Classroom stories

7th February 2003 at 00:00
Harvey McGavin talks to three teachers who read their stories last year. What prompted them to put pen to paper?

In 1984, Richard Jackson was a newly qualified physics teacher, comfortable with the laws of motion and electromagnetics, but less familiar with the complicated circuitry of teenagers' emotions.

On the first day in his first teaching post, at Framwellgate Moor school in Durham, the additional duties of pastoral care of 25 11 to 18-year-olds seemed more daunting than the job in hand. "I could talk about Newton's laws of motion but, about things that matter, about life, about problems, no way." As time went on, Mr Jackson warmed to his new role, and the group gelled, moving into a temporary classroom they christened "little house on the prairie" and renaming their family unit "the Waltons".

By the second year Richard Jackson had married. "I was now officially 'old'. I could talk about the cost of leaving home, produce lists of bills, incomes and expenditures. I had joined the real world at last and I had something to share."

He was wary of delving too much into the home lives of the children in his family unit. "School," he reasoned, "is often an escape, a sanctuary." But he began to notice the close bond between a brother and sister called Andrew and Ashley and the way that, although their behaviour was always good, they occasionally took turns to stay off school. "My well-ordered view of the world was shaken by the knowledge that they were looking after their sick mum. There was no father, and mum had spinal cancer. It was terminal."

He started to visit Andrew and Ashley's mother. "It was enough to be there, to talk about my new daughter, Laura, about Andrew's ambition to join the fire service and a host of other trivial things."

But then, three weeks into the autumn term of 1987, Mr Jackson's wife, Liz, died. The months that followed were "a kind of role-reversal", where he gained strength from Andrew and Ashley, their mum and the other children in his family unit.

Fourteen years later, Laura, who by then was in Year 9, returned from a school trip and told her dad that a teacher had called her a "star". "She assumed he meant 'good at her work'. I could have told her he meant she gave him a reason for coming to work, a sense of being worthwhile, of making a difference. That whatever was going on in his life outside the school, she was a positive constant, someone he could respect and admire - maybe a role model for his own children. But I simply wouldn't know how to begin."

Richard Jackson, now 43, has since remarried and had two more children. He left Framwellgate Moor a year after his wife died, retrained as a primary teacher, then became an advanced skills teacher. In 1992, he moved to Rotherham, where, for the past 18 months, he has worked as an IT support teacher in primary schools. He has never thought of himself as a victim and always tried to look to the future. "What kept me going through the bad times was that optimism and faith in the children."

Watching his own children go through school moved him to write the piece.

"I started to think about what keeps me in the job, and it's the relationships with the children," he says. Writing also reawakened many memories and he decided to track down Andrew and Ashley via the Friends Reunited website. Andrew, now living in New Zealand, is married with two children and Ashley has just graduated in business management from the University of Teesside - where she was named student of the year.

He sent them taped copies of him reading his story on Radio 4. "Ashley said her mum would have been proud to have heard it. And I felt it was a nice tribute to Liz." Being able to tell his story on the radio made it even more special, he says, "a bit like standing at the top of a building and shouting it out".

* Most teachers can relate to the situation Lynne Fox found herself in four years ago. Scanning the register for her new year group, she saw a name she recognised - Leon. "He was the kind of child whose name you know long before you ever meet them. You know the ones I mean. The kid whose name rings out in tones of fury across the playground; the kid whose name is muttered darkly in staffroom corners."

Leon was engaging, a little child with a big grin, whose shoes "would be flapping open where the sole meets the upper". He was also hyperactive, disobedient, and forever in trouble. "When I say he was climbing the walls - he really was climbing the walls," she says. Ms Fox has taught for 33 years since training as a secondary English teacher - including stints in adult education and as a supply teacher - and has been at Derwentwater primary in the London borough of Ealing for the past 12 years. But she thought she had met her match in Leon. "This child had me at the end of my tether. I am a quite experienced teacher but I couldn't manage his behaviour."

Then, one day, she read the Ted Hughes poem "Amulet" to the class. "That poem had a big effect on me, and when I read it out, the fact that somebody else - almost everybody else - responded to it was incredible," she recalls.

