Do as I say. And as I do

24th April 2015 at 01:00
Teaching is often in the blood. Young people follow their parents - and even their grandparents - into the profession, but is the influence of the older generation positive? And how different is the job now? Adi Bloom talks to three teaching families. Photography by Russell Sach

Grandparents and granddaughter:

Joan and Joseph Wareing and Julia Hale

As the eldest of six children, Joseph Wareing had to leave school in his mid-teens, so he could start earning and help to support his family. He found a job in a research laboratory, but it bored him. When he was 18, therefore, he decided that he wanted to return to his studies. At school, he had been taught by a teaching order of monks. So he decided to enrol in the order's teacher training college.

"I loved school because of the example they set as great people, great teachers," he says. "They made a difference to my life and I wanted to be like them. I wanted to make a difference to other people's lives."

There is a pause.

"I wanted to be a vet," says his granddaughter.

Julia Hale is a trainee teacher at Edge Hill University in Lancashire. Her grandparents, Joan and Joseph Wareing, started teaching in 1960. They taught in schools around the North of England.

"When you were beginning the sixth form, you chose subjects for your A-levels that weren't to do with any career," Joan Wareing says to Julia. "You did work experience in your O-level year, didn't you? And we just suggested that you spend time in a school."

Julia nods. "And I loved it," she says. "That feeling like you've really helped someone. Actually influencing someone's life is a great thing. And every day was different - there were always different challenges."

Joan, meanwhile, had a brief childhood phase of thinking that she might become a librarian. "But then I thought no," she says. "Maybe it was because I was an only child, but I used to teach my dolls. I used to teach the stones in the rockery."

She trained as a secondary teacher, lasting only a year in the job before switching to primary. Eventually, she ended up working in Reception for most of her career. "The aim of primary education is just to develop them as little people who can think," she says. "Try to make them curious, make them wonder about things. To make them realise that life's a big adventure."

She and her husband both became deputy headteachers and later headteachers. Both saw it as their responsibility to shape the school ethos and, therefore, their pupils' attitudes to education. "What's essential at every school is that the children should be happy," Joseph says. "If the children are happy, then they're going to tackle everything."

As headteacher, he encouraged staff to hold Friday morning meetings with children. The pupils would sit in a circle as the teachers read out samples of their work. Then they would ask pupils whether they had particular issues they wanted to raise.

"It's amazing the number of social issues that were resolved, and resolved very fairly," he says. "The kids are better than the staff at deciding what to do."

Julia nods again. "Sense of worth," she says. "They're actually having an impact on their own education."

Her grandparents respond to this in unison: "But we were doing this 40 years ago."

They pause, then Joan continues. "We have a saying in our house, Joe and I: what goes around comes around. People all think it's new and wonderful, but it's been done before. And that's gone on throughout our teaching careers."

Julia, however, is still working out for herself exactly what the role of a teacher - and of education itself - ought to be. "This is obviously repeating a lot of things my grandparents said," she begins. "But it's about developing children as independent people - to realise that they can stick up for themselves.

"Obviously respect for different cultures and traditions, as well. They've got to understand that just because something is different, it doesn't mean it's wrong or weird. They need to be working together, rather than against each other."

But, if Julia is still working out for herself what kind of teacher she will be, her course is at least providing her with supportive advice and guidance. By contrast, Joseph says of his own training: "We did subjects. I did all the science subjects. But we weren't shown how to teach. We were just advancing our knowledge of science."

In the time since Joan and Joseph became teachers, the focus of education has shifted. Julia talks about the drive for achievement: "Trying to get the best, which is obviously what we should be doing. But pushing a child who just can't do it."

Her voice trails off; there are murmurs of agreement from her grandparents.

"Some children absorb a lot slower than others," Joan says. "We want the child to be developed to the best of their potential. That's so easy to say and so difficult to achieve, because of the constraints of the school, the curriculum and the quality of the teacher."

Both Wareings retired in the 1990s, Joan not long after Julia was born. Joan looked after her young granddaughter during the day. And, where Joan and Joseph had previously collected boxes full of potential classroom props for school, they instead began to use them for activities with their grandchildren. They still collect props, now because they think Julia might be able to use them in her own classroom.

"She may be influenced by the things we did as children, the activities we did," Joan says. "So maybe that's influenced her as a teacher, too. But that's what culture is."

Father and daughter:

Colin Harris and Sophie Seery

For a long time, Sophie Seery looked on as her father made big decisions in his school. "I always knew I wanted to be part of the decision-making," she says. "I think it was just being able to make a difference to the overall running side of things."

Sophie manages special needs and pupil premium provision at St James's Primary School in Hampshire. Her father, Colin Harris, is one of the longest-serving school leaders in the county. He has been a primary headteacher for 24 years, including 19 years at his current school.

"Leadership came naturally to me," Colin says. "I think that I've got humour. I think that I work hard. I'd never ask a member of staff to do anything that I wouldn't do, and that commands respect.

"Some people can take the pressures as a headteacher and some people can't. Can you position yourself when a parent has a go at you? How do you handle yourself when you have a severe abuse case?"

Although his own parents were not teachers, he believes that they instilled in him a committed work ethic. And this, in turn, fired his ambition. "I always wanted to ensure that the children in my care would do as well as they possibly could," he says.

Some of these qualities are shared by his daughter. She is a perfectionist, as is he. They can both be direct. They both use humour to deal with difficult situations, and are both able to adapt their voices and personalities to specific circumstances.

"But I'm not as happy as my dad to be the centre of attention," Sophie says. "He's a larger-than-life personality and I don't feel that I need to be. He's one of a kind. He's happy to challenge people and he'll stick up for what he believes in. If he and his staff believe in something, he will absolutely go for it."

