and myself.  Betta runs a Language School in Como, close to Milan.  She has brought this group of city kids here as much to introduce them to the country and give them a new experience as to immerse them in an atmosphere where English is spoken as the native language.  But how did she come to be running an English School in Italy?  Over a glass of red wine, Betta begins to tell me her story…

Betta is now 47 years old and grew up in Milan.  She moved to her grandma’s villa in Como when she was 16 but wasn’t initially happy about this transition.  Soon she was old enough to get a scooter and with the acquisition of wheels she began to taste freedom and gain her independence.  Being the fourth of 5 siblings, she had often just followed the older kids around.  Finally she says, she feels she has started her life…

Betta went to a college to obtain a diploma in ‘Interpretation and Translation’
Even as a young girl, Betta had many experiences in life.  She moved to the US for a year working as an au pair in Greenwich Village, Connecticut.  She found herself working for a family looking after 5 young kids and knew even at a young age that she felt passionate about working with kids.  

Her dad was in the business of manufacturing spectacle frames and saw in Betta the child with the potential to help him in the family business.  He enticed her to get involved by offering her the chance to travel to many European countries, promoting the sale of his frames.  She visited Greece, Norway, Spain, Portugal, Sweden, France, Finland, Cyprus - having the time of her life but not really feeling passionate about being a sales girl.  She took up an office post in Switzerland and the pay and full time job gave her the break she was looking for to leave home at 22 to start living on her own...

Betta was really enjoying her life but she also took her job seriously.  It was while on an assignment to an exhibition in England that she met the Englishman she eventually married.  They moved to Dorset and suddenly at 26 Betta felt her life was undergoing change once more.  She found it hard to fulfill the expectations of being a wife in England.  Integrating into the English culture and the more formal way of doing things was very foreign to the carefree spirit of this Italian girl. During a visit to England her dad confirmed that he no longer saw in Betta the spirit and essence of his Italian daughter…

In 1992 she had her son and she started to feel alive again.  She reveled and delighted in motherhood and despite the happiness she felt in her new role she knew deep inside she wasn’t living the life she craved.  About a year after her son was born her dad offered them a job in Hong Kong, as by now she and her husband were both working for the family business.  It was a breath of fresh air for their marriage and she hoped they could find happiness and a new beginning in a place that was neutral territory for them both with no pressures from family ties or cultural obligations.  Their first couple of years in Hong Kong was great and Betta began to feel deeply that she needed to give her son a sibling and so she had a second child – a daughter who was born in Hong Kong. 

Despite the new location, there were still cultural differences that were difficult to overcome.  Betta’s Italian spirit demanded that she had a wide circle of friends while her husband was far more reserved and even resented this desire for so much companionship.  Eventually, after 3 years in Hong Kong a holiday with her kids in Italy turned into the opportunity she needed to leave her marriage.

Her parents helped her to assimilate back to life in Italy.  She worked for her dad in the family business and her kids assimilated to the Italian way of being.  She knew she wanted her kids to retain the English language - their dad was an Englishman after all and she wanted to make sure those lines of communication remained open.  Her daughter Carlotta was only a year old when she moved back to Italy and would only let Betta speak in English to her if she pretended to be a little rabbit.  Every night they played with the little puppet that became the tool for her daughter to develop English skills. 

When the principal of the nursery her daughter attended realized this little girl’s language skills, Betta was invited to come along and teach English at the nursery.  She negotiated working hours with her dad, so she could spend time teaching English.  Slowly word got around and soon one of the mums invited her to teach English at her house to her own kids and those of her friends.  Betta was now formally teaching English as a part time job to 6 kids between the ages of 3-4.  When it was time for these kids to go to pre-school, the mum arranged for Betta to teach English at the school that her daughter attended. 

When the kids turned 5 and went to the State Primary school there was a problem.  The school system in Italy did not start teaching English till the kids turned 8.  Mums have a huge influence in the curriculum of Italian schools.  Somehow, this group of women persuaded the school Principal to change the policy and engage Betta to teach English to the younger kids.  They were starting to break the rules…and Betta was beginning to be noticed.

The rabbit had now morphed into a bear and her teaching was beginning to get serious.  Betta went back to the lady who had got her started on this path and asked her for help.  This mum was working with kids who had special needs and put Betta in touch with the Glen Dorman method of teaching kids.  This teaching method was designed to teach kids with special needs but it is a revolutionary method where students are encouraged to develop mental abilities to recognize words and pictures.  Glen Dorman was able to teach kids with mental issues to read when they were 3 years old and Betta decided she needed to learn this method of teaching.  She enrolled in a training course being run in Florence and began to apply these methods to help very young kids develop an incredible vocabulary in English. 

Betta was slowly obtaining the tools she needed to expand her teaching and her school.  She enrolled in College once again and obtained a second diploma in Community Management.  She rented a church hall to start her own school and this saw the birth of her very own Language school.  She ran the school on her own for a year but as the demand for English expanded Betta realised she needed help.  She employed her first teacher…

Her journey in teaching English has taught her much and she has bravely faced the many challenges that have come her way.  One of these was dealing with a child who was dyslexic and realizing that even at a young age, children are just associating patterns with words so it didn’t really matter if a word was upside down or not – a child will still recognize it.  By the time these kids were about 8 years old they had a massive vocabulary but unfortunately it isn’t retained!   

Betta’s school is growing fast and by now she also started to open her own family run kindergarten.  Using government grants that were given to families who banded together to look after their own, Betta started to use the available social services to fulfill another dream.  The family run kindergartens slowly expanded.  Soon, there were 3, 1 of which was in the city.  Betta was also teaching English to the little ones at these centers and then using the premises in the city as an English Language school after 4pm.  The Kindergartens were not open for a long time.  As the kids grew up this sort of care was no longer needed and although new families signed up, they didn’t seem to have the same passion to keep it going as the first bunch of families who initiated it.

Betta finally sold the Kindergartens and rented new premises to open a new English school in Como.  She now has 9 teachers and 214 kids ranging in age from 3 – 16!  Her school is certified as a Cambridge ESOL EXAM Preparation Centre.  She has won many awards for her work and in 2010 the Regional Council awarded her a very prestigious prize for being a Successful Business Entrepreneur, for providing opportunities for women and for the rapid expansion of her home grown business.

Betta’s story inspires me because I see in her, a woman who has had the courage to follow her dream.  I see a woman who was not afraid to walk away from her marriage despite the traditions she came from, because it meant living a life that was not consistent with her spirit.  These are not easy choices but being honest to yourself and realizing your passions calls for sacrifices that many people are not prepared to make.  She has shared with us her secret to teaching kids, the secret of emotional learning.  Give them your trust she says, break through their filters and let them trust you. 

Betta, it has been a pleasure to get to know you in the limited time we had and I wish you all the best in your journey.

Betta has invited us to visit her in Como and hopefully, our travels and schedules will allow us a visit to her villa in Northern Italy enabling another connection with a fellow traveller can continue into the future…

If you want to make your dreams come true, the first thing you have to do is wake up.  ~J.M. Power

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