#Thank you teacher

How sad that it takes the violent death of a long-serving, much loved teacher to get #thankyouteacher set up. It got me thinking.

As a child my family moved around a lot due to work and family dis-harmony so I went to a lot of schools and a lot of teachers have had a hand in making me the person and teacher that I am. Whoever they are, or were, they made a difference.

I don’t remember my early primary school days in Kent but I do know I could read and write well along with a whole load of other things by the time I pitched up in Scotland age 9. Once my dad sorted a small matter of a bit of bullying, I flourished there. I went to a school with primary on the bottom and secondary – the ones that didn’t pass the exams – on the top. I remember fondly walking to another building where a nice lady read us stories from the classics; dreamy afternoons learning to sew – a large pair of embroidered bloomers a particularly fond memory – and mental arithmetic every afternoon (not my forte) with Mr McLennan. I have a picture of him and my class on my fridge. I thought him ancient and suspect he was dragged in to teaching post-war to make up the numbers. Looking at his picture now he doesn’t seem so old. More like a drill sergeant than a teacher, he kept us in check and tested us every week with the results determining our seating plan for the following week. I must have learnt things because one week (and only one) I occupied the seat at the back left corner of the room where the top of the class for that week resided. I didn’t get to preen for long. Secondary school was a bigger world and I was a smaller fish. There were lots of hard lessons to learn – including Latin (how did it work?) with Shuck McArthur, a terrifying figure.

England – Yorkshire specifically – beckoned. Turns out I was smart there but my stay was short and I was off to Liverpool. Pat Orme (Griffiths as was) and Veronica Garvey were my absolute idols. They were my Miss Jean Brodie and I lapped up everything they had to offer – books and Spanish and belonging and being happy. Miss Slater (maths); Miss Williams (PE and doing *gasp* dance – never before heard of); the bearded art teacher who let us experiment to find out if there was something blacker than black or whiter than white when we asked him and even funny Miss Lorimer (French) who was a relic from a much earlier age and seemed barely to have left the Edwardian Era; and the formidable Miss Pennycuick the headmistress who bestrode the corridors waving her arm like a Dalek to move us to the right side of the corridor: they all gave me so much. Everything really.

Then college. Bill Hughes, the heart throb of the place, who taught me English and opened my eyes to writers I have never heard of; Fred Starkey who taught me education and who seemed a terrifying figure until I pitched up in his tutor group and found a lovely, kind man with an interesting history and a spirituality rooted in his love of humanity. I went to see him only this Sunday – 93 years old. I love him dearly. They all started my journey to being a teacher.

But I didn’t stop learning from teachers when I started what turned out to be my career. I knew nothing when I started – it was terrifying but I got lucky. The school was a vibrant place where we were all learning together under the leadership of a charismatic, forward thinking Head who moonlighted as a children’s magician. Jim Bleakley take a bow. He encouraged his young staff to try things out, take risks, take the lead and in so doing set many of us on the path to success. Lyn and Chris and Joyce and Myra and Aidan and Johnboy to name a few all showed me ways to get the best out of young people and taught me about meetings and protocols and standing orders and procedures.

I lost my way then and found it again when I found Kathleen who swept me along to a myriad of courses which expanded my horizons and reminded me about how to think. She taught me how to plan and move children forward and how to lead and take responsibility. My lovely Tony Rawlings beloved of all of us and taken away far too soon who taught me the importance of kindness, generosity and humility. I miss him every day.

More big changes and another step change. Big kids to teach now – eek! Judith, Lesley and Yvonne taught me how to do secondary English and the value of team work. I thrived. I improved. I was respected. John Gadd made me a better leader while others taught me how not to do it and how bullies really are sad little people. Robin and Muriel showed me how to take a step back and how to deal with difficult people and a lot about kindness and second chances and the Last Chance Saloon when the wicked witch blows into town.

I did some academic learning of my own – an OU degree with Dr Barry, a wonderful tutor with a penchant for unsuitable women, one of a range of academics who fired my enthusiasm for English and Shakespeare (a first in that year) then a Masters with Heather – ever gentle and encouraging – and Mary who taught me about resilience when I wanted to give up.

And finally, a crop of bright young things who fizz with ideas and hard work and creativity and teach me anew every day about this wondrous skill of teaching – Paula and Simon and Sarah-Jane.

