Thursday, 24 February 2011

How (and why) I became a teacher . . .

My mum was a primary school teacher. I have few memories of her. She died when I was 7 years old. My dad, a quiet and proud man, was so devastated by the loss he never spoke of her again. Consequently, my mother's death was never explained to me. This silence fed my dark and fanciful imagination. I began to believe my mother had been murdered. Why else would no one speak of her? The dark shadow cast by this disturbing suspicion suffocated me for years. I was a teenager when I learnt the truth, when a friend's mum mentioned that my mum died of breast cancer.

Over the years my mum has come to represent to me everything that is nurturing, loving and essentially feminine. She loved her husband, her children and her home. When my mum was alive I remember our house as being eternally scented with baking sugar, vanilla and spices. It was warmed by flickering coal fires and decorated with home made cushions and curtains. Every inch of our home was filled with my mother's loving presence. Everything was made, created or designed by her. I can imagine that magical creativity and love was put to good use in her classroom too. I think she must have been a wonderful teacher: warm, kind and inspiring.

Through my teenage and university years my dad would often say that I too would become a teacher. The truth was I was utterly lost during those years, desperately insecure and often crippled with depression. I had no interest in teaching at all, I was too wrapped up in my own stale sadness. I studied for a degree in Drama and Theatre Studies. Even my choice of university course seemed a form of passive aggressive, self-harm. Why would someone who was paralysed with agonising shyness choose a course that required abundant self-assurance and swagger? God knows. It was agony.

In my 20s I met and fell in love with Chris (Son of Satan). We planned to have a family, I began to dream of the kind of life my mum had valued: a home, a family, a husband. It felt like everything I wanted. The baby never happened, We never really investigated why. In the end he cheated on me and, with a cruel wist of fate, got his girlfriend pregnant and left.

In my 30s I was working in a reasonably successful but vacuous job in corporate communications. I'd started to do more and more voluntary work in local schools. This was the time I began to first think seriously about teaching. I already had a degree, I would just need to study for a 1-year PGCE to qualify as a teacher. I suppose a massive, if unspoken, aspect of this dream was the realisation that I was unlikely to have any children of my own. It is actually quite hard for me, even now, to type that. I can feel tears pricking at the back of my eyes and a fluttering nausea in my chest as I acknowledge those thoughts.

When I was 35 my father was unexpectedly diagnosed with very aggressive, terminal cancer. I'd always loved my dad beyond measure. The bond between was fiercely strong. Within 12 weeks of the terrible diagnosis he was dead. I had taken time from work to care for him at home, until he died. After his death I began I feel, very strongly, that the time had come to do something more positive with my life. I applied to Durham University for a PGCE course in primary education (ironically, my mother too had trained to become a teacher at Durham). I qualified and ended up at the School of Hard Knocks. I am now half way through my 4th year of teaching.

It is very true, I have made hundreds of inept and clumsy decisions in my life: the atrocious boyfriends and the even more atrocious haircuts. But, I have never regretted changing career. I love teaching. Financially, it has been disastrous (hence my current church-mouse status) but emotionally and spiritually it has been the most positive decision I have ever made. Rochester and I had a big heart-to-heart about this, last time we met. He asked me if I was happy. The truth is, the only part of my life that I am truly happy with is my job. Sometimes I wonder if it is all that keeps me going.

I remember some absolutely inspirational teachers from my own primary school years. My Year 5 and 6 teacher was a sprightly matriarch called Mrs Robinson. Her passions were art, literature and the countryside. On sunny afternoons she would usher us outside for long, languid walks round our local village. As a class we could identify every tree, bird and wild flower. We spent whole days in the beautiful, sun-dappled woodland of Hawthorne Dene. Mrs Robinson was captivating, she inspired her class of colliery ne're do wells to see the surging natural beauty all around us. I also attribute my love of books to Mrs Robinson. She read us some very surprisingly dark and adult stories: Daphne du Maurier was one of her favourite authors. We always had a storybook before home-time, it is a ritual I have continued in my own teaching career: those twenty minutes of peace and stillness that allow the children to drift away into another world are so important. I do wonder, if in 20 years time, any of my current class will be teachers and whether they will read their class Born to Run (the book we are all mesmerised with at the moment).

