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Blast from the past

Summer has descended, briefly, upon us, and dodging its unnatural warmth has brought me to Westfield shopping centre in East London, near the Olympic Park. Normally this means running the gauntlet of my current and former students, doubly so in the holidays. For many kids, the summer means patrolling retail outlets in an endless, acquisitive circuit. Tom Sawyer would weep.

Today, though, I was aiming to find them. I'd come to meet Jack and Emily, two of my former students, who left sixth form years ago. They were some of the first pupils I ever took from Year 7 through to launch. As any teacher who's done that knows, you feel a special pride when you escort them from primers to personal statements, and none more so than the first cohort. They grew with you; they accompanied you on your comic journey from neophyte to.well, whatever you are now.

There aren't many pupils you want to keep in contact with outside school; for a start, it's rightly a minefield, and teachers would do well to ration themselves in this regard with the strictest dignity and caution. But it would be a crime against the ancient relationship of mentor and mentored to dispense with its possibility. After more than a decade, I have a tiny network of alumni I meet for a coffee from time to time, both socially and with an eye to their futures. Given that I've taught in the poorest borough in England for 10 years, I have no problem with boosting their signals a little. Besides, they were lovely students who became lovely people.

Jack and Emily are a credit to their circumstances and opportunities, their characters and the efforts of their parents. Emily toyed with university before dropping it like a hot brick and embracing the service industries. I thought she was lost to the crepuscular world of shift work, but six years after waving her hankie to Year 13, she picked up a GCSE in modern foreign languages independently and applied for university abroad. In between, she worked as a teacher in Africa, nannied and had a job as a teaching assistant in London.

Jack followed a straighter path: into university, away from home, and now, having worked as a teaching assistant for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities for a few years, towards child psychology. In a move that I can only describe as "permastudent", he's started a master's degree in the stuff.

If you teach for any period of time, especially at the terminal end of secondary education, you have a lot of goodbyes to get through. Because you're human, some of them you're less sad about than others. Because you're a professional, you express regret to be bidding farewell to all of them. But sitting there with my two protgs, seeing what their wings now look like, was a lovely and profound thing.

It was also a privilege to witness. Because we're not saints, we're allowed a little pride. Being able to keep in touch with people like that is a gift that keeps giving and giving.

It's a wonderful job sometimes.

Tom Bennett is a secondary teacher in East London, director of the ResearchED conference and the government's new school behaviour expert. His 16-page behaviour guide is free with next week's issue

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