For ballerina, read maestro

27th October 2000 at 01:00
Michael Duffy meets Cathy Roberts, nominated for secondary teacher of the year in the Teaching Awards.

Cathy Roberts always wanted to be a teacher: "Well, ever since I got through the ballerina phase." But she could never quite make up her mind whether it was going to be PE (she played county schools hockey for Bedfordshire) or music, her other great love, so she compromised by taking a music with PE teaching course at Bretton Hall. It was James Wild, who taught her there, who decided the issue. "I just can't tell you how good he was. It was four phenomenal years."

So music it was - first at an excellent Hertfordshire comprehensive ("That was crucial to me. There have to be opportunities for every child. No pupil should ever be made to feel that she or he's a failure") and then as a member of the county advisory team, working with children between five and 13 and encountering for the first time the teaching techniques developed by Kodaly and his colleagues in Hungary.

A visit to Hungary showed her what children taught like this could go on to achieve ("awesome - truly awesome"). Then in 1986 she moved to St Aidan's High School in Harrogate.

She is quick to agree that St Aidan's, a large and highly successful C of E comprehensive, is not the most difficult of schools. "That's not the point," she says. "If the staff in a school really believe in what they are doing, then any genuine comprehensive can do it. But you must meet children where they're at; not where you are at."

Where they were at St Aidan's, 14 years ago, gave her a good foundation. Music was valued, but it was not strong in the curriculum. "I suppose it was seen as a rather noddy subject." It certainly isn't now.

Cathy's drive and enthusiasm, her ability to carry parents and colleagues as well as children with her, has created a strong examination subject in a school where almost half the pupils are actively involved, either in one of the choirs or in one or more of the 11 orchestras, ensembles and instrumental groups that she and her department - "fantastically supportive, like our county peripatetics" -keep going.

What about rock groups, then? "Oh, loads of those." She adds their performances at the annual sixth-form gig to her list of functions, concerts and broadcasts. The list reflects a repertoire that is near-professional - this year, "Mars" from Holst's The Planets at London's Festival Hall - and is one that few schools, even in the private sector, can hope to emulate.

What's the secret? "Fantastic support from the school. It's a privilege to work in such an atmosphere. Fantastic support from parents. Magical kids who will give everything if you ask them. And creative teaching. It's the Kodaly lesson. You have to teach creatively."

You sense that it's not quite that simple. There are some crucially important details to be included - like the understanding between the music department and the PE staff that ensures youngsters never have to choose, as Cathy did, between sport and music. There are also many punishingly long days. No wonder Cathy adds to her list of bonuses (using her favourite word) "a fantastic husband".

It is impossible, though, not to respond to her love of music and her infectious enthusiasm for helping children make it. So when you ask her, "How on earth do you manage? What keeps you sane?" it is no surprise to learn that out of school she loves coaching adults for the Sing for Pleasure movement.

One of her greatest delights is the annual lower school concert where every child in Year 7 sings in a cantata performance, so popular now that it needs Harrogate's huge Royal Hall or even the conference centre to accommodate it. The performers are so proud that you can see them grow, she says "at least two inches".

Any other delights? "I'll tell you one of them. It's playing for the staff football team."

CATHY'S TOP TIPS

* Be enthusiastic about what you're doing

* Meet children where they are at- build up from there

* Treat every child as unique

* Set high standards - but always encourage, always praise

* Develop skills in stages (a lesson from PE days)

* Have a sense of humour: smile with the children


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