'Farewell to the pupils who made me a better teacher'

Sit down, Year 9. This is Emma Kell's last lesson with you, and she wants to remind you how unique you all are, and how she will never forget you

Hands holding plant pot

’Tis the season of goodbyes. Despite the ongoing grim headlines about teachers running for the exit, I don’t imagine there will actually be many of us who, in saying goodbye in the working days to come, will be doing a jig on our way out the door. 

For many of us, it’s a week of lasts: last break duty; last assembly; last fart in the classroom (please?); last marking pile (blessed be).

Wiser people than us will remind us that there are tens of thousands of young people waiting for us to make a difference to them as well, or infinite possibilities in a world beyond teaching. But, when we’re looking into the whites of their eyes in the last Year 10 lesson, such pragmatism can be elusive.

What do we say? What do we do? For some, this has been a week or a month of tears. Others cope by briskly continuing with the job of clearing up and clearing out. For others still, the marking and data mountain still refuses to abate. But for most of us, I suspect it’s a discombobulating mix of the three.

Dead Poets mode

Another film? No, thank you. Year 9, I’ll ask you to focus – yes really focus and humour me. Indulge me today. For this is our last, last lesson. My last, last lesson with you. Look at me! I mean, really. I’ll say something kind and true about each and every one of you (and I don’t care if it takes 20 minutes), and some of you might remember it a few minutes down the line. A couple might remember it a few years down the line. More likely, from experience, you’ll remember some throwaway comment about bottle flipping I made one breaktime of which I have no memory, but I’m in Dead Poets mode here, so bear with me.

If I’ve still got your attention (or at least the significant minority haven’t put heads on desks), I’ll make the most of it. I’ll tell you I’ll prove it when I say you’re genuinely irreplaceable, utterly unique, and that I’ll remember you until my faculties fail, or when you bound up to me in the vegetable aisle in the supermarket. 

Burgeoning success

I’ll tell you about E, now about 30, who contacted me for a reference. “What for?” I asked, secretly chuffed to be playing a role in his burgeoning success. 

“Court.” 

Apparently, it can seem more fun to walk over the cars than around them at 2am on a Saturday, and people with BMWs don’t appreciate footprints on their veneer and CCTV is everywhere. Who knew? (He’s fine now – working happily for the railways.)

I’ll tell you about A, who told me exactly where to stick French and is now sauntering in a designer suit around Paris, speaking the language better than I could ever dream of doing, and probably earning triple my salary. 

I’ll tell you about N – feisty, flamboyant N – who was once most terribly rude and is now pretty well known, but about whom I worry, because she seemed a little lonely and sad the last time I saw her. 

I’ll tell you about the group who somehow managed to surprise me at my 40th birthday party, 15 years after I stopped teaching then, and about S, who never quite found his way, after the universe stacked its odds against him. 

Counting blessings

I’ll also tell you about A, who we lost to cancer at 21. And S, who made the wrong decision on the wrong day and is still in prison for murder because he was there and did nothing. And (are you still listening?), I’ll tell you about N, whose father rejected him when he came out as gay, who went through the most terrible time at the most vulnerable age, and who I’ve just learned has got engaged to his boyfriend.

And then you’ll shake briefly out of your teacher-induced trance, and stop thinking about Love Island (or, I can only hope, break from your private moment of reflection on how special you really are) and beg for that film again. But no. It’s my last chance to play! So you will indulge me some more, and we will play that board-slapping game which always brings the staff on duty running to the door in alarm before they realise that the howls are (mainly) of rivalry and delight.

And we’ll play one round too many, and I’ll be left re-assembling the classroom apologetically as the next teacher walks in. “You’d better go! It’s the bell,” I’ll say. “Drop in to see me tomorrow, or the next day,” I’ll add, knowing that the routine will carry us all on its tide. 

And, just for a moment, because life and work move on like a steam train, I’ll sit very, very quietly and count my blessings for each of you, and for how, in your most frustrating and most joyful and most resilient and most tragic moments, you have each made me a better person, and a better teacher.

Dr Emma Kell is a secondary teacher in north-east London and author of How to Survive in Teaching

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