Reception teacher Stella Jones wears many hats. One of them is the town mayor's, reports Reva Klein
Between reading The Little Red Hen in the morning and doing number work with her reception class at Damers first school in the afternoon, Stella Jones occasionally has to dash out at lunchtime to don a heavy gold chain, majestic red gown and jaunty black hat and transform herself into the Mayor of Casterbridge to open shopping centres and attend meetings. No, she's not involved in amateur dramatics and, in truth, it's not really Casterbridge - although that was what Thomas Hardy called his home town of Dorchester in Dorset, where Stella Jones lives, works and has been involved in public service for 30 years.
As well as being outgoing mayor, Ms Jones is also a Liberal Democrat councillor. On official occasions when not enshrouded in gowns and hats, she loyally, not to say boldly, wears a lemon suit. Although a quiet, measured person, she clearly loves public life, juggling a hectic schedule with calm finesse. She's certainly had enough experience of it. She served as mayor 12 years ago, before she went back to teaching after having four children. And she's been a councillor for 25 years. Her husband, too, has been mayor twice and is a longstanding Lib Dem councillor.
Why juggle so many duties when being a teacher is demanding enough? "I love this town," she beams, driving around Dorchester on a sunny Saturday afternoon in her custard-coloured convertible.
Apart from being compelled to give something back to the town she loves so much, it's probably that very contrast between her two lives that drives her to pack so many activities in. "There's certainly a big difference between my status as lowest of the low in the school hierarchy and dining with royalty and wearing my robes," she laughs. "But once you take the chain off, you stop being mayor."
Her pupils get a kick out of having a teacher who seems so into dressing up. "They like to see me in my chain. When I've had to do one of my quick-change routines after rushing back from a meeting at the town hall or a mayoral event, they've all hadto try on the full regalia - chain, gown, hat, the lot. And when I started, one of my pupils thought I was going to be the Queen."
If her pupils have delighted in her mayoral grandness over this past year, how did her own children react when she first held the post 12 years ago? "My kids were teenagers then. They told me later that they didn't like it. They were embarrassed. But they don't mind it now."
Just as well, since according to the way things are done in Dorchester, she'll be serving as deputy mayor for the coming year, albeit without the get-up. Most of the events that demand her dressing up take place in the evenings or at weekends.
As we meet, she has just planted a millennium capsule from the town council - with a letter from her as mayor - at the opening of a new sports pavilion. On the odd occasion when her duties do conflict with the school day, Damers has to arrange a supply teacher, but it doesn't seem to pose much of a problem. Does she need to shed one persona for another as she moves from being reception teacher to mayor and councillor? Apparently not. "Some people say I'm a bit of a teacher during meetings. Sometimes it's easier to teach a lively group of five-year-olds than it is to keep councillors in order."
A few of the skills as teacher, politician, chair and mayor happily overlap. "You've got to be organised, know what you want to achieve and stop people from drifting into other things." Substitute political hobby horses for Lego and prams and you get the picture. Her civic activity and pride influence her role as teacher, too. "I try to encourage the younger children to look after the school and the older children to do conservation work and get involved in the community in other ways."
Because Dorchester is such a small town (population 16,000), everyone more or less knows everybody else, and her status hasn't been an issue at school. "Perhaps people who have recently moved in are a bit cowed at first. But I've been teaching here so long that people generally see me as Stella Jones, a teacher who just happens to be the mayor and a councillor."