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.
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.