Monthly Archives: July 2014

Who I am, What I do

It’s good when teachers are honest with you. But the timing does matter. It’s 1975, June and the school officers’ leaving ‘do’ with staff in the school library. (I even think we were served sherry). I’m talking to my A level English teacher at Arthur Terry school and telling him of my plans after the summer, to go to Exeter University to do a degree in Psychology. “No, you won’t.” Says Mr Townsend. “Yes – I’ve got a firm offer, just need 3 D’s.” I reiterate with my deputy head-boy swagger. “Yes – but you won’t pass your English.” Full marks for accurate forecasting; not so much credit for the timing. We didn’t have ‘formative assessment’ in those days. In the event I flunked not just English, but also German (yeah – knew that was on the cards), and just scraped a ‘D’ in Geography. Zoned out in a nether world of ‘oh god, what happens now’ I remember mum soothingly saying ‘Oh well, maybe it’ll all be for the best’ as she reached for the one homily not used until now. I screeched a response that I’m not proud of. But – like most mothers’ sayings, she was ultimately proved to be right.

Growing up on the northern edge of Birmingham in Sutton Coldfield was bland-ily ‘suburban’. Saturdays cleaning my bike as my dad or two older brothers cleaned cars, not allowed to play outside on Sundays (in case it ‘disturbed the neighbours’) but twice to church (I was a choirboy from age 7 to 15 – dad the organist). I’d spent my first 4 years living in Ward End – about two miles due east of Villa Park, but dad’s work was ‘doing well’ (he was a manufacturer’s agent selling women’s knitwear and swimwear to shops around the Midlands) and I think they aspired to a more ‘respectable’ area. It was safe, conventional and boring. Having brothers 11 and 8 years older meant I spent much of my time on my own. But a legacy was the tall stack of red-linen-covered ‘Famous Five’ books in a shared cupboard. I don’t know when I started going through the collection, but it hooked me on reading, devouring the next one almost as soon as I turned a last page. Summer holidays I longed for ‘an Adventure’ like the kids of Kirrin Island seemed to have no problem ordering up every time they met. But Four Oaks didn’t do ‘Bad Men’, sadly. At least, not on the surface. So the heights of excitement were walking the mile into Sutton Park, past Noddy Holder’s house (never saw him) and making dens amongst the woodland. My reading moved on to Secret Seven (not the same wholesome integrity of the ‘Five’) and then Dennis Wheatley (piled in my eldest brother’s room) which were darker and more troubling and definitely more intriguing.

Primary school felt comfortable, neither exciting nor to be endured. At Ley Hill County Primay I sat next to John Hartland – a fine friend who lived on ‘the council estate’ where they’d do perplexing things like have cornflakes ‘for TEA!!’? He was quiet, thoughtful, deliberate – and a fine footballer. And astounded me by showing me a letter he’d got from John Surtees – the British Grand Prix champion. My friend, John had written to him, sending a get-well card following a car-accident and he’d received a personal reply from the great man. I was dumbstruck that he would think to write to someone so famous ‘just like that’. That was so…. original. And… un-suburban. John rose in my reverence far beyond his soccer prowess. I then watched him visibly deflate in his own self-perception a few months later at the end of primary school as the 11plus results were read out to us. I remember no ranking, targeting, examining or categorising of us pupils as we played and grew throughout our primary years. I have absolutely no sense of comparison of where I stood with my school-long cohort. I can remember doing the 11plus exam and thinking it all seemed quite straightforward and that I quite enjoyed answering the brain-teazers. Didn’t feel pressure; didn’t sense the divisive fate that awaited. But the memory goes deep of the day the results were read out in our class. Like Damocles sword slicing across the room there were about a third of us who had ‘passed’, and the majority – ‘failed’. At ten. You could see its effects immediately. Those who had been consigned to the Secondary Modern – or ‘Cowsheds’ as it was unaffectionately referred to – they visibly slouched in their chairs in those remaining weeks, their ties slid down and top buttons got left undone; they grouped together in antagonistic-looking groups in the playground. And amongst them was John, that delightful, initiating, skilful role-model – his eyes lost something as an alternative, greyer path drew firmly-drawn lines in front of him and doors snapped shut.

