Hunch that unearthed a real star

26th June 2009 at 01:00

I first met Alex when I went to Goldsmiths College to give a talk to students who were about to begin their teaching careers. I'd taken one of my teachers who'd just completed her NQT year, which she'd thoroughly enjoyed. Alex had been invited too, and my teacher knew him well: they'd trained together, and so she introduced me to him.

It was obvious that Alex had experienced an appalling first year in the classroom. He'd run his own restaurant for years, but wanted a career change.

The reality of teaching wasn't what he'd expected: the school was chaotic, the headteacher ineffective, and staff left virtually every term. He was in danger of failing his induction year and was considering a return to catering.

I liked him instantly, and I felt he hadn't been given a fair chance. I had a vacancy for September and, on the spur of the moment, I offered it to him. Human resources at the town hall would have been appalled - appointing a teacher now involves a 28-stage process, but, sod it, I had a gut feeling.

Alex was a success from the moment he walked into my school. An incredibly hard worker, he gained the affection of the children within days.

When he asked me how often I'd like to see his planning, he was astonished when I said I didn't want to see it at all. His previous senior managers, none of whom ever went near a classroom, had marked his planning with detailed and often vitriolic comments. I explained that I'd pop into his classroom regularly for a while and join in with a lesson or two. I'd know instantly if things weren't working well and, if that were the case, there was much friendly expertise in the school to support him.

By the time two years had passed, he was thoroughly involved with every aspect of the school and loving it. He organised a link with a poor school in Gambia, and his children designed and organised a series of playground sideshows to raise money. It was a tremendous success - the most popular event being Alex strapped into a chair, with children paying 10p and lining up to squash a shaving-foam pie on his head.

Like all great teachers, he had a delightful sense of humour. While explaining to an inspector that he was a little tired because his son had recently been born, she asked if it affected his performance. "Well," he said, "my wife hasn't complained yet ..."

What especially pleased me was the time he was willing to give his pupils. Once, as Mason talked constantly at him during lunch, I suggested to the boy that he should give Alex a little peace.

"Nah," said Mason, grinning broadly, "'E don't deserve it." Mason was an extremely challenging boy, his home life was grim, and his father hardly an ideal role model. But, for him, Alex was.

When I began an after-school table tennis club, I discovered that Alex was also a good player. We began regular Friday matches after the children had finished and gone home. Then we'd sit and chat about the week - performance management as it should be done!

I was really looking forward to seeing what he could do with a different year group in September. And then, just before the last half-term break, he told me he'd be leaving in the summer.

His wife, a barrister, gets much of her work in Kent, his son starts school shortly, and a house had become available. He was very sad to be going, but it seemed a timely move.

Alex has given a great deal to my school. What have I given him? Well, his confidence, and the freedom to discover teaching's pleasures. He'll make a cracking deputy head very soon.

And in September, I shall miss him very much.

Mike Kent is headteacher of Comber Grove Primary, Camberwell, south London; email:

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