Lessons in Love

14th February 1997 at 00:00
It isn't only pupils who will be opening unsigned love notes today; teachers can have secret admirers too, and a bit of eye contact across the staffroom can easily lead to contact of a more serious kind. Marriage even. But working and living together can put a strain on the happiest relationship. Wendy Wallace celebrates St Valentine's Day with couples who've found love at school - and survived

Many teachers are too busy with paperwork to cultivate a social life outside school, so it is inevitable that some look for - and find - love in the staffroom. Such relationships have advantages: teachers working in the same school have plenty in common and see more of each other than other couples. Some make rules about not talking about school at home, like the two who after a spectacular day at school drove home and were still sitting outside in the car talking at 11pm.

The consensus among teachers is that problems arise not when people get together in the staffroom but when they break up. One London teacher recalls an affair in her school between two teachers, one of whom was already married to another teacher at the school. "There were nasty scenes in the staffroom, with everyone looking at the wall and wishing they hadn't gone in there," she says. "Eventually the two of them left, and the rest of us were left with this aggrieved woman wanting to tell her story 400 times."

Love affairs can pose management difficulties, as well as personal ones. A romance at the Earls High School, an 1,100-pupil comprehensive in the Midlands, came to grief at the end of last year when both parties' spouses found out. Careers teacher Roger Millard, aged 38, has been sacked as a result of his two-year romance with meals supervisor Alison Jones, 27. He is appealing against the decision. But the school's headteacher, Carol Raphael, says romantic liaisons are not usually a management concern. "As long as the affair does not affect the work that is going on in the school, it's no business of the head or governors," she says. "In all schools with a big staff, things like this are a normal part of life in England in the 1990s." Secondary schools - with more staff and a more balanced male-to-female ratio - are usually more fertile romantic ground than primaries and sometimes attraction develops between a teacher and a student.

Difficulties arising from teachers' love lives form a "tiny part" of the case work of Gerry Bartlett, who works in the legal department of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers.

"There's a lack of opportunity for teachers," he says, "and not many situations where they're not with pupils. It's not like a standard office situation. Teaching's actually quite lonely."

* Kirsten Gillen, 27, met her fiance, Alastair Robertson, 38, when she began her first teaching job, at St George's School, Harpenden, a voluntary-aided state boarding school with a Christian ethos. They are getting married in July, in the school chapel. Conducting a romance under the watchful eyes of 930 pupils has tested the relationship.

"I'd eyed Alastair up in the staffroom when I came for my interview," says Kirsten. "He's tall and skinny and permanently covered in chalk, a typical geography teacher. It was definitely me that made the first move; I invited him to a party. Then we found that we just had a lot in common. We kept it very low key in school. I think the children caught on quicker than the staff, after we started arriving together in the morning. We'd be in Sainsbury's and the kids would be there nudging their parents. It was a bit like being members of the Royal family.

"We've been living together for a year and a half. We hardly ever see each other at school. At break, sometimes a chocolate will appear in my pigeonhole.

"I went on a geography field trip with him, and directing a school play together was a good test of our relationship. We've done The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, and The Importance of Being Earnest. We have an agreement that we won't spend our lives talking shop, but it's nice when we're both sitting at either end of the table marking or doing our reports. It's good encouragement and support.

"I think people are probably happier now we're getting married. The older women on the staff are quite happy that the school bachelor has been tied down at last.

"Now the kids realise we're getting married, they want to know everything about it. They're flabbergasted that we're real people and they all want to come to the wedding. The next question will be, when are we going to have children? But the big thing with the girls is, am I going to change my name? That's really bothering them.

"The worrying thing in the early days was not to have a public break-up. It really would be like Charles and Diana then."

* Dorothy and Guy Wilson, now aged 41 and 45 respectively, have been married for 19 years. They have two teenage children and once worked in the same school for six years. But they met when Guy started teaching at the school where Dorothy was studying for A-levels. "He came to the school from college as a new teacher," says Dorothy. "Foolishly, they gave him the upper sixth. It was a secondary modern with a sixth form and I was head girl, which added a bit more spice."

"I was very sporty and he came from PE college, and we were both keen on music. He was friendly with everyone; he used to bring his guitar in and we would sing songs. Being so young, he had more in common with the sixth form than with most of the staff.

"We got on very well in school, then one of the other pupils set me up. I arranged to meet him, as a friend, in a pub and he didn't turn up, but Guy did. We spent the evening chatting. He was very careful, I think is the word.

"He invited me to his house for tea the next Sunday and I had to peel the potatoes under his father's watchful eye because his mother was ill in bed. We saw each other from then, but we kept it very secret. Most of the time at school we ignored each other, although I remember he used to make me take the register and get a bit stroppy. Out of school he called me HG.

"I introduced him to my parents - my Dad was a policeman - and they liked him but were a bit dubious about the situation. His Mum was worried sick he'd lose his job. But I saw him more as a contemporary. He liked all the things I liked, and we both played basketball. We were very, very quiet about it. We had nowhere to go, so sex didn't come into it until some way down the line.

"We used to drive into neighbouring counties to go to pubs. I spent a lot of time on the floor of his Hillman Imp. I was scared. The head was a very nice man but strict and stand-offish. Being head girl made it worse, because they would have thought I should have known better. But it just seemed right. We carried on until I'd done my A-levels, then I went away to college for three years, then we got married.