I had choice. I could go to the boys’ grammar school, Bishop Vesey, or a new comprehensive school. My parents, surprisingly, left the decision to me.The former was further away (bad), had Saturday morning detentions (worse), and no girls (clincher). Over the years at Arthur Terry the key experiences were few, but deep. I discovered a lack of confidence in doing things I didn’t feel I could accomplish well. I was reserve goalie in the first year team. Asked suddenly to play on Saturday as the main GK was injured – I demured, before declining. “Go on, you can do it. If you don’t, he won’t ever ask you again” urged the team captain. But I didn’t feel I fitted in with the joshing, towel-whipping uber-confident first-teamers. And he was right – he didn’t ever ask me again. Chance gone. Yet spending time alone on two exchanges with a family in Hamburg left me with a lifelong affection for Germany, its language and people, as well as a sense that I could hack being deposited in an alien context. It was during these years that I moved into reading science-fiction in a relentless exploration of the genre. Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Fred Hoyle, Arthur C Clarke … collections of short stories. My middle brother, who had gone on to become an English teacher, urged me to read ‘The Chrysalids’ by John Wyndham which, as a 15 year old, was the first book that ‘spoke to me’: about seeing yourself as different, being a minority, the constraining hand of religious authority – hit, hit, hit as someone realising they felt suffocated by the bland conservatism of a Sutton Coldfield suburban existence. From there it was into dystopian fiction of the rest of the Wyndham canon, Orwell, Burgess, Huxley … Doris Lessing.. and on and on. That teenage kick-back saw me taking great delight in the shock-value of sitting downstairs smoking on my 16th birthday (childish), arguing for socialist principles in the sixth-form debating society (over-inflated ego) and cycling for miles to spend weekends at my newly-married two brothers’ homes instead of being at home.

When my carefully-laid plans to be as far away from the Midlands as possible, at Exeter university, blew up in my face (not so ‘carefully-laid’ that I’d done any serious work towards getting the necessary grades) I was devastated at, not so much seeing my friends all disappearing to their places of 3-year study, but the prospect of remaining under my parents’ roof. For them, I’d blown my chance and I would have to ‘get a nice safe job in a bank.. or something’. The prospect was like a cold flaccid hand round my throat. It was my middle brother and his wife who – visiting from Jamaica where they were on 3-year teaching exchange, persuaded my parents to give me another chance. If definitive forks in roads exist at one key point in our lives – that was mine. How often do we have mentors/champions who will intervene on our behalf? How many don’t?

The rest, as they say, is history. I went to the local college of further education in Sutton for a year, dispensed with German and took Geography, English and Sociology in one year and discovered two things: how to really ‘read’ a piece of literature, with an inspiring English teacher opening up the context and meaning behind Swift’s Gullivers’ Travels, Antony & Cleopatra, Paradise Lost… and an equally inspiring geography teacher who introduced me to the heart-stopping drama of the Lake District on a week-long fieldtrip (why had my parents never taken me there – but to Majorca, Ibiza and Elba with their lingering odour of Ambre Solaire?) and a realisation that geography, not psychology was where my future lay. Oh – and I learnt how to study. Really learn, and enjoy learning. My mates all being away at university already helped. I sat in Sutton Park for hours reading, highlighting, noting text-books on sociological theories and getting a real kick out of it. Had I not failed my A levels first time round – I think I’d have probably messed up at Exeter. We all need a dose of failure along the way maybe? But one that can be reversed from, to take an alternative route without too much closure of options.

With three B’s I hit the grades to go to Lancaster University (as close as I could get to the Lake District) and whilst majoring in Geography, their policy was that you studied a second subject for your three years contributing a third of your final grade. I continued with English and with a year on nineteenth century American literature followed by twentieth century kept the reading exposure going. Revising for finals I realised that I didn’t want to finish with Geography at that point, so the idea of following my middle brother into teaching seemed an option. Anne and I married the summer we graduated (god we were ludicrously young – I was 22, she 21) and we lived in Altrincham, Manchester for a year whilst I did a PGCE and she used her physics degree to train as a new-fangled computer programmer.

Initially I applied for teaching jobs in all those geographically mouth-watering areas of the country – Dorset, Cumbria, Somerset… but not landing anything, Anne said I’d have to bite the bullet and apply for schools back in Birmingham – or London. Desperation makes you do weird things, so I applied for a job in – Hull (hey, it was ‘north’ … novel … not ‘suburban’). Driving over we both fell increasingly quiet, but found the school, I was offered the job, and it was slap bang in the middle of the most affluent part of the west-Hull suburbs.

I really took to it for five years. Then the head changed, I had to work with a forceful and awkward colleague, and my career seemed to be going nowhere. It got as far as me sitting in a professional recruitment agency in Hull looking for something outside teaching. That departure of teachers after 5 years in the job might have claimed me. As it was there was nothing seriously offered and soon afterwards a colleague pointed out the head of geography position going at Withernsea High School – as far east as you could go from Hull; the end of the line – literally – as the railway stopped there before dropping into the North Sea. It’s where I’ve spent the remaining 27 years of my career. Internal promotions didn’t stop me applying for other positions in other places, but a combination of them just not feeling right, leading to withdrawing, or me not being right for them, means I have stayed put. (I went for a deputy headship at a school in North Yorkshire. Got really good vibes from the staff after my presentations and thought ‘I’ve got this one’. Two things stopped it. One was that same feeling of dislocation chatting to the other candidates who, to a man, were peacocking their careers so far, and how this job was in their game-plan to headship.. and that three years here would see them ready to move on for the top job – and I got a flashback to that dressing room as a 12 year-old reserve keeper reeling back as I was being invited into a group I had no real affinity with). Oh – and the second, was the feedback from the local authority officer who said my interview responses were the worst of the lot, ill-prepared, short and unoriginal. So, – close then.

