My other family

5th November 2004 at 00:00
Teachers are notoriously bad at switching off. Sometimes life can seem like an endless round of marking, planning and after-school activities, with little time for domestic diversions. But not everyone is complaining. Wendy Wallace meets teachers who, for very different reasons, are finding a new form of work-life balance by breaking down the division between the personal and the professional

When English teacher Danny Smith discovered that his son had a life-threatening degenerative condition, he had a new imperative: to raise awareness of Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) and money for research into a cure. He has harnessed his personal mission - "I can live with not succeeding. I can't live with not trying" - to his professional life.

Mr Smith, 41, was once a sports journalist on regional papers in the north-east of England. Having decided he lacked the instinct to be a reporter - "I was too bothered about the people; I got too involved" - he switched to teaching at the age of 30, and worked at Whitley Bay high school and then Monkseaton comprehensive in Tyneside. The second of his three sons, Sam, was born while he was at Monkseaton. But it was not until he was in his third and current post, at Ryton comprehensive, outside Newcastle, that Sam was diagnosed with DMD. (The disease is at the heart of a new British movie Inside I'm Dancing, in which a boy with DMD is admitted to a care home, where he develops a close friendship with another boy with cerebral palsy.)

Poorly co-ordinated and noticeably unsporty, Sam was clearly not going to follow in the footsteps of his athletic older brother. Two years ago, Mr Smith and his teacher wife, Elaine, took Sam, then aged three, to the doctor to see if his diet was at fault, or whether he would benefit from counselling. The GP suggested a blood test; the family was called next day for an appointment with a specialist at Newcastle's Centre for Life, which carries out genetic research. "The penny didn't drop," says Mr Smith. "I was thinking more about what work to set, who would cover, who I'd have to thank when I got back."

The diagnosis, which means Sam faces an impaired quality of life and reduced life expectancy, threw Mr Smith into deep depression. "We've all had the experience of waking up from a nightmare. This is a living nightmare," he says. He kept on working, crying on the way into school in the car, pulling himself together for the day. "School can be the most predictable, secure, comfortable place. It is a community, and you live within it." By Christmas, he had pneumonia. It was while he was off sick - "in a feverish state, my imagination working overtime" - that he came up with the idea of a 24-hour teaching marathon, to raise money for, and awareness of, DMD.

The marathon, which Mr Smith called the Longest Day project, was held on June 18 (see Talkback, Friday, July 9). It raised pound;50,000 and, he says, "united 25,000 staff and pupils on Teesside". Making it happen changed his relationships with colleagues and pupils. "It was a reminder that you share the classroom with people," he says. "I was no different from students, colleagues, who have their own traumas. It made me realise the potential for doing something connected to my job and to saving Sam's life, but completely worthwhile for students as well."

He enlisted the support of what he calls "my other family" for what became, in effect, a whole-school citizenship project. Members of staff raised money, and organised publicity, karaoke and refreshments. Even former colleagues got involved; staff at Monkseaton raised pound;2,500 and a friend from Whitley Bay took charge of organising the event. "It has made me realise how much you share with colleagues and how important it is to support each other when you face challenges," says Mr Smith. "We shared something in June that I hope many people will never forget."

His experiences with his son have changed him as a teacher as well as as a person. "You always need understanding, patience, enthusiasm, courage," he says. "It has underlined the importance of those qualities and contextualised Ofsted, marking, duty. It makes you realise that what is important is not always measurable." Students have responded to the Smith family's situation. One Year 7 boy offered Mr Smith the 8p he had in his pocket, moved by an assembly on DMD in which Mr Smith described the way his son was, metaphorically, "looking down the barrel of a gun". A feisty Year 10 girl was visibly distressed by Sam's condition, changing staff's perceptions of her capacity to empathise. Year 9 students wrote 100 thank-you letters to donors; Year 10s designed the project logo.

