The Interview - 'Jesus was the best teacher'

26th June 2009 at 01:00

Janet Sheehan is head at St Anne's RC Primary in Whitechapel, east London, where the international primary curriculum is followed and almost half of the pupils are eligible for free school meals.

Why did you become a teacher?

It's who I am. Both my parents were teachers and my sister is one. I once tried to make an escape when I was at a crossroads in my life. I went for a job in personnel, or HR as it's now called. I got to the second stage and had a crisis in the interview. I thought to myself: "What am I doing here? I am a teacher." I've always loved school. When I was five years old, I used to hold assemblies and made my grandparents pretend to be my pupils. I think Catholic education is fab, but primary education is something else. I felt as though I had entered the promised land.

You have been described as a "hero head" because you help other schools in challenging circumstances.

I do help other schools, but I don't like that term. I'm involved in an initiative by the National College for School Leadership, for which I'm a national leader of education. I'm also a local leader of education. I support schools going through a period of difficulty.

The local authority has given me two opportunities to act up in other schools. But I have never left St Anne's behind. It's important that you are a visible presence in your school, especially one in challenging circumstances like ours.

What's the best thing about your job?

The feeling that you are making a difference to children's lives. I know all the children's stories. I often say that most adults wouldn't be able to function with the issues these kids face. I'm so proud of them. They are engaged in learning, well behaved and enthusiastic. And it is lovely to feel you've had a part in it.

It's also lovely to see how the teachers and support staff develop. I have been here for 10 years and some of the staff have been too.

What is your single biggest achievement?

Someone said that I was doing community cohesion before it had even been invented. Someone else said that the school wouldn't be here: when I joined there were 276 pupils and there were talks about closing Catholic schools in the borough because the population was changing. We expect there to be 340 pupils in September. The diocese of Westminster inspected us and said that we are an outstanding Catholic school.

Those are the special moments when you shed a tear, because blood, sweat, toil and not a few tears have gone into this enterprise. We have to work twice as hard to do half as much. But we don't mind; that's our job.

What type of children attend your school?

My deputy and I have a competition to see who can get the best letter following school trips or visits. An example might say something like: "I just needed to tell you how lovely it was to meet the children from your school. It was a pleasure to have them." Or they might ask if we're a private school.

They are fabulous children from a wide variety of ethnic groups. The number who speak English as a second language has increased hugely over the years.

Why did you choose to follow the international primary curriculum?

You don't just pick it off the shelf and do it. You have to go through a process of reflection and add and subtract bits, but it stops you reinventing the wheel. The teachers still spend at least half a day out of class, planning the next topic with the deputy. It's like good old-fashioned primary teaching. Ofsted loved it. The children are enthusiastic about it. And you get to feel part of something wider - an international network in which you can meet teachers from around the world.

What would you do if you were the Schools Secretary for a day?

I'd get rid of league tables and keep Sats. External validation is great: it gives you something to aim for, and I don't mind being held to account. But we are not on a level playing field and the tables don't help us. The proposed report cards might be better. I have no problem with Sats.

How do you relax?

In term time, I don't. I do go swimming, but I don't relax. I'm continuously problem-solving. You go to bed with an issue and wake up with a solution, and that's just the way it is. It comes with the territory.

I relax in the holidays. This year I'm going to New England and Croatia. I tend to relax by the fourth week of the summer holidays, but then I'm back to school by the fifth week. So I'm not in favour of splitting the holidays as has been proposed. You need it to regroup and develop your resilience, because the job does chip away at you.

Who has inspired you?

Bill Rogers, a behaviour guru, has been fabulous. Angela Myler, my children's headteacher, has also been inspirational. And, obviously, Jesus is my role model. If Jesus came back, he'd probably come to Whitechapel. I often think, what would Jesus do in this situation? Because he was the best teacher really, wasn't he?

What's the worst excuse you've ever heard?

We have a tea afternoon where we ask the children to bring in cakes, old toys and books that we sell to raise funds. One afternoon we got a call from a mother and she was very cross. She was ringing to say she couldn't make the event and wanted her cake back. She didn't understand the spirit of the event.


1999- Headteacher at St Anne's, London borough of Tower Hamlets.

1995: Deputy head at St Alban's Catholic Primary School, Havering.

1989: Teacher at St Anthony's Catholic Primary School, London Borough of Redbridge.

1983: Career break to have children. During that time did various part-time jobs in secondary, special and primary schools.

1973: Geography teacher at Woodford County High School, Redbridge.

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