I’ve no regrets. Teaching in one of Sir Michael Wilshaw’s ‘low affluence, declining seaside resorts’ has been a joy. The students and their parents more appreciative than ever they were in the affluent cul-de-sacs to the west of the city, the range of students going from Oxbridge successes to severe special needs. It has provided daily challenge, and hourly richness. I can’t imagine what else this ordinary boy from an ordinary part of Birmingham would have done if he hadn’t taught geography on a little-known edge of East Yorkshire. Do it again? Oh yes. I’ve taught, and continue to do so with some fabulous colleagues (always helps when, as a head of faculty you can appoint the people you are going to engage in each day’s work with). I’ve tried to keep it fresh – by taking on new challenges each year, sometimes saying ‘yes’ to things when I least feel like it because I know, from experience, that embracing something novel lends an energy to the background stuff than needs ploughing on with. And I’ve always mantra’d myself that each teacher should be at their best the year before they retire. (That last year, no-one’s going to listen to you much so you’ve lost your influence). And it’s a sincere ‘thank you’ twitter folk – for providing the final-stage rocket boost of these last two years; it has been an uplifting ride. As I write, with ten teaching days to go before I take early retirement, I think I managed that. That satisfies me more than I can say.

If there are any regrets, it’s that teaching took me away from some key events that I should really have given more time to. When our two children were small I took on an MEd that absorbed weekend after weekend. Anne would bring them to the door of the study on a Saturday morning for a: ‘Say hello and goodbye to your father – we’ll leave him in peace to do his dissertation’ – it was as if I’d become George’s truculuent father in his study in ‘Famous Five’. And I missed precious moments with my parents. They moved up to East Yorkshire in the early ‘90s. Dad’s pension didn’t go as far as he thought, so they relocated 15 minutes away from us near the coast. The troubling teenage years packaged away, it was delightful to see them so happy. Mum used to say living up here was like being on holiday every day. I was with dad as he died; he’d deteriorated with dementia in his early 80s and it was clear he was nearing the end. Mum had slid on some ice and was in Hull Royal Infirmary with a broken wrist. It was the start of the Christmas holiday and while one brother was out of the country, the other drove down from Carlisle. He arrived 15 minutes after dad’s passing – but I was able to hold his hand as he went.

But I missed mum’s final minutes. She and I developed a fond and laughter-filled relationship as she went full at life in her eighties after dad’s death. I’d often call in on the way home from school on a Friday night for a 30 minute cup of tea and chat – and she had a knack of putting the week’s troubles into perspective. That generation, who had gone through the war (dad was in Tobruk, mum working at the fire service in central Birmingham while unexploded bombs ticked away just a floor away) had a persepctive that meant my issues of the week at school could be calmed with a ‘Well… it’s never as bad as it seems’. She had a stroke in her 88th year and lingered in a local nursing home for ten months, unable to move or speak – though alert as ever. I’d been with her all afternoon as she weakened, but knew I needed to finish some A level lesson planning for an unfamiliar course I was teaching for a maternity cover within the department. Leaving her to pop home for a couple of hours lesson prep, I hesitated at the first phone call from the nursing home saying they thought I ought to come down now. Just another 20 minutes and I could get tomorrow’s lesson cracked. At the second phone-call I downed tools and drove into town – only to find I was five minutes too late.

My advice is: love teaching, offer your students the hours they deserve – and then some. But love your family most.

I’m looking forward to the next chapter; I’m not hanging up the laser-pen for good, I hope. I want to write a bit, read a lot, and I’m doing some workshops at education conferences in the autumn term. I’ve been booked in to do a bit of A level teaching one day a week at a local school. But I have found teaching at the pace and intensity of that required at the moment more than I want this 57 year-old frame to continue with. Till 68? Someone is having a laugh. So I’ll blog, and write, and argue that we need to restructure the format of later careers in teaching. I don’t think the retirement age will be coming down – so we need to find a way in which experience, insight – and enthusiasm can be put to use in creative and flexible ways in schools. We don’t have that conversation taking place yet. It’s one to which I hope to add a thought or two. The job’s not done, yet.

 

Post-script: I had an email from my primary-school friend’s sister the year we were both 50. He had got a weekend job at Sainsbury’s in Sutton when he was 14, which he did full-time when he left (we were the last year when you could leave school at 15: RoSLA –raising of the school-leaving age to 16 was the big issue of the day in education. What would schools do with 16 year olds!). At 50 he was Regional Director of Sainsbury’s for the South-east. I loathe the 11plus for those who didn’t have John’s individual self-belief.

 

The post was written for Rory Gallagher’s @EddieKayshun initiative in collecting blogs of the people behind the tweets. You can find the full collection here. There is richness to be found there.

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