"He had lots of self-doubt about it being unprofessional. The very last lecture they had at college was a warning against having relationships with pupils, and he thought it would never happen to him. But it did." (Dorothy and Guy Wilson's names have been changed.)

* Sabrina Broadbent, 40, was smitten in the headteacher's office when she was teaching English at a south London comprehensive. She now has two children, aged two and five. "There was a television crew coming in to make a film about children and television. The head of department was supposed to be involved but he was away that day so I had to go in and meet the researcher. I'd just finished a relationship, and de- cided I wasn't going to go out with men at all. All I remember is looking at his brown suede shoes and thinking they were very tasteful, then up his legs, and he had a nice leather jacket on, then this sweet face at the top. I thought, what a shame I'm not going to have anything more to do with men.

"He filmed in my class over the next few days and observed and sat at the back, and it was all a bit heart-fluttering. Then the day after they finished filming he made some excuse about borrowing a video and rang me, and we've been together ever since. It was a definite coup de foudre in the head's office.

"You can meet people in school, but I wouldn't look in the staffroom. I like having a separate world from my partner. You have very intense and intimate relationships with people in the staffroom; it's like the army, but I wouldn't want it to be my life."

* Norman Hoare, 46, is head of St George's School in Harpenden where romance blossomed for Kirsten and Alastair. Mary Hoare, 45, his wife, teaches PE part-time in the same school. This has both advantages and disadvantages, says Norman. "My wife has felt uncomfortable on many occasions throughout my career when I've had to take difficult or unpleasant actions, with a failing teacher, or one who's broken school regulations. Heads tend to develop thick skins, but it's more difficult for a partner who's a member of a common room.

"My wife and I are very strict with ourselves in terms of gossip. We try not to discuss what X might be saying about a decision I've made. On occasions, she has deliberately avoided going into the staffroom because she feels it's right for people to be able to sound off. And if I do explode in frustration at home over a school issue, my wife has to understand that she's hearing it as my wife, not as a colleague in the staffroom, and shouldn't repeat it.

"But there are advantages. When I've made a speech and it hasn't gone down well, she's the first to let me know. Sometimes I'm more nervous of my wife being there than of 350 parents staring at me. We'll come home and she'll say, 'You were boring and don't ever wear that tie again'.

"I do actually see my wife, and she sees me, more than the average couple. I see her on the tennis courts and games fields when I'm showing parents round and I always feel immensely proud, because she's such a good teacher, loves working with children and teaches to such a high standard."

* Diane Thompson, 47, and her husband James, 47, both teach at Hawksmoor School in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire, in the science department. They met studying chemistry in 1969 and have teenage children.

"You understand each other's problems," says Diane, "be-cause you're working in the same environment. James is head of science, but we're both senior managers, so we're actually on a par. I don't think it would make any difference to us, but it might with other people.

"We studied together and we've worked together frequently, so we've developed a good working relationship. Even though it's a very small school, many of the youngsters don't catch on that we're married. I've had children say to me, 'Have you met Mr Thompson? We've got him next year and he's awful'.

"At work, we call each other Mr and Mrs Thompson. We're both very calm personalities, we don't get rattled very easily, and we would never bring problems to school. That's part of the code. As soon as we're out of the front door, we don't talk about home. And we avoid talking about home at school.

"I sometimes feel we see too much of each other. I would never sit with him at lunch or in the staffroom, because it would be boring. You've got to have spaces in a relationship and it could make other people uncomfortable. We're two individuals, not a double act.

"I think the children like to think there's a Mum and a Dad at school. They see us as security. A lot come from broken homes, and I think sometimes our area is a bolthole for children who need a bit of comforting. There is a nice, secure atmosphere there, and they do like it."

* Elaine and Fouad (aged 33 and 32) met in London two years ago when Fouad, a political refugee from the Middle East and a writer in his own country, joined the class where Elaine was teaching English as a second language. They now live together.

"He came in to enrol, and as soon as I saw him I thought he looked fun, " says Elaine. "I was excited to have him in the class, because he was really intelligent. In the class, we had a lot of group discussions. We had one about marriage, and he said he thought it was brilliant for women to get married older, when they had experience of life. We talked about homosexuality, and Nawal et Sadaawi, who he thought was an amazing writer. I had all these stereotypes of Muslims and I was quite surprised.

"I was beginning to get attracted to him, but I was frightened. As a teacher, it's very easy to attract your students because they see you every day, and a lot are vulnerable. I felt vulnerable myself. I wanted real feeling, not just to be an introduction to the culture for someone new to the country. But I could see that he had the integrity and dignity to run his own life.

"It was mature communication, and we took it very slowly. When we went on a first date, and declared how we felt, it was very embarrassing the next day. You begin the class and look for the person, but you've got to be normal and treat them like any other student. We started flirting and going out and we'd kissed each other, but we didn't start a full relationship until after he'd left the class."

"There was the issue of it being unprofessional to go out with your student. It surprised me that it was that important to me. I've told three colleagues, but I felt I had to say it in a careful way. There's still other people I don't want to know, because I don't want to be brought back to a time when he was vulnerable and so was I. We've come such a long way together."

(Elaine and Fouad's names have been changed.)

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