The day my life changed - I adopted one of my pupils, like Matilda's Miss Honey

27th August 2010 at 01:00
Social workers fast-tracked teacher's training after child lost foster family

It was 2003 and I had been at my school for five years. I had always been concerned with children's welfare. I was on the local children's panel, a voluntary part of Scotland's judicial system, which looks at helping young people in difficult circumstances, and I was teaching a Primary 1 class, which included a girl who was in foster care. Gemma* could be happy at times, but was needy: tearful and clingy. Every Thursday, she would see her birth mother and the anxiety levels would rise. She would become hysterical before and after the visits.

Social services eventually decided that Gemma could not stay with her foster family, for health reasons, so she was going to have to leave. In September, she told me that she was worried that Santa wouldn't find her at Christmas, because even she did not know where she would be living.

Then, out of the blue, a social worker said: "Why don't you adopt her?" I laughed and said I couldn't because I was single. She said that was no longer a barrier.

I went home and did some soul-searching. I spoke to my parents and my headteacher, who was very supportive. I thought I should move to a different class, but she said no.

I told social services that I was interested and they were so excited. They called me Miss Honey, after the Roald Dahl character who adopted Matilda, her pupil.

Usually, adoption training takes a year, but because Gemma's foster placement was precarious, social services didn't want her to go through more changes. It also helped that I knew everyone involved. I was fast-tracked through the system. A social worker came to my home twice a week. They explored my emotional well-being, looked at how accepting my family would be, asked what it would be like if I started a relationship, or if I wanted to have a baby of my own. It was stressful.

The adoption panel agreed by Christmas. Gemma, who was six at the time, started coming into school saying she was going to get a new mummy, but not a new daddy.

On Christmas Eve, I told the staff I was adopting Gemma. I thought they would think I had been unprofessional - jumping in with both feet - but they were behind me. Everybody loved her.

In January, the social workers took Gemma out for lunch and told her who her new mummy was. She was horrified. Children of that age don't think of their teachers outside school. They think they live in a cupboard and emerge in time for classes. She told the social worker she didn't think anyone who knew her would want her. But she came round quickly. She came to my house and was pleased with her bedroom. I had left it plain so she could paint it herself, but she loved the fact that her name was on the door in animal letters.

We went to Argos and she chose a Disney princess duvet cover. She said to the shop assistant, "My mummy's going to get it for me." It took a while to realise she was talking about me.

When I returned to school, Gemma moved to the school local to our home. She is now 13 and it's worked out well. I work full-time and in the early days had to find after-school care and a breakfast club. Having had an active social life, I barely left the house in the evenings for four years.

Adopting Gemma has meant some radical and rapid changes in lifestyle, but it's been the best decision I've ever made. People ask if I have any regrets and I think, they would never ask that of someone who has had their own child. I'm on a single salary and it's not always easy, but I wouldn't change a thing.

* Name has been changed

As told to Hannah Frankel. Do you have an experience to share? Email features@tes.co.uk.

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