Obituary - Emma Gray - 1986-2011

2nd September 2011 at 01:00

At the age of only 25, Emma Gray was one of the best teachers her colleagues had seen. Generous with praise, eager to install even the most disaffected pupils on a classroom "throne", she effortlessly transformed challenging children into enthusiastic learners.

Emma Oldfield was born in Halifax in April 1986. While sitting her A-levels at Greenhead College, she impressed teachers with her sensitivity and caring nature. It was felt to be inevitable that she would choose a career working with people. Initially, she considered nursing and arranged work experience in a hospital. But she was put off by the injections and the unavoidable combination of vomit and poo.

She therefore enrolled in a degree at York St John University, studying primary education with a specialism in English. While at university she bumped into Jonathan Gray, a Halifax neighbour with whom she had lost touch. They quickly became a couple.

When she graduated in 2008, she went for an interview at Holy Trinity, a primary school in her home town. Observing her interview maths lesson, the head and deputy were captivated by her effervescence. Unlikely as it was, they said, she managed to make algebra exciting.

Much of this was down to her relentless positivity. Once appointed, she established a "star table" in her Year 3-4 classroom, with cushions strewn around and stars hanging overhead. Well-behaved or high-achieving pupils were rewarded with time at this table, but even the naughtiest would be given their turn.

She would not have referred to them as "naughty", however. Though she taught one of the more challenging classes at school, she nurtured them with praise and made them feel that everything they said was worth hearing. "You were the only teacher who ever listened to me," one boy said.

Whenever supply teachers complained about her pupils, she reacted with genuine bemusement. "They're not like that," she would say. It was true: with her, they were not.

She installed a classroom "throne", and nominated pupils king or queen for the day. The reigning monarch would read out work and other children would tell them what they liked about it. Miss Oldfield would then bring out a magic wand. Together, monarch and subjects would wish for ways in which the work might improve.

She had adopted the throne after observing an advanced skills teacher use a similar idea at another school. When this AST visited Holy Trinity, her thrill at seeing her idea in practice was tempered somewhat by the fact that Miss Oldfield had improved on it significantly.

But no one could dislike her. When colleagues gathered for an after-school glass of wine each Friday, Miss Oldfield was always one of the last to leave. And she became renowned for her distinctive dance style: hands in the air, she shed all inhibitions as soon as the music started.

Gradually, she took on new responsibilities at Holy Trinity: she wanted to offer her services to the whole school. She became library manager, inviting pupils to discuss books over scones and jam. She ran the school council, the gifted-and-talented scheme and the cookery club. The last, particularly, provided an outlet for creativity. On St George's Day, for example, she invited pupils to make food in the shape of St George's cross.

When a quality-mark assessor visited the school, he reported that Miss Oldfield's teaching was among the best he had ever witnessed. Her lessons, he said, "serve as a reminder why teaching can be such a worthwhile profession".

In 2009, Jonathan surprised her with a Christmas present of a trip to New York. There, on New Year's Eve, he proposed. His new fiancee returned to school giddy and excited.

Before the wedding, however, she gave birth to Jake. When she went on maternity leave, she presented staff - who were perpetually hunting for the salt at lunchtime - with salt and pepper cellars. This was typical: she was always thinking of others. When nursery pupils began a project on babies, she brought Jake into school twice: once in the morning, and once for children who attended in the afternoon.

And, at her wedding on 30 July, the new Mrs Gray rolled around on the grass, entertaining six-month-old Jake. The state of her dress was of no concern, provided that her son was happy.

The couple left soon afterwards for a honeymoon in the Maldives. On the second day, they were being driven back to their hotel when their four-wheeled buggy crashed into a tree, killing them both. Their son, Jake, is being looked after by relatives.

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