Obituary - Caroline Wray, 1960-2010

16th July 2010 at 01:00

Caroline Wray did not play by the rules. Instead, she won pupils over with a combination of nonsense songs, face-pulling and good-natured insults. Her colleagues, meanwhile, recall an idiosyncratic mix of pedagogical dedication and pomposity-puncturing one-liners.

Caroline Dodgson was born in Welwyn Garden City on August 5, 1960. Her incipient musical talent first became apparent when she was presented with a xylophone at the age of five. Within two years, she had moved on to the piano and violin, and by the age of 12 had won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music.

Meanwhile, her pedagogical ability was revealed at a similarly early age: young Carol would sit on the steps of her family home, reading stories to local children.

On finishing school, she combined these talents, enrolling on a BEd course at Reading University, where she specialised in music education.

She began her career at Farley Hill independent primary, near Reading, before moving to nearby St Mary's. In 1985, she married Andrew Wray; the marriage lasted four years, though she was Miss Wray thereafter.

Briefly, she wondered whether teaching might be the wrong career for her, and took a job in financial services instead. The income-protection plans that she talked relatives into buying outlasted her career: she was back in the classroom within three years.

In 2000, she was appointed maths co-ordinator at Birch Hill Primary, in Bracknell. It was her humour that immediately struck colleagues: she had the ability to end staffroom pontification with a well-timed quip.

These putdowns were often coupled with a good-natured irreverence. One new teacher was greeted by Miss Wray leaning around the partition between their classrooms and pulling a face. On other occasions, she would vanish behind the same partition, explaining to pupils that she was "finding out what I need to teach today".

Pupils welcomed her informality: they delighted in her ability to be rude in front of them. Dismissing them at the end of the day, she would say: "All the stupid children can go now." When none left, she would add: "Well, you're obviously not stupid."

Once, teaching a boy with severe behavioural problems, she was greeted by a volley of robustly crude insults. Miss Wray, however, remained unfazed: when he yelled out "hairy bollocks", she merely replied: "That's never been my experience." "Hairy bollocks" subsequently became a catchphrase among members of staff.

The incident was typical: Miss Wray did not make drama out of misbehaviour. While other teachers battled on with rules and strategies, she could transform fractious pupils through sheer force of personality.

After several years at Birch Hill, she was promoted to the leadership team, as teaching and learning co-ordinator. In this role, her primary focus was always the children: she wanted every new measure or change to the curriculum to be talked through and considered, to ensure that it was being introduced for the right reasons.

Talking things through was vital, she believed. As teacher-governor, she rarely defaulted to her own best interests; instead, she wanted to ensure that decisions met the needs of the entire school.

In adult life, as in childhood, music and education dominated her life. She provided out-of-hours instrument lessons for pupils, even lending her own, valuable violin to pupils who could not afford their own. (Her family would like it back now, but have no idea where to start looking.)

And she oversaw school singing, teaching children everything from 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot' and 'Streets of London' to nonsense songs. On one occasion, the headteacher walked past the school hall to see 240 children standing up, sitting down and miming hand actions - without ever losing the tune - to 'The 12 Days of Christmas'.

Her other lifelong love was horses. She rode regularly, and was well-known at her local stables. One of the highlights of her final months was when the stable-owners arranged for a horse to be transported to her hospice for a visit.

She was diagnosed with diabetes several years ago; the subsequent check-ups revealed lung cancer. In summer 2009, ill-health forced her to give up work, but her one-liners were making the hospice nurses laugh right up to her death, on June 5 this year.

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