“You are here to learn the subtle science and exact art of potion-making. As there is little foolish wand-waving here, many of you will hardly believe this is magic. I don’t expect you will really understand the beauty of the softly simmering cauldron with its shimmering fumes, the delicate power of liquids that creep through human veins, bewitching the mind, ensnaring the senses. . . I can teach you how to bottle fame, brew glory, even stopper death — if you aren’t as big a bunch of dunderheads as I usually have to teach.”
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
This last week the talk has been all about schools.
My brother flew from Zambia to London last week for an interview for a chemistry position at an independent school in the north of England.
He got the job!
There are so many ‘God-incidences’ linked to this interview, making it one of those unmistakably surreal, faith-building answers to prayer that some of us occasionally get to experience in this lifetime. What a privilege and a joy to be part of the ‘team’ to get this family of 5 to the UK – though they are not here yet and there are still quite a few hurdles ahead for them.
My role was to take my little brother shopping for a snappy suit (you can take the man out of Africa, but …. bla bla bla as the saying goes). Needless to say, it was a Cinderella-like transformation! I’m not saying I got the job, but I think the suit helped.
Unlike Hubby who loved his school and my brother who braves it as a teacher, schools have always terrified me.
Some of you will know that I taught A-level Film Studies and Media Studies for almost 10 years. I adored my subject area, and imparting my love for stories and film to eager young minds (not all were eager) was often incredibly rewarding. But every day began with a sickening feeling of nausea and dread as I entered the school gates. By contrast, there was the joy I felt when the ‘end of term’ or ‘end of day’ bell sounded!
Memories of my own school days are mixed. I went to two brilliant academic girls schools. There is no doubt that I had the best education. I moved schools at age 15 because I was desperate to follow in my parents footsteps and go to boarding school. But for 4 whole years I missed home terribly.
I wasn’t bullied, I just never felt like I fitted. The friends that eventually took me in were a motley bunch of misfits – the bookish shy one, the smelly one, the pimpley one, the giant, the awkward one – I guess they saw another kooky teenage girl in me?
There’s a reason people talk about ‘school days’ with a mixture of nostalgia and wistfulness. Schools are full of stories and I’m a sucker for stories.
Even now, more than 20 years later, the stories I remember best, revolve around the personalities of a few dynamic teachers: Ms Rose – History; Mr Axe – English, particularly Shakespeare; Mr Arthur – Latin; Mrs Hummel – History; Mrs Rivett the beehive-wearing biology teacher who I’m reliably told, kept dead owls in her kitchen fridge and who we could always distract by asking her about the time she once met JLB Smith.
Most teachers could write memoirs detailing incidents you would never believe, like the History teacher I know who watched a 12-year-old boy eat his History homework in front of her – yes, he literally put the A5 paper in his mouth, chewed and swallowed it!
I know another teacher who works at what they call in the UK a PRU (Pupil Referral Unit) – where children go when they have been excluded from a few other schools. He recounts a hilarious story of a school trip which involved a number of incidents not in the planned itinerary – stolen fossils, disrupted lectures and an attempted break in to a public donations box. To this day his students are banned from visiting the Science Museum.
I can tell you about one brilliant teacher, about my own height, who actually took it as a compliment when she found out that Charlie, the naughtiest boy in the school (why is it so often Charlie?), had a nickname for her – The Ingramator. I probably learnt more from watching The Ingramator teach than in my entire PGCE year. Those tips kept me alive!
I’ve been at schools where the teachers carry passes so that they can move between one secure area of the school to another. Where the school is in a type of ‘lock down’. Where senior teachers carry walkie-talkies and the aim is to try and keep students in the classroom without attacking one another or staff. Imagine my 5 foot 1 frame standing at the door barring the escape of a 6 foot 4, 100Kg 17-year-old boy?! I was able to laugh about it when I was safely back at home.
I never missed the classroom when I left teaching, but I did miss the staff.
The teachers I knew often worked at home and in the classroom through their holidays. They took other people’s, often badly-behaved children, on amazing trips to Iceland, New York, The Somme and Disneyland Paris, getting almost no sleep and all the while carrying around a thick wad of ‘elf and safety’ forms with them. Some of the greatest teachers I knew actually specialised in bringing the best out of the ‘worst child’. The teachers I knew were not in it for the money – most of them got little recognition, a lot of paperwork, huge pressures from league tables and inspectors, and bad press in the media, only somewhat compensated by thank-yous from grateful parents and children.
How did I survive those 10 years? By modelling the very best and keeping a sense of humour.
Inside I was a terrified fraud, but thankfully this was well-hidden. Those who spotted the cracks in my armour, as children often instinctively do, were sometimes frighteningly cruel, and at other times surprisingly kind.
P.s. The UK government published the Tier 2 Shortage Occupation List in November 2015. It identifies Secondary School Chemistry teachers as one of the professional groups for which UK is in desperate need.
P.p.s. I now know as an adult, that the misfits are really the ones you should be ‘in’ with in life – I’m wiser now.
P.p.p.s. Professor JLB Smith (26 October 1897 – 7 January 1968) was a South African ichthyologist. He was the first to identify a taxidermied fish as a coelacanth, thought extinct at the time. Not, as I once believed, the brother of author Wilbur Smith.
P.p.p.p.s. ‘God-incidences’ are co-incidences that, when they line up, begin to look freakishly un-co-incident-like.
P.p.p.p.p.s. Thank you Maura of PPA Education for your invaluable advice to my brother last summer.