In conversations with students, I am often asked why I wanted to be a teacher.
When I was five I loved school, so much so, I would come home and recreate the classroom for my teddy bears and little sister who I taught to count and say her ABC. I loved my first teacher Mrs Daniels, she was warm and rounded with friendliness. I can still remember her vividly, in fact I can recount all my primary teachers by their names and in order. But secondary school was an unmitigated disaster.
My all girl convent school was beautiful, it sat nestled between Greenwich Park and Blackheath, it was my Mallory Towers and my head was filled with romanticism and idyllic scenes of learning. It was such a far cry from my multi-cultural primary school and even further from my Enid Blyton dreams. The girls were all so much cleverer than me, I felt different and awkward from the very first assembly when they all sang Ave Maria and knew their prayers. I was an outsider from the beginning.
There was particularity awful moment when I said something I still cringe at today. I was trying hard to fit in with girls who knew each other from Catholic primaries across the different boroughs of South London. I sat down to talk to Ann and Natalie, I was frozen with fear. They all spoke so differently to me, I came from Plumstead a suburban enclave of NowheresVille, they haled from the exotic and never before heard of places like Sydenham and Bermondsey. I sat down and I know I must have come across cocky and confident but I wasn’t. I wanted to say to Natalie, I am feeling lonely and would really like to be your friend but I said, I know a girl called Natalie and she is a right dickhead too. And that was it, I don’t know why I said it. To this day, I haven’t got a clue, I think I wanted to impress them with my hard attitude being from Plumstead and all.
Having alienated myself, I found there was no going back, Natalie was a gentle girl and her friend Ann was fiercely protective of her. Ann never forgave me, despite any attempt to say sorry. This one was of many friendship lessons I was to learn from in my teens.
I mentor young people to forgive themselves, to allow them to make mistakes and to learn from them. Wrong answers provide learning opportunities in my classroom, and as a Head of Year, mistakes can generate great discussions whether one-to-one or in an assembly.
I don’t recall the purpose of our Head of Year, she was the same age as my Nan and felt entirely unapproachable. Her tweed skirts never shifted an inch from her knees, I just remember hues of dark green and browns, with heeled court shoes, she looked as if she should smell of moth balls; I never got close enough to find out. I told my mum that I was feeling left out but didn’t articulate my part in it all. She must of telephoned the Head of Year, who appeared in my form room, she sent me out while she spoke to the class. Like I didn’t know what she was doing. It was humiliating, embarrassing and worse still, the girls probably thought I was getting them in trouble. That was my only interaction with her.
Shortly after my 12th birthday, my parents split up. Money became very tight and I could no longer hold my mum to ransom over the latest fashions (I refused to go to school until I had a pair of Kickers from Shelly’s in Deptford). I always felt like I wasn’t good enough and it was this lack of self-esteem that affected my interactions with my peers. I wasn’t able to go to the cinema or do the things that I imagined the girls in my class did on a weekend. My teenage years definitely influences how I deal with young people. I try very hard to understand their point of view, I listen and try not to miss an opportunity to let them shine. I wonder how things would have turned out if I had had a teacher mediate between me and Natalie.
By Year 8 I had started skipping Geography on a Monday morning, by the end of Year 8 it was whole days and no one noticed. The more I missed in school, the more difficult it was to catch up and so it spiraled out of my control and still no one noticed. The more I got away with, the more daring I became and this applied to my behaviour as well as my truancy. Our class became notorious, we were moved from the main school to the annex and it left a lot of time between lessons and the arrival of a teacher for us to misbehave. On one particular day, I had been given a detention by my RE teacher for something I hadn’t done, so I kicked the classroom door so hard it fell off its hinges, with the aid of my classmates, we managed to put it precariously back up. When the English teacher arrived ( I don’t remember her name, but I do remember her belt and the way her sizable middle oozed out on either side), she opened the door and fell forward. She rocked like an upside turtle and muttered something about not knowing her own strength whilst we girls rushed to her help her up. No one ‘grassed’ me up, in fact my class would often take punishments that maybe only one or two of us should have got. A good example of the camaraderie was the Great Knicker Fight: Some of the girls who were mad for Take That had the whole class signing knickers with their names on them, within a matter of moments pants began to be hurled and flung around the room accompanied by loud shrieks and laughter. Our teacher walked in to find bedlam and demanded to know who was to blame, no one said a thing. She said we had until breaktime to own up or everyone faced a punishment. I don’t know whose idea it was, there were so many great leaders in my class but we all turned up to the staffroom and said sorry. She couldn’t help but laugh and dismissed us all.
My time at the school was up when I clashed with my RE teacher, Mr Collins. I had decided that I was going to get my head down, do the work, get serious and grow-up, probably for the twentieth time that week. I sat patiently in my chair, I didn’t really understand, I had missed most of the unit so I put my hand up. I wasn’t going to call out but Mr Collins ignored me. This went on for about 20 mins, in the end I asked why he wasn’t helping me, he ignored me and mumbled something about my absences and helping students who were ‘here more often’, I tried really hard to be calm, well at least for about a nano-second before I exploded with anger, I remember calling him some names and clearing his desk with one shove. I stormed out. I was angry at him for humiliating me, angry at myself for missing school and even more angry for not punching him. In the same week, I caused gas pipe to leak and the school had to be evacuated. My mum was called in, she had to sign a piece of paper to authorise my absences- the league tables were more important than me and this was my first taste of data over children, she also had to sign a piece of paper to say she was withdrawing me from the school voluntarily, as an exclusion wouldn’t look great on the school record either. My mum turned to the Attendance Service for help and I was allocated an Educational Welfare Officer.
No other school would touch me (headlines: Student excluded for Arson and Teacher Assault), my EWO tried her hardest but no avail so I didn’t do Year 10. It was November of Year 11 before any school considered me. I sat in the office of Mrs Baxingdale. She was the head of Upper School, this was a mixed Church of England Comprehensive- the diametrical opposite of my previous school.
She was taller, super slim and stared at me. But Mrs Baxingdale was instantly different, she talked to me, she asked me questions and I felt compelled to answer her honestly. She shook her head at the truancy and tutted at my incident with Mr Collins. She said, she would be keeping an eye for me and watching my every move and to her credit she did.
My new school was rough, on the first day I witnessed a fight between two boys who procured weapons from neighbouring fences and school bins, more joined in, the battle was bloodied and I was terrified. My antics in my previous school were nothing compared to what went on daily. I suddenly needed to survive and get through the days. I make no embellishments when I say I openly saw drugs being sold in classes, pupils smoking weed at lunchtime and violent attacks on other students. A typical Maths lesson involved three boys answering their mobile phones (1994), leaving the class and returning counting cash. One boy would doctor bus passes and dinner tickets and sell them, he had a pager. I rarely felt safe walking to lessons and fights would often break out for no apparent reason.
True to her word, Mrs Baxingdale would come and find me every now and then, she would sometimes just watch me through a window or make eye contact across the dinner hall but I knew she was rooting for me. I got my 5 A-Cs not incl. Maths.
I learnt some very harsh lessons very quickly in that school but I also learnt that teachers can change a young person’s life in a matter of minutes and with just one word. Mr Collins pushed for my exclusion and with out it, I doubt I would have got 5 A-Cs. I am a teacher because of Mr Collins and Mrs Baxingdale and my ethos and style of teaching is carved from my own experiences. I just wanted to be a better teacher than I ever had, Mrs Baxingdale aside.
One last thought, Mrs Lynda Baxingdale, died in 1996 two years after I left school. She had a heart condition which she never told anyone about. She remains my heroine, my teaching idol, an ode to all that teaching is and warning of what teaching can do.