As a child I loved my primary school. It felt like a very safe, vivid and magical place: Christmas was a time of nativity plays and carol singing, summer time was marked by the smell of cut grass and rounders on the school field. The gentle order and routines of school life are so comforting for children, especially for children who are living through difficult times. I also remember how very kind and reassuring my teachers were during the time of my mother's illness and death. After my mother's death, school became a haven of normality and happiness.

I suppose teaching was very different back then, in the 1970s: no OFSTED, no league tables, a fraction of the paperwork and (most importantly) no stifling National Curriculum. I am frustrated when I read the latest Tory education minister, usually in the Daily Mail, bemoaning how children these days leave school without knowing any Shakespeare sonnets 'off by heart' and cannot recite all the kings and queens of England, in chronological order. My favourite quote about education is from WB Yeats.

'Education is not the filling of a pail, it is the lighting of a fire.'

Teaching is a creative occupation. The Tory view seems to be that teachers simply pass on knowledge. That children are passive, empty vessels to be filled with facts. I don't see my job that way. Teaching is so much more than that. To me teaching is about inspiring children to be curious, independent, resourceful and ultimately, kind and considerate people. I love the creativity of teaching. Teachers should have the freedom to be creative, I think.

Teaching in a school like the SOHK can be tough. A disproportionate number of our children come from backgrounds that are unimaginably bleak and chaotic. As a 7 year old girl I lost my mum. That was a tragedy, but I had a strong and loving family around me. Many of our children live in homes saturated with abuse, neglect, addiction, crime, poverty and violence. For those children I want to create an environment that is calm, happy, loving and inspiring. That is not always easy, but it is the most rewarding and worthwhile way I can think of to spend my life. The fact that I probably won't have children of my own, well, there are no words really to express the sadness I feel about that. But, I do get to (brace yourself for a cliche of worthy and sanctimonious vomitrociousness) 'make a difference' to the lives of hundreds of children. And that, in itself, is pretty amazing, isn't it?

26 comments:

  1. I think this is a beautiful post. I was quite moved reading it.

    I am so sorry for all the sadness you have had to endure. I can't imagine how the 7 year old you coped with it all.

    It also shines through from this post how much you care, and how you are a fantastic teacher. Those children are lucky to have you. Especially if their lives are difficult. I still remember how some teachers almost saved my life at times I was unable to find solace elsewhere.

    Thank you for sharing.

    Katy x

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  2. I'm with Katy, lovely words as always. I share those happy memories of school as sanctuary when times were really hard at home. I was lucky to go to a small village primary school with amazing creative teachers, just like you. How sad that teachers can't be trusted to just teach anymore. And that you have such a major f***wit for a Headteacher.

    Thanks for your fab blog. I had some bad news yesterday - expected but it broke me a little bit. To stop my brain imploding I read the rest of your archives, and it really truly genuinely helped. Thank you.

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  3. I'm glad there are teachers like you around. You'll definitely make a difference.

    Great blog.

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  4. Katy, Claire and Nellig,

    Thank you for the lovely comments. And- sorry to hear you had some sad news yesterday Claire. I hope you're OK and I am genuinely touched that my nonsense helped.

    Off to plan my lessons about Elizabeth I now.

    Elizabeth

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  5. Thank you. I can only imagine how proud of you your parents would be.

    I loved primary school too - Miss Montgomery, in her black academic's gown - quick sums and learning to write with a fountain pen.

    Different times, eh.

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  6. Thank you for your comments Tired Dad and Elastic Girl.

    xxx

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  7. This post made me cry. I hope you're okay. I bet you are an amazing teacher.

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  8. What a beautiful post. I love it that you create a gentle environment for your students and that you find this career fulfilling despite the pompous head teacher and your awful assistant.

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  9. I just know from reading your blog that you are a wonderful teacher. I love that you end the day with the reading time. You're touching the future.

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  10. Kathryn, Patience and Marian - thank you so much for taking the time to comment. I really appreciate it,

    Elizabeth
    xxx

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  11. Aw, you made me cry a bit missus. They're exceptionally lucky to have you.

