This was written in response to an invitation from the BBC to write a short broadcast on an aspect of my career. Never broadcast though!
“What an excellent lesson!” Relief surged through my body, as I could not stop myself grinning inanely at this lively blonde woman who was prepared to acknowledge me as a teacher! I had just outshakespeared Shakespeare with a dozen teenagers with special needs, having put them through their paces as directors of the opening scene of Macbeth! Throughout the lesson I had watched their slightly bemused but nevertheless enthusiastic faces, as I cajoled, persuaded and pranced around the little classroom, playing to the gallery of headmistress, support assistant and students, hoping that I shouldn’t make a fool of myself.
Let me explain. I’d been teaching 22 years, getting good results at A level and GCSE, enjoying most of the work, even the planning and marking, but for various reasons my confidence was sinking. Looking back, I needed acknowledgement from above, and this I was not getting. Neither was anyone else in that particular establishment, but that didn’t help me. I’d explored all the avenues mapped out in the TES – new courses, various job applications, but nothing seemed to be happening. Fortune’s wheel wasn’t turning fast enough, but eventually the opportunity came to give it a little push.
One of my colleagues was having a surprise leaving do in a pub. My husband and I hadn’t really felt like going, but by the time we had finished our dinner and a couple of glasses of wine it seemed a good idea to stroll along and say good bye. We knew we’d be arriving late, but good manners overrode all temptation to stay in and watch television. Three quarters of an hour later we found the smoky room, lots of teachers having a good time – some had had a very good time already, and one or two smiling benignly waiting for their partners. Well, no sooner had I walked in than I saw one of these benign smilers, and something very strange clicked and whirred inside me. Connections were made and I pounced. “You’re a deputy head, aren’t you?” I said to him. “Get me a job. Please.” No pride, no manners, no restraint. “Can I get you a drink?” was his kind reply. And a good time was had by all.
The next day his partner handed me a job description – special school, English, Drama, Maths, and Citizenship. I gulped. English – yes. Drama – well, I have been trained but always avoided it; Maths – yes, I can count, and if I have to I can probably do other things as well. But what on earth is Citizenship?
I looked at the piece of paper, and my friend said to me, quite archly, I thought, “This is the job you asked for. Are you going to apply?” I’m not usually lost for words, but I didn’t quite know what to say. Had I been joking the night before? Had I come across as desperate or just foolish? Now I was getting my come-uppance. I’d been taken seriously, and I didn’t know what to do.
After many conversations with anyone who would listen, I decided to go along and look at the school. But the road to heaven is long and winding and I was not allowed to make the visit. So, I had two options: not apply and be ashamed of myself for pouncing in the pub. Or, go for it and take the consequences if I didn’t get it. The third option only hit me on the day of my interview – that I wouldn’t want it. And then where would I be?
The day came, gloriously warm and sunny. For once I wasn’t weighted down with bags of marking – all I had was my prepared English stroke Drama lesson (how do you teach a performance lesson with children you don’t know?) and everything I could find out about Citizenship gleaned from the internet – no one I actually asked seemed to know anything about it, which did not bode well) and I kept on repeating to myself my little mantra – it’s a day off from routine, enjoy yourself.
I got off the tube and then suddenly the day seemed cold, or was it just my feet? I couldn’t find the school. Was Fate trying to tell me something? I telephoned. They still wanted me to come. I was late. I was embarrassed. Things got worse. I sat in assembly. A sea of faces turning round and looking at me. I’m a teacher, for goodness’ sake – and a show off – I should be enjoying this – but I want to go home. I can’t. The assembly is good, friendly and firm. Concentrate. The children file out. One or two stroke me. I need it but I’m not used to it.
Staff room. Tea. Adults. Very normal, very reassuring. And then I’m given my timetable for the day. First, I’m to follow various teachers around, in the afternoon I’m to teach and then the interview. My friend, the deputy head, reminds me regularly that I can leave at any time. I know I can’t, but I don’t know if I can teach. Lunch with the children. Table manners vary. Everyone smiling. My smiles more and more forced. Then the lesson.
A bright sunny room. Easy chairs by the windows. Four round tables. An assistant who has gone through her role in the lesson with me. And the students. All of a sudden they seem very mature; will they sense my insecurity? And then I recall something my mother said the day before I started my first job – remember, children accept what they see – you are in charge, their role model (she was actually talking about the way I dress, but it seemed apt in many ways) and so I draw myself up to my full five feet, put on a big smile (I couldn’t actually whistle a happy tune) and launch into Macbeth. Within seconds, the head and the support assistant are listening and I really begin to enjoy myself. The children do everything they are asked to do – they don’t argue, they don’t chat, they don’t throw things and they ask for help. I can’t believe my senses. A forty minute lesson which was just that. No settling down time, no one coming in late, no one playing up. Somewhere in the middle of running round the room trying to keep them all involved (which wasn’t as difficult as I had envisaged) I realised that I could teach, inform, educate, draw out and generally discharge pedagogic duties while having fun.
The bell rang. The students said thank you, and then to my dismay and delight, they asked, “When are you coming back?” What could I answer? I still had my interview to go through.
Suffice it to say, that despite my mobile phone going off at a vital moment, “My dear, it’s coming from your handbag,” said the Sitwellian chairman of governors kindly, and despite not being asked about Citizenship, I found myself gainfully employed as an Assistant Teacher of English and Drama. My confidence has been restored to such an extent that I am one of the few middle aged teachers I know who is not looking forward to retirement. Who says it’s dangerous to approach semi strangers?
31st May 2001