This is not something Colin denies. To the contrary, he claims it as a personal manifesto. "I couldn't care less what people think," he says. And then, almost as illustration: "This whole model of headteachers locking themselves in rooms, coming out to tell teachers what to do and then going back into hiding - that's really frightening.

"I genuinely believe that you cannot get the best out of a child unless you get the best out of the staff as well. Supporting staff, knowing them. Ensuring that you look at their well-being, as much as the children's well-being. It's a crucial part."

Every year, Colin takes - "forces" may be overstating it - his staff on a team-building day. In recent years they have built rafts, scaled walls and made wattle-and-daub houses out of cow dung. "I think staff would say they hated it," he says. "But what's great is that it's an experience that we share together. How do you get them singing from the same hymn sheet? That's an awful lot of work."

There is a certainty here that Sophie is uncertain she shares.

"Maybe it's an age thing, but he's learned to switch off," she says. "He doesn't really mind what other people think of him. I look at him and it works really well in running a school, if you can switch off from criticism.

"I do really care what people think. I do take criticism to heart. If I make a mistake or if someone challenges me, that will literally keep me up all night long. He's harder than I am."

Observing the differences between them has, in fact, made Sophie doubt whether she wants to continue following in her father's footsteps to leadership.

"He's very loud, my dad," she says. "He's also very confident, and it can come across as overconfidence. I would never, ever want to come across like that. I strive to be the opposite of that, really."

Colin is happy for the buck to stop with him; Sophie prefers to work in a team. And, as she moves up the career ladder, she is becoming increasingly aware that her father's route is not the only one available to her.

"It's quite a big shadow to be in, because he's been very successful in what he does," she says. "That's why I'm not sure I want to be a headteacher. I'm very much my own person, and would probably fight being a headteacher because he is one."

She has worked with trainee teachers in the past and is considering the possibility of a move into academia. "I don't want people to feel that I'm trying to step into my dad's shoes," she says. "I'm eager to find my own path, whatever that is. I'd like to be successful in my own right, in my own way."

Mother and son: Sue and Tom Starkey

This is how Sue Starkey tells the story. "It was the Isle of Dogs in the 1970s," she says of the comprehensive in London's East End where she spent most of her 39-year teaching career. "There were a lot of gangs. Once or twice, I had to disarm pupils. It was knives - I just went in there. I think I must have been running on adrenaline."

And this is how her son, Tom, who has been teaching for 12 years in the North of England, tells the story. "She was a very small lady and her pupils towered over her like mountains," he says. "There were all sorts of behaviours going on that would not be classified as civil.

"I think my mother shielded me from certain things she'd done or witnessed. If she came home and told me the horror stories, I'd have been frightened. And angry. I'd have got the next bus to her school and probably got myself in trouble."

Both Starkeys have made careers out of working in schools where behaviour might not be described as civil.

"When I started teaching, teachers were like policemen, nurses, doctors, lawyers - a profession," Sue says. "I wouldn't say people looked up to you, but you were a little bit special. People were on their best behaviour around you. If you didn't do what you were supposed to do at school, you would receive a tongue lashing at home, because your parents were upset that you'd misbehaved.

"Young people today are more aware of their rights and they're more sure of themselves. They're not afraid of proffering an opinion that might not be the teacher's opinion."

Back in the early days, Sue would occasionally bring her young son into school with her. "Seeing my mum teach was one of my formative experiences," he says. "In a school where a lot of things were happening, her classroom was an oasis."

Sue is 5ft 2in; many of her pupils were a good foot taller than that. "This was a school where behaviour wasn't brilliant and fighting was commonplace," Tom says. "If you don't have the physicality to deal with that, you have to find other avenues."

For Sue, it was humour. "Watching my mum, I learned that you could get someone to do what you wanted to do by making them laugh," Tom says.

"She would treat them with a certain amount of irreverence. Not to the point of mocking them, but to make them think about their behaviour. It meant the students never knew exactly where they were, and that uncertainty is very good for behaviour. If you can make a kid smile, you can make them do just about anything."

And perhaps this, rather than the rosy tint of hindsight, is the reason for Sue's equanimity. "I don't really remember being scared," she says. "I remember being concerned and worried. But concerned as to why they were behaving the way that they were, not concerned for myself.

"I don't think there was the - how would you put it? - aggression there is now. Today, young people have a voice, and they want their voice to be heard. People have become more aware of things they want, the things they can do and the things they can't do. And they're going to get what they want."

This is the generation that her son works with. Tom is slightly taller than his mother, but still significantly smaller than many of his pupils. He, too, has not chosen an easy teaching life: he has worked in difficult comprehensives as well as in pupil referral units. And he too has been called on to disarm teenagers who tower over him.

"If I tried to lay a hand on them, the situation would just escalate," he says. "You can't go in all guns blazing. So you do it by making them laugh at themselves."

Sue was a drama teacher before moving to the English department and later becoming a deputy headteacher. And, Tom insists, part of her facility with classroom humour came from the fact that she was putting on a performance.

"It's a persona," he says. "Mum at school and mum at home were two very different people. It was akin to watching an actor. I'm a little less of a performer than her, but having a persona, having an act, really helps when it comes to behaviour. Making sure the mask doesn't drop."

Nonetheless, he still considers himself understudy to the leading lady. "Although I've been teaching for 12 years, my mum's still my model," he says. "She was dedicated, she was caring. She was stern when she needed to be, she was funny when she needed to be.

"I'm not as funny as my mum. Sometimes if I try something she did in class, I'll fall flat on my face. But it's like anything - you can never really live up to your heroes."

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