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  12. I'm a primary teacher (Y1) and I'm currently sat here attempting (and failing) to plan my numeracy lessons for the week according to the strict proforma laid down by the powers that be and wondering what the hell a 'success criteria' really means to a 5 year old, and whether I should just pack it in and go get a normal job somewhere...

    Then I read your post. I remembered why I love our job. Thank you for the inspiration :)

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  13. Aw, thank you for your comments Waffle and Kirsty.

    xxx

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  14. Miss Underscore, could you please come down to London and teach my three boys, somehow? They would be so lucky then. Teachers like you are few and far between. And they do make a difference. I had one wonderful teacher, when I was 8, and he made that year the richest shiniest year of my life. I learned about salamanders, silk worms, autumn flowers and solidarity. You have a wonderful job and the way you came to do it is both heart-breaking and inspiring.
    Thank you.

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  15. Miss Underscore, I don't know if this helps, but my father died very suddenly when I was 6. By the time I was 10, I was imagining that the only reason he had disappeared, was not because he died, but because he had done something so awful he had gone to prison or otherwise been sent away...

    Then when I was about 19, I read an article (The Guardian, obviously), that told me that young children who are suddenly bereaved often do things like this as a way of reasoning out why they were so suddenly left by someone so important.

    So, I wasn't strange after all, but just a normal child coping with an unusual situation.

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  16. I am late to the party but I loved this post too. My mum is a teacher in a pretty rough school in Scotland and she regularly gets 'Miss you are the best teacher I've ever had' cards at the end of term, which I'm guessing you do too as you sound a lot like her. I recently showed her your blog as I bet you would get on like a house on fire (she calls her headteacher Captain Haddock and the school secretary, a woman, Hagrid). I think teachers like you and her do it as a true vocation, and I find it immensely inspiring and humbling. Teaching is the most important job on the planet, I think. Bravo for you xx

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  17. Ha! Captain Haddock and Hagrid! I LOVE IT! School secretaries must be the same the world over. I asked for some pencils from our secretary last week and practically got my head bitten off for my impudence. Pencils, in a school - what a ridiculous request.

    Just heard we have our OFSTED inspection on Wednesday and Thursday. The whole school has gone into meltdown. Just taking 10 minutes now before I start my planning.

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  18. Such beautiful words, you are such a beautiful woman who truly makes a difference in our lives. You have taken on a task as fully important as any parent has, and what is more: You are taking the responsibility on your shoulders. Thank you for being you!

    You are an inspiration also on a personal level, your words strike me in the midst of my own haze of caring for an MND-stricken Father, having lost my Mother a short while ago, and the screaming pain of not having children... and still a house of illness is a home too, it shall be a place of laughter, in spite of the anguish within. Your words forces me to stand straight and keep working. Maybe there is a road after all right in front of us which turns out to be the right one to take???

    LouiseXX

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  19. Oh, thank you so much Louise. That's the most touching and humbling comment I've ever had! I think life is unspeakably hard. Getting through is exhausting. We all just muddle through each day as best we can (John Irving called this 'keep passing the open windows') and give as much love as we can along the way. I don't believe love is ever wasted.

    Do keep in touch.

    Elizabeth
    xxx

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  20. Would you consider adopting a child? It doesn't feel like it will take away the pain and sadness of not giving birth to a child, but after the fact, it does take it away.

    On a different note, I've always adored children and spending time around them, but I have no aptitude as a teacher at all. You're so lucky to have the gift.

    Ann

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  21. Two sandwiches16 May 2011 at 00:26

    Two comments:

    Beautiful, moving writing.

    Forget teaching my children, I want foxy Ms Underscore to teach me!

    (I may have let myself down with the second and lowered the tone)

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  22. Thank you Two Sandwiches!

    You are forgiven for lowering the tone. Foxy is an adjective I can live with.

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  23. Slowly working my way through your archives. Got to here and even though it is now a few years on, I must comment. This entry has moved me immensely. You write so beautifully. I wish I could give you a hug. A virtual one will have to do.

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