Teachers every one of them – derided by Government, pitied by the Hooray Henry’s making mega-bucks in the city, undervalued by those who really do think teaching is a cushy 9-3 job with long holidays. Teachers working hard every day to make better lives for children. Teachers putting the children they teach first and foremost, going the extra mile and giving of their best day in and day out. Traditional and progressive and all points in between.

Teachers. My teachers. The people who educated me. To those I have remembered and named and to the many I can’t recall: thank you. Thank you for all you have done and all you continue to do. You make a difference every day.

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How did I get here? Who I am: what I do.

As a little girl, I had a brief flirtation with the idea of being a nun (overly impressed by pious relatives and The Song of Bernadette), a nurse (no idea where that came from as illness is only permitted for 24 hours in our house) and an actress (they weren’t called actors when I was a kid). The nun bit lasted a nano-second, the nurse hung around a bit and the actress was something I yearned for. I was in all the school plays but I realised I wouldn’t be able to “sell” myself and would probably never make it. Luckily, I had always liked teaching my dolls and being bossy and being a teacher soon took hold of me – I’ve always thought of it is a branch of acting.

When the time came to think about my future career, I was clear that I was going to be a teacher. In fact, what I was mostly clear about was that I wasn’t fit for anything else. I simply couldn’t imagine what sort of job I could do. I was rubbish at maths, even worse at geography, good at languages, English and history. I didn’t really understand university: I didn’t know anyone who had ever been and had no idea how it worked. My mother left school – which she hated – at 14 and went to secretarial college: a clever, eloquent woman it limited her life as she never thought she could be anything other than a secretary. She hated school, had no idea what went on there and was happy to leave my education to the teachers. My father left home at 17 and joined the navy – possibly to escape his 12 twelve siblings! So I had no history with education and no-one who could explain it all to me. Today, I would be part of the Aim higher cohort.

School was a place I loved. I got it. I knew how to do it. I was clever – they said. I had loads of friends and did loads of things – sport, drama. I was secure and successful there.

And lo, I went to teacher training college. In truth it was an extension of school. I heard wild stories about people who went to university – a distant and strange place – who never went to lectures. Crikey, we had a timetable and were in trouble if we missed lectures! In the fullness of time, I was turned out in to the world as a teacher knowing – as it turned out – absolutely nothing!!

I secured my first post in a northern mill town in a middle school following a hairy interview for what was called a pool post. Plenty of young teachers were appointed and then allocated to schools. I don’t know how that worked but always suspected there was a big bun-fight among the various heads to grab the ones they thought would be good. I didn’t really know what teaching was other than that I turned up and said things to the kids or wrote things on the board, they did things and then we all went home, which was pretty much what happened in my schooldays. I had no idea about careers and progression. I just thought it was what I would do.

I pitched up on the first day of term – no pre-visits, no information, no Inset days, no induction, no mentor and no idea! I knew nobody but was lucky to find a lively place full of creative, dynamic teachers and the quirky maverick in charge who was universally called “The Boss” and was the best head I ever worked for – worth a blog of his own. I was taken to a classroom and then my class arrived: thirty 10 year olds, twenty of them boys, three Marks and two Garys! I had never taken a class totally on my own. I had thirty pencils and some pieces of paper. And that was it.

I don’t know how I survived – but I did. I loved it. The kids were great. I lived in the area and they used to call for me when there were school events on! My first years were very rocky but I gradually got the hang of it – although how I ever taught them any maths is beyond my comprehension. I know I once had a boy in my class who was infinitely better at maths than me and always checked my answers against his!

So that was four years and then there was a man – feckless as it turned out – and a baby boy and then another. Proper mothers gave up work to look after their babies. It soon became evident that I was not a proper mother. Beset by depression – post natal twice; debt – the feckless man – and plunging, crippling despair I thought the world a black, bleak place and longed for a bus to knock me over so I could spend time in hospital while someone else sorted everything out for me. The feckless man had no work and we had no money so I parked my six week old baby and found some supply work. Grim! Let us draw a veil.

Then “The Boss” gave me work to cover a maternity leave. It was the start of the beginning. I was scared and cautious and not sure I could do it anymore but slowly and with lots of support from colleagues and friends I gradually found my voice and some confidence. “The Boss” did a bit of networking and got me some work in another school – you could do that sort of thing then.
I thrived.

