Pardners in rhyme

12th December 2003 at 00:00
A ballad of a lasso-wielding teacher in a 10-gallon hat galloped away with top prize in the TESHarperCollins teachers' poetry competition, which uncovered a wealth of lyrical talent in staffrooms throughout Britain. TES books editor Geraldine Brennan rounds up the judges' favourites

When village primary head Mark Halliday's small daughter told him her reception class teacher had spent the day on a horse, it turned out that the teacher had merely been on a course, but a winning poem was born. "I write them when I want to make sure to remember something," says the head of the 107-pupil Isham Church of England primary in Northamptonshire.

"Teacher on a Horse" crossed the line by a nose when the TESHarperCollins staffroom poetry competition judges met on a wet and miserable night in search of a good laugh, or even a wry grin, generated by the everyday comedy of school life. Mr Halliday submitted two of the 70 entries, and both made our final dozen. We relished his "Primary School Inspector" ("She clung in desperation to the overhead projectorand withered in the presence of the...") but rode into the sunset with Mrs Barney and her fantasy four-legged friend.

"Teacher on a Horse" is gently amusing and wistful rather than belly-laugh material. Mark Halliday has been working on poems for children for two years. He performs regularly at other schools in the county, has had poems in several anthologies and is looking for a publisher for a first collection for key stage 2, Nothing is Ever Grey. He uses his own poems to explore PHSE issues and introduce children to poetic forms they might encounter in the literacy hour. "I wrote them as models for children's own writing." Recently, Isham primary published an anthology of pupils' own writing, called Before I Forget.

Mr Halliday is a Glaswegian who has been teaching in Northamptonshire primaries since 1988, when he qualified at Moray House, Edinburgh. Through the early 1990s he combined teaching with playing bass in an indie band, The Love Garden. With another former band member, keyboard player Alex Myles, he's set up 3-Sixty Music to create music resources for primary schools. Their musical nativity, Chosen (script and backing tracks for six songs) is designed to be rehearsed in two weeks and performed in 40 minutes. You can listen to samples, and download poems from the forthcoming collection, on Last year Sticky Music ( published McGinty's World, a "musical literacy hour" collaboration by Mr Myles and Mr Halliday with writers Iain MacDonald and Dot Reid. He wins HarperCollins books worth pound;500 (pound;100 to keep and pound;400 for school).

"Primary School Inspector" is not alone in raising a laugh at Ofsted's expense. Inspection (anticipation and reality) was a popular topic, almost as popular as the potential for mayhem when groups of children are gathered together in assembly, in swimming class, in the "Year 4 Football Match", in the playground (as in "A Windy Playtime" by the only entry to attempt a structured poetic form such as a villanelle) or backstage at the nativity play (in schools that might like to take a look at Mr Halliday's website).

Sue Lusted, deputy head at Underhill infants' school, the London borough of Barnet, enjoyed "Nativity: Traditional", by Jane Glenister, numeracy team leader at The Russell school, Richmond, Surrey. Ms Glenister's poem emerged top of a cluster of entries inspired by seasonal school productions.

"Perhaps because I'm up to my neck in our nativity right now, and it seems to say it all," said Mrs Lusted. "It does the job in few words; it's very precise, wry and funny," added author-illustrator Jez Alborough, whose illustrated poetry collection Guess What Happened At School Today? kick-started our competition back in October.

Mr Alborough was himself inspired by Mrs Lusted in her former life as "Miss Chadwick", the teacher he remembered from Clarence Avenue primary in Kingston, Surrey, in the 1960s.

Reunited by The TES (we appealed for the real Miss Chadwick to come forward when we launched the competition), Mr Alborough and Mrs Lusted joined Michael Thorn of Hawkes Farm primary in East Sussex, Jo Williamson of HarperCollins and myself to select the winner.

The school day is full of people, and many poems celebrate individuals (from heroic office staff to unforgettable pupils; from the nursery to the UCAS candidate in Alice Gwinnell's poem). But we especially enjoyed two poems about being alone in the middle of school. "Ballad of a New Teacher" described an NQT's nightmare of being "Locked by Tyler O'Neill in the stationery room" (Frances Hill escaped to teach English).

Cliff Yates, in blank verse that offered a haven after too many bad rhymes, describes a dark night of the soul for a teacher "Locked in the Staffroom".

It was one of very few poems among the entries that seemed to need no further work, and unusual in its glimpse of a school empty of children and a teacher without any reference to pupils, present or imaginary. The poet is being a grown-up (albeit a grown-up who swiftly reverts to subversive adolescence, leaving the reader to watch in a Big Brother role).

Entries remained anonymous until the judging was over; when we matched poems to entry forms Mr Yates's name was no surprise, being familiar to any TES reader concerned with bringing out the best in children as poets. He is deputy head at Maharishi school near Ormskirk, Lancashire, a small non-selective 4-16 independent with daily practice of transcendental meditation at its heart.

Maharishi children regularly starred in our Young Poet of the Week column until it closed last year; and their teacher's book, Jumpstart Poetry in the Secondary School, published by the Poetry Society (order on is a standard text. His contributions to The TES include last year's series in Teacher magazine on using the UnicefWarChild anthology Poems for Refugees, and his own poetry collection, Henry's Clock, is published by Smith Doorstop.

Mr Yates is our runner-up and receives HarperCollins books worth pound;150 (pound;50 for himself and pound;100 for Maharishi school). So, if you know any children you would like to transform into poets, first catch your horse - then point it towards Ormskirk.


