‘The closure of my school nearly wrecked my career’

​​​​​​​Seeing your place of work closed down can be upsetting and have lasting effects, as teacher Sammy McHugh knows all too well

Sammy McHugh

‘The closure of my school nearly wrecked my career’

It’s been five years since I was made “surplus”. Five years since the doors closed on my old school building and the bulldozers moved in. It was the result of a necessary rationalisation, a decision precipitated by the recession and some “tough choices” by the council.

Our school was small – a roll of fewer than 500 at its time of closure – and it was decided that the nearby secondary was in a better position to house the combined populations. Parents in the local area were up in arms: this little school was the centre of their community and now it was going to be taken away.

The staff were largely numb, but we carried on. We didn’t drop the ball once that year. We held trips and socials, ran supported study and organised visiting speakers. The pupils knew we had their best interests at heart right up until the final moment.

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The end came with a special assembly, where emotional speeches were made and pupils sang their farewell songs. Parents, press and police gathered outside as the final bell was rung and the staff and pupils filed outside to a solemn round of applause usually reserved for funerals.

I remember it all too vividly. I had been feeling increasingly ill all week and trying hard to make it to the last day. On the surface, I remained fairly stoic but I had been part of the school for 14 years – my entire teaching career at that point – and on the inside, I was crumbling. One of my pupils came rushing up to me and pushed a bouquet of flowers into my hands. Her face was stained with tears and she had a look of complete bewilderment in her eyes. I knew then that I had to get out of there. I rushed out to the car park that was swelling with parents and passers-by and was surrounded by a police cordon.

I managed to get to my car and I still don’t quite know how I did it, but I got out of the car park and set off on the journey home. Normally, the end-of-year drive home was filled with loud music blasting out and my windows rolled down to let in the freeing summer air. That day, I drove home in a stunned silence, unable to compute what had just happened.

The following year was messy and there are many things that I don’t particularly want to rake over. I didn’t get the post in the newly amalgamated school and I spent the time after that in a sort of freefall. I had gone from being a confident (perhaps a tad cocky) young teacher with everything going for me to this useless, washed-up shadow. My friends and colleagues would look at me with such pity if they happened upon me in the corridor or the staffroom – not that that was often, as I tried very much to keep myself to myself. I drifted further and further away from people who had been to my wedding or who had congratulated me on the birth of my first child; people who had helped me through the deaths of a family member and a close colleague. These people became dots in the distance as I floated out into the depths of the dark, dark sea.

I spent some months in counselling. The first few sessions were “tears and snotters” but gradually I got the chance to articulate my sadness, my fears – my anger. Those mornings once a month when I’d travel to HQ to see my counsellor became small buoyancies in the daily drowning.

There were some highlights that year. I met some great staff at the new place – people who were as dedicated and enthusiastic as I had once been only a few short months before. I also found out who could handle seeing me on such a downward spiral, and it wasn’t many.

Looking back, I really don’t blame them. When someone is going down, it can be a horrible thing to watch and there is also the fear that they might take you down with them. Two real beacons of light shone for me – one in the department I was in and one who had suffered a similar fate only a year earlier. They listened and sympathised and I’m sure they worried about their once-fierce friend.

Towards the end of my year in limbo, a change in my fortunes finally came in the shape of a new school. I was apprehensive at first but I was welcomed and assured that this was a fresh start. And it was a new beginning in so many ways: I no longer had the dreaded term “surplus’” hanging over me, and now had the challenge of working with a new team in a very successful department.

I swallowed my fear and started at my new place with a renewed hope and a desire to do well for the pupils once more – no longer a teacher interrupted.

Sammy McHugh is an English teacher in the west of Scotland. She tweets @MsSammyMcHugh

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