With the Longest Day now behind him, Mr Smith is working on a Longest Year calendar for 2005; he will abstain from alcohol for the year and has recruited celebrity supporters, such as Kevin Keegan and Chris Tarrant, to do the same for a day each. On Sunday nights, he does his marking first, then what he calls his "life-saving stuff". His purpose - to put pressure on the Government to force it to invest in the research experts believe could quickly lead to a cure - gives him a way of dealing with his son's tragedy. "When he asks me, 'Am I going to die, Dad?', I must be able to answer, 'Not if I've got anything to do with it'."

Down in London, lifelong environmentalist Helen Adams, 34, is a deputy head at Argyle primary school in the London borough of Camden. She grew up on a rural smallholding and, after studying history at university, worked for the Body Shop, where she was first an in-store environmental adviser and later a member of the company's working party on Green issues. She had planned to work in environmental law but, after a spell doing voluntary work in Romanian orphanages, decided to become a teacher instead. Following her PGCE at London's Institute of Education, she saw an unusual ad in The TES for a co-ordinator for science and environmental education at Argyle.

"I rang the head and said I can't do the science but I'd like to do the environmental bit."

Taken on as an NQT, Ms Adams was encouraged by her headteacher, Usha Sahni (then also new in post, but now an HMI), to use her commitment to environmentalism in her new role. The 450-pupil school serves a transient inner-city population, with 40 languages spoken and many children from deprived backgrounds. Green issues became a powerful tool of school improvement. "The head realised the importance of the children's environment and had already worked on the playground, changing it from a blank, concrete space to separate areas for planting and murals, and introducing plants from the countries of the school community. It became clear that there was a can-do culture."

In her first year, Ms Adams raised funds for further developing the school grounds and wrote a scheme of work for environmental education, then almost unheard of in primary education. When, after her qualifying year, she was given an extra responsibility point for developing environmentalism at the school, green issues began to move from the periphery of Argyle to its heart. Children helped to make a sensory garden, a fruit and vegetable patch and a quiet area, and introduced recycling. With about four-fifths of the children speaking English as an additional language, "practical, first-hand, experience-based teaching has always been fundamental", says Ms Adams.

In 2002, a staff planning conference decided the school mission was to "equip the children to face the challenges of the 21st century". Argyle decided to prioritise education for sustainable development and global citizenship. These themes are now central to the curriculum, at all key stages. "It is commonsense stuff really, and we're not brainwashing children," says Ms Adams. "We haven't turned the whole school into radical eco-activists." Some children, for instance, have written letters to their MP arguing in favour of fox-hunting while others have opposed it.

A member and financial backer of around 10 green charities, Ms Adams is active in Greenpeace ("I'll do anything that's legal"). But she keeps her personal and professional lives separate; for instance, never bringing campaign petitions into the staffroom. Her commitment to the environment runs through everything she does. "Working with children is about working for the future. For me, it would be pointless to educate the next generation if I wasn't also trying to do something to ensure they had a decent world to inherit. We have to educate the children in a way that will equip them to avoid making the mistakes we've been making. The values go all the way through."

South of the river Thames, Paula Kitson-Moore, 39, has used her love of music to enrich her career and the lives of children in Lewisham. She first became involved in music when she was five and her mother bought a piano.

One of seven children, she taught herself tunes by ear and started formal lessons only when she began secondary school.

After studying music therapy at Brunel University, she trained as a teacher and in the 1980s began working at St Stephen's CE primary in Deptford. Then a failing school, it had low pupil numbers and high staff turnover. Music and the arts provided the key to turning the school around. "Children were very good at singing," she says. "The whole school was the choir. We worked at getting quality in the way they sang, and making them believe they were good singers. That raised their self-esteem and helped discipline."

Long before all secondary schools had to be specialist, St Stephen's was a musical centre. The head demanded all new appointees have a musical skill; the result is that all children learn recorder right through school and about half learn other instruments, including flute, violin, cello and clarinet.

Now head of music education in the borough - and made an MBE in 2002 for services to music education - Ms Kitson-Moore still teaches one day a week at St Stephen's. "Teaching gives me the kick. I love being with the children," she says. "And I've grown up with several of the staff. The passion, the enthusiasm, is there. I feel confident that it will continue to be a big part of the school."

For more information on Danny Smith's campaign visit:

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