Teacher On A Horse

By Mark Halliday

My teacher arrived on a horse today,

a look of the west in her eyes,

a ten-gallon hat tied under her chin

with tassels to keep away flies.

"Hi y'all!" she shouted as loud as she could.

We didn't know where to look...

She spat in the bin at the side of her desk

and stamped on her marking book.

"We are all leavin' school for forever today

to go and live under the stars.

We'll find us some cattle, go ridin' the range

and hang about drinkin' in bars."

"But we can't come away with you, Miss, today"

we whispered in nervous voice.

"You mean you are choosing to stay here?" she screamed.

We said "Yes Miss, given the choice."

The lasso appeared almost from nowhere and

she tied us in knots on the floor.

She played on her banjo extremely rude songs

until we couldn't take any more.

It was then that we heard the steps of the Head;

he had noticed the noise from our room.

Our teacher saw her last chance to escape

and she raced out into the gloom.

"I think, Mrs Barney, you're working too hard,"

the Head mumbled, trembling with fright.

But she cleared the sandpit in just one leap

and galloped off into the night.


Locked in the Staffroom

By Cliff Yates

If there was a skylight I could see the stars

if there were no clouds.

If there was a window I would smash it...

It's hopeless. I switch the lights back on,

kick aside the cushions and spend ten minutes

with Colin's darts and the "Lock Up Your Daughters" poster.

I don't touch Derek's computer.

I put the spare lightbulb in the microwave

and turn off the lights: green - red - blue - yellow.

I remember the trick with the dill pickle,

the kebab skewer and the mains socket. The fridge hums

then stops. I prop the door open for company

and have an inconclusive game of football

with Celia's inflatable globe.

I break into Margaret's locker with a Biro

find the tea money in the Coffee Mate tin,

count it twice and put it back.

I write out a new washing-up rota

for the next 6 months in her handwriting

leaving myself out. I play with the idea

of the fire extinguisher. At 5am

I put my feet up on the table

close my eyes, wait for the caretaker.

Others we liked

Nativity: Traditional

By Jane Glenister

The audience settle

The scene is set

The curtains open


Mary has a prayer

Joseph has a fit

The angel arrives

Too late.

Travel to Bethlehem

No room at the inn

Everyone sings

Off key.

Shepherds hear the news

Angels sing on high

Shepherds exit left

Not right.

Wise men bring rich gifts

While Herod fumes

Stable too warm

Mary faints.

It's the final song

And the music stops

Audience claps

Thank God!

Jane Glenister is numeracy team leader at The Russell school, the London

borough of Richmond upon Thames

Villainelle (sic): A Windy Playtime

By Stephanie Bowgett

I'm in the yard without a cup of tea,

the sky is steely and the branches bare,

the kids fly high as kites, won't let me be.

An infant's looming with a bloodied knee,

Hamina Ali's fallen out with Clare.

I'm in the yard without a cup of tea.

My eyes are watering, I can barely see,

blinded by my wildly lashing hair.

The kids are high as kites, won't let me be.

Bret's trainer has been thrown into a tree,

drippy Dawn heard Leroy Morton swear.

I'm in the yard without a cup of tea

Usman who's hit Urfan says that he

was strangling his neck and it's not fair.

The kids fly high as kites, won't let me be.

Natasha has been kissed by Timothy

Shabir pulled Kerry's skirt up for a dare

I'm in the yard without a cup of tea

The kids fly high as kites, won't let me be.

Stephanie Bowgett is literacy co-ordinator at Spring Grove primary,


Ballad of a New teacher

By Frances Hill

I'd read all the guide books on classroom control

I'd got it all sussed, a quiet class was my goal

I'd a will made of iron and peace in my soul

I was calm

I'd browsed on the Web for discipline tips

I was fully prepared and completely equipped

And I just would not tolerate anyone's lip

I'd no qualms

These things I remember now, here in the gloom,

Locked by Tyler O'Neill in the stationery room

Hoping someone from Senior Staff will come soon

With a key

These things I recall as I massage the bruise

Shazza Rogers inflicted with mile-high shoes

When I dared to mention her F-k me tattoos

Silly me

Those nostalgic days when the future seemed bright

Before Shannon and Julie used set squares to fight

And Ryan McPhee set the waste bin alight

With a fag

I'll be here all night long on the chewing-gummed floor

Reading John Barrett's conquests he's scratched on the door

I'd be screaming and yelling for help now, but for

This damn gag.

Frances Hill teaches English at Heathside school, Weybridge, Surrey

Ucas Form

By Alice Gwinnell

For a long time I have had

(cherished? nurtured?)

a passion (enthusiasm? relish?)

to 'go to University'.

(Not just for the cheap beer

and casual sex. I've heard

it can get you a better job too.)

My choice of AS subjects

has allowed me

to explore the world more fully.

(I have a lot of frees.)

My activities outside school

prove my dedication to the wider community

For instance, I regularly

eat at McDonald's,

boosting the economy

and supporting local businesses.

Other hobbies of mine include

being in the Netball B team (Year 9),

piano grade 4 and going to the cinema.

I am fascinated by popular culture

and really enjoyed 'White Teeth' on TV.

I might even read the book

I hear that Cambridge is very prestigious

And near London. That's good because my boyfriend

Lives in Wood Green.

(Do you think that's enough, Miss?

If I write big?)

Alice Gwinnell is an English teacher and A-level co-ordinator at Henrietta

Barnett school, London borough of Barnet

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