Interview with Tony Blain

09 November 2008


When Tony Blain was in his last year of school he wanted to be a physical education teacher. Instead, he had a career in cricket - playing for Central Districts, Canterbury and the Black Caps, followed by a stint at coaching and commentating. Along the way he picked up a black belt in Seido Karate, finally coming full circle to achieve his original goal of becoming a teacher and graduating with a Bachelor of Physical Education in 2006. He is still making an impact, but now he has taken his passion and drive for sports into teaching at-risk youth - giving them the learning and life skills they need for the future.

Born in Nelson in 1962, where his father was a schoolteacher, Tony attended Nelson College and Motueka High School where he played cricket and rugby. He went on to play 11 tests and 38 One Day Internationals for New Zealand as a right-hand batsman and wicketkeeper - or as he casually puts it "the guy with the gloves". And yes, in case you have ever wondered, he says the ball does come at you rather fast when you're standing behind the wickets.

Tony retired from competitive cricket in 1995, and spent two years coaching the Auckland Aces. Auckland Grammar then snared him to coach their 1st Eleven cricket team, and as he describes it "In the end I sort of fell into teaching."

"I started in a cricket coaching role but that morphed into PE teaching and it sort of grew from there. I was enjoying it, so in 1999 I decided to do the degree."

Tony says that the Faculty of Education, or ACE as it was known back then, bent a few rules to let him in the door as the first part-time PE student. Often busy with sports teams or covering for other teachers, after one year of 37 days away with cricket teams he decided that it was time to move on and finish his studies full-time. At 40-ish he says he was hardly your typical university student, being older than the other students and even some of the lecturers, "I played my first test before most of them were born," he recalls. The course was also quite a challenge in many ways. Having a dislike for computers he wrote all his assignments by hand - including a 10,000 word research assignment. And being a comprehensive programme, there was a lot to learn.

"I wasn't good at everything," he admits. "I couldn't swim a length so Kevin Moran taught me to swim. I learnt to trampoline, and spent three fantastic days on a Marae up North immersed in Mäori culture. Because I'd spent all my time playing cricket I wasn't very outdoorsy, and we got to spend a week outdoors in the bush and camp out overnight."

Tony recalls that lecturer Wayne Smith was so accommodating he even let him bring his golden retriever Larry to lectures. Larry, who lost an eye to a cricket ball, still helps Tony on the job in his classroom at Kelston Boys High School with his homeroom class of Year 9 at-risk boys. Larry is, says Tony, "a real calming influence, who encourages empathy among the students."

"I let Larry wander around the class and if I can see that one of the boys is not too good, I'll encourage Larry to just park up there for a while. They're allowed to pat Larry, but the rule is that they have to keep working."

An all-rounder in the classroom, Tony teaches maths, English and social studies. Bringing skills from a successful career in sport, he has transferred the discipline, teamwork and humour of the sports field to his teaching. This is invaluable for boys that may be a bit behind or dealing with issues outside of school, and who value the safe, structured and positive environment that Tony's classroom provides. The main thing he brings from sport to teaching, he muses, is probably an emphasis on the importance of having firm boundaries. "The classroom is like a dressing room I tell the boys, and the class is a team - and a good team is like a 'band of brothers' so they need to help each other keep out of trouble."

One of his techniques is to harness the boys' natural competitiveness in the morning '5 and 5' quiz - ten maths and English questions to get the day started. "At times the class is a running competition to see who can do the best, but boys respond well to that, and if I don't do it, it's 'Sir, what about our quiz, what about the points!'" he says.

Tony still finds time to teach a bit of PE. He coaches the 1st Eleven cricket team and runs the Cricket Institute at Kelston Boys - but teaching young people is where he has found his form.

"I love the job and I feel like I have really found my niche here. Looking back on why I really enjoy my work with these boys, I'm often reminded in my classroom of what I observed through 20 years of playing team sports. In a sporting context you want to get the best out of a team to perform at a high level, and in an educational setting you want your class to stay on task and learn without distraction, disruption and disagreement - either way they need to finish what they are doing successfully so that they want to come back and do it all again."

Penelope Frost