By now the feckless man was gone and the baby boys at primary school and I was that bête noir of Thatcher’s Government – a single mother. Worse: I was a teacher!!!! I met my dear friend K who was focussed, organised and driven and dragged me along in her wake. We went on lots of courses run by school advisors – brilliant people – at the local teachers’ centre. (Oh that we had that luxury now.) All in our own time to improve our practice. It worked as I got my first promotion: teacher in charge of the library. It became my kingdom.

Emboldened I went on to apply for a head of year post in a different school. To the astonishment of all concerned, not least me and the internal candidate the post was intended for, I got the job. It would seem I was having a sort of career after all and I was quite flabbergasted. I was not an entirely easy fit being feisty and opinionated and the school rather twee and middle class. The Chair of Governors was a local vicar who insisted on referring to me as comrade until I finally confronted him about it. But I did a good job and the children I nurtured thrived and were successful.

Then came re-organisation. The middle schools were swept away and their staff given the choice of primary or secondary. I chose secondary and was sent to the biggest school in the authority with a large promotion. That didn’t go down well, I can tell you and there was much discussion and many rumours about who I slept with to get it. No-one, actually. I became first Head of Arts and Leisure and then Head of Key Stage 3. It was quite turbulent as it was never plain sailing at the school and eventually it ran into difficulties, the authority stepped in and big changes came. A new Assistant Head post was created and against the odds I applied and was appointed. That also didn’t go down well and a group of Heads of Faculty wrote to the Governors to have my appointment over turned. You can see what sort of time I was going to have! And I did. It was uphill but I batted on being given more and more responsibility as time went on.

It was around this time that it dawned on me that I could aspire to be a Deputy Head, maybe even a Head and so I started applying and got an interview immediately although not the job. Still, it was a good start. Then I realised that all person specs were asking for a degree in the essential column. Big problem – I didn’t have one. So I nervously signed up with the OU uncertain as to whether I could get a degree. It was like a duck to water – I loved it. I worked hard at school broadening my experience all the time and studied hard at weekends and holidays and eventually gained a 2:1 Honours. I was thrilled. Then I gained the NPQH –first in the school to do so. This was quickly followed by a Masters in Educational Leadership (I make that sound like a breeze but it wasn’t!) where I found my lovely friend M who dragged me through it when I was numbed by doubt. Here I was, a girl who never thought she could get one degree sitting with two!

But the Deputy Headship never materialised. I tried very hard as I related in a previous blog (and if I knew how to do that thing where you write here and it takes you to that blog then I’d do it!). Disappointment followed disappointment, near miss by near miss (apparently) until my confidence was shot and I could no longer face it. I had a dark time when a new head blew into town and decided to get rid of me. A very dark time. But I got a secondment to a neighbouring school and the new head paid my salary for nearly two years before I was appointed to a permanent post following a full recruitment process.

I remain there seven years later, happier than I have been for many years making an important contribution to the work of the school and contemplating, with a heavy heart, retirement.

What, you might ask, about my vocation and the kids and all of that stuff – this is all about me. Well, yes and no. I was doing these things to further my knowledge and career for myself but also the benefit of the kids I was teaching. I have worked in the same authority for my whole teaching career. It is an area of deprivation and many of the children I teach face monumental challenges that make me wonder how they get out of bed in the morning. I quickly realised that education was the only way out for them and their families. I needed to get them skilled up and away to college and university so they could start changing things for their families.

Later, I realised that I had failed my own children by being too complacent. I didn’t realise I needed to sit with them while they did homework – no-one ever did that with me – and I thought that they would do alright as I had done. Except they didn’t. I was determined that I would not fail the children I was teaching. I would not let up. I would do everything in my power to get them to where they needed to be. I don’t believe in second chances. I believe in third and fourth and fifth and sixth and more chances. However many and whatever it takes for them to be successful. And they respond. They know I care, that I work hard for them, that I am on their side. They know where they stand with me: I am the adult in charge, they listen, do as they’re told, learn, thrive. And they appreciate it. Last year at the 6th Form College presentation one of mine – a refugee – said, “Miss you were a slave driver! But I’m glad because I got my grade.” He’s studying law now.

That was, is and will ever be my moral purpose.