The story goes that when five-year-old Matthew Farley came home from his first day of school, he told his mother he wanted to be Headmaster “like Mr Reifer”.
He doesn’t remember saying so, but he takes his mother’s word. “I was five years old so if she said so it must be true … and ever since then my life avenues have led me and I became a teacher.”
After leaving school in 1973, Farley completed a six-week induction course, and in September that year, took up his first teaching job at the St John’s Mixed School. He went on to teach at Vauxhall Composite, St. Lawrence Composite and Ellerton Primary where he was Senior Teacher.
“And now 44 years hence, I’m looking back on a career that I really enjoyed,” he told Barbados TODAY.
“I always wanted to be at the top of my career, so once I entered teaching it was not my desire to settle for less than the best so I sought to become a principal because I felt that a principal has tremendous influence. A teacher could influence at the classroom level but I think that the principal who has an overall vision for the institution, is strategically placed to impact in a much greater way.”
So he pursued professional, academic and administrative training before letting his superiors know that he was interested in “running things”.
Farley’s first stint as a principal was at the St Mary’s School in 1996, where he would spend the next seven years at the helm.
“St Mary’s is an inner city school with its own challenges. The high point of that was that St Mary’s was the pilot project for Edutech [an education reform programme which focuses on information and communication technology], which was funded by the IADB, some $396 million and the school was chosen to be the pilot project and I was the principal.
“We had a state of the art computer lab, we had technology in the classroom, technology became part of management, it was really a high point in my career,” Farley said.
Farley later transitioned to a secondary institution, and in 2003 became principal of the Garrison Secondary School, now the Graydon Sealy Secondary.
“I spent 11 years at the Graydon Sealy Secondary School and that was also a high point because the school … didn’t get the recognition that I thought it deserved. And it was my intention once I was there, to make sure that every time you open the newspaper, every time you listened to the radio it was the Garrison, the Garrison, the Garrison.
“And I tried to instil in the students that we were just as good, or better than anybody else. That was the spirit that I left behind, and I said that the same way we have the Combermerians and Harrisonians, we have Garrisonians!”
As an educator, Farley was a strict disciplinarian; a trait he believes is necessary in order to mould his charges into responsible citizens.
“Contrary to what people think, students admire teachers and leaders who are firm, who are guided by clear principles. We might come over as a bit strict, but it is that type of teacher, it’s that type of profile that students love most and remember longest. I had an excellent relationship with my kids. They knew what I stood for and they complied, and when they didn’t comply they knew what happened,” he said.
His relationship with the students extended beyond the classroom to the basketball and netball courts. “Wherever they were playing I was there. Any finals in basketball or netball I was there…. And I was the chief cheerleader at every final. And that was the way to say ‘I’m with you’.”
A few years ago Farley made headlines when he sent home 213 students for breaching the school’s dress code, and wearing skirts less than two inches below the knee, and in the case of boys, wearing sagging trousers. He later took similar action against 265 students for the same infraction.
“It was not so much about the two inches below the knee. It was about students and parents recognising that the school has rules and those rules have to be adhered to. When these students leave school, they graduate and they go into the world, they’re going to go into organisations that have dress codes and they have to comply.
“So it was more about creating that environment of discipline that people recognise that there’s a connection between what happens in school and what happens after,” he stated.
As an educator, he founded an advocacy group, the National Forum on Education, to promote the importance of education on the island, and also served as general secretary of the Barbados Union of Teachers (BUT).
He was also a talk show host and a prolific newspaper columnist, with articles focusing on issues within the education sector.
After more than four decades in the service, Farley retired in 2014. Last year he was awarded the Barbados Service Star for his contribution to education. He remains busy, with speaking engagements within the education sector, growing vegetables, and as a radio announcer on Life 97.5.
He is also enjoying his second marriage to his wife Alphine, also a teacher. They first got married in 1984 and had “the three most beautiful daughters in the world”. However that union ended in divorce in 2004. Farley said he is grateful that his family gave him a second chance when, in 2013, the couple tied the knot for the second time.
“By virtue of that experience I was able to appreciate the importance of family and I was able, thank God, to get back on track and my second chance has been an exciting period in my life.”
Although he is no longer running a school, Farley’s passion for education lives on. He believes teaching is one of the most important professions in the world.
“You may live for a whole lifetime and never go to a doctor… never see a lawyer; you have to encounter the undertaker at the end, but you can’t get away from having been impacted by a teacher at some point in time,” he said.