"But what really amazed and touched me - and brought Leon and me together - was his love of the poem." Here was a boy who could barely read or write, smitten by a piece of verse that would test the comprehension of most adults. "I didn't then and still don't know what it was," she says.

But "Amulet" had Leon entranced. With the rest of the class, he made amulets, wrote down secrets to put inside them, made maps of the complex geography of the poem, recorded himself reading it out and, incredibly for him, read it out in a class assembly. Ms Fox wrote: "I remember watching in amazement - Leon sitting absorbed and still, head bowed over the sheet of paper, finger following the words as he listened to the tape; enthralled by the magical world of wolf and doe, mountain swamp and star all wrapped up around him."

She hopes it will have left a lasting impression on him just as it has on her. "You have to think long-term in his life. When he is a man, that will be a memory." When the class moved on to new topics, Leon's behaviour reverted to type, and he left the school about six months later. "But he's still in the same borough and I still hear about him," says Ms Fox, in the same way she used to hear about him before.

The experience confirmed all her feelings about teaching, she says - "that they should burn paperwork and go back to the passion. That's when the really good stuff happens." But she has never used the poem since in class.

"I almost don't want to. I feel it worked so magically that time."

* Being a teacher in Northern Ireland 25 years ago could be dangerous. It was the height of the Troubles, and there was one rule every teacher had to observe to keep the peace in the classroom: don't mention the war.

Grainne Tobin was an English teacher in Lurgan technical college, an FE college that was unusual in those days for taking children from the age of 14. It was also mixed, not only boys and girls, but Catholics and Protestants.

This was one of the reasons Ms Tobin chose to work there, having qualified as a teacher a couple of years earlier. "FE was the only outlet for integrated education then. I was very committed to it, but this was before people could commit to the idea of integrated schools. Things have changed a bit, thank heavens."

Back then, her mixed class was like oil and water, and both elements stuck with their own. Any sign of consorting with the other side was tantamount to treason and could land you and your family in trouble. The class was reading Huckleberry Finn, and enjoying the strange dialects and foreign setting. "We got to the bit where Widow Douglas takes Huck in as her son.

She takes care of Huck, wants to secure his place in heaven, and sends him to Sunday school. Now it was here that Big Stevie stretched and looked around him and asked, 'What is Sunday school?'"

The sensible response might have been to give Big Stevie a simple answer and move on, but Ms Tobin had other ideas. "With my fingers crossed behind my back, and one eye on the spyglass in the door where the V-P had a habit of appearing, in the hope of catching me corrupting his young, I lit out for the territory."

For the next hour, her pupils had untimetabled religious education, which for many was their first encounter with ideas and beliefs from the other side of the sectarian divide. Sunday school and Mass were explained, and both sides confessed they only went because their parents made them. "They agreed with Huck Finn that 'regular and decent ways' were 'rough' to live with," Ms Tobin noted.

A secret debate was planned for the following week's class on whether or not Ireland should be united. Grainne Tobin's story ends: "We had passionate opinions but no insults; repartee but no threats. People in that room heard things they had never heard before, face to face. The day after the debate, they were sitting all mixed up together. The staffroom was full of complaints about having to separate one Catholic-Protestant pair because they were giggling so much they weren't getting any work done. They still couldn't meet after school or go safely to each other's houses, but perhaps they could be together for a while on a raft in the Mississippi."

Looking back, she says: "At the time I felt illicit about it. It's not right to feel illicit about something educational. This was in an area which has been affected by the Drumcree marches. They only ever met the other lot on the other end of a brick. These boys talked about how they had been in the same riots on opposite sides. The only thing they had in common was a contempt for the police.

"It was the only time I have ever taught Huckleberry Finn and it was bliss.

They were magic, those kids."

Nowadays Ms Tobin is heavily involved in Northern Ireland's small but growing movement for integrated education, and head of English at Shimna integrated college in Newcastle, County Down.

"We are not told, 'don't talk about the war' - quite the opposite. We are celebrating differences. Where we are now, people are able to express a variety of opinion without causing a riot." Even for an "atheist ex-Catholic", Ms Tobin says the freedom to teach and talk freely has made her feel "like someone who has had a religious awakening and been reborn".

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