From pram to primary

25th July 2008 at 01:00

Tom Burnett

My youngest of three children, Dawn, arrived back in the UK one dark, drizzly October day in 2001 after having spent her post-university year out, travelling the world. At first, her mother and I were stunned by her revelation that she had decided to become a primary teacher. She had barely a few weeks to get some school experience, apply for a place on the PGDE course and, more importantly, find a part-time job to support herself.

Realising that my youngest could find herself at the "chalk-face" or, as it should be now, "the interactive whiteboard-face", I had to look upon her qualities in a very different way. I had to assess her capabilities in the light of what I would expect to see in the ideal teacher. Would she have the stamina required to fulfil the requirements of the 35-hour week? Was she organised? Could she handle the more challenging pupils? Could she, in fact, be the sort of teacher I would want as a member of my staff?

I did a mental rewind. Dawn was born four months after we moved into the Straiton schoolhouse. My headteacher begged her mother to come and do supply when he couldn't find anyone else, and allowed Dawn to come into the school, Dailly Primary, 14 miles down the road.

Her pram sat in the corner of either my room, P5, or whichever class my wife, Ebeth, was teaching.

Although I never taught at Straiton, living in the schoolhouse, which was in the playground, had wonderful advantages for bringing up a child. At weekends, Dawn and her older brother and sister, Sandy and Carol, had unlimited access and freedom to play in the playground and adjoining garden.

She first learned to walk in a playground. She was also quite a dare-devil on her trike. The playground was on a pronounced slope and Dawn could take off from the top, reach break-neck speed and manage to avoid physical disaster by veering off to the side of the school before crashing into the perimeter wall.

For birthdays - and hers is in June - we would "borrow" PE equipment from the school and organise games in the playground. Unfortunately, some of Dawn's friends had not had the opportunity to hone their skills on the trike and many a plaster had to be administered as a result.

When we moved from the schoolhouse into a much smaller bungalow in the village, it was Dawn, aged 9, who was organising boxes and making lists.

So yes, she has the attributes to make a successful teacher. It should not have surprised me that Dawn chose to pursue this course. She is naturally organised, inquisitive and game to try anything.

She has refused to apply for any permanent post because she does not want to be tied to one particular establishment. Is this a risky strategy when we hear reports of no vacancies for our current probationers? When I was her age I had a wife, three children, dog and a roof to provide for. I admire her independence and envy her lifestyle.

It is interesting for me to hear how she works in the urban environment, as I have tended to work in rural communities. It is also interesting for me to get the perspective of a classroom teacher, given some heads are accused of being too far from the chalk-face.

But I have been a little concerned from time to time. I remember she worked in one school in Glasgow to which staff were advised not to walk, in case they were attacked. When you're younger you tend not to think about the hazards - but her mother and I do!

Since she has started teaching, Dawn would admit to doing this to "fund her habit" - she is addicted to travel, particularly the Far East. Summer term ends, Dawn is on a plane. Six weeks later she is back, refreshed for a new school session. She will have climbed mountains, been on jungle treks for days on end, and eaten foods and moving things I have never even heard of. Her PPD (personal professional development) is second to none and spans the globe.

Her next venture is in August when she will begin a two-year contract, teaching in Thailand.

I believe that there is definitely something in the genes. Dawn reminds me of my great-aunt Letitia Burnett. Lettie was a bit of a rebel and in Edwardian times even more so. She travelled to Russia where she worked as a governess in the Imperial Court. Her diaries, and family papers, tell the most wonderful stories of the places she visited and people she met. Dawn is the Letitia of the 21st century and if she has half the fun Lettie had, her life should be action-packed, intriguing and rewarding.

Dawn Burnett

When I was wee, I was desperate to go to school, just desperate. We lived in a schoolhouse which was at the top of Straiton Primary's playground and joined onto the gym hall. On my fifth birthday I thought: "I'm five - it's time to start school," so I lined up in the playground with the rest of the children. I was there until the teacher spotted she had one too many in the class and sent me home.

I had been to school before that though. Mum took me into work with her when I was a baby, and when she did cover at Straiton Primary, she would teach and I would do the P1 work. I would have been about four then and we used to say I was in primary nothing. It was such a wee school you got away with it.

When I first went into teaching I wasn't really sure the job was for me, but once I'd got started I really began to love it and to love the children. Before, I just thought of it as a job that would allow me to go travelling, but once you start doing it, teaching becomes very personal to you; the children really matter and it really matters. You really care about how the children get on and you want to do your best for them.

I knew when I graduated that I wanted to travel. I wanted to see different cultures which have always fascinated me. We learned about shamanism and tribes at university; I also have an aunt in Australia and I'd always had this urge to go and visit her. Anyway, when I finished my degree, I didn't know what I wanted to do so I thought a round-the-world trip might help me decide. In the end, it didn't really. I was going to be a diving instructor, a snowboarding instructor, a travel writer.

Then my dad said: "You really need to get your finger out." It was he who suggested teaching. He said, you can work hard and play hard. I didn't really want to be a teacher because Mum and Dad were teachers and I wanted to do something different. Mum would moan about her job but then you got all the funny stories as well.

Dad has been in the same school for years and years. By the time he was 30 he was married with three children.

I work for Glasgow City Council doing long-term supply. I like the experience of being in different schools. Sometimes they are quite well off and sometimes they are poorer schools, I think you learn a lot more from moving about. You see lots of different teaching styles from old and young teachers and you see different management styles. I've also been all over the different stages, and done learning support and McCrone cover, which was difficult because you're not the children's teacher.

I phone my dad up for advice all the time. If I'm having a problem with a child I'll phone him and ask: 'How would you deal with a child like this?' I'll ask the teachers in the school I'm working in as well, but it's always good to be able to speak to someone you know.

Travelling has come in handy in the classroom. You can talk about your experiences with the children. Last year, I taught a class that was 70 per cent EAL (English as an Additional Language). They were from all over the world and I was able to talk to them about their countries and the other countries I had been to - South Africa, Australia, Thailand - and I could talk about the animals as well: spiders and elephants.

I had the register home and was typing the class list when Dad looked over my shoulder and said: "How many of these children are Scottish?" There were probably only about four in the class. Working in a rural area, he hasn't had much experience of teaching children from different countries and cultures.

Even in a big city like Glasgow it depends entirely on which area you teach in. This year, I was working in a school in the West End which had just two children from outside Glasgow: one from Africa and the other from the Middle East.

I don't think he's seen the levels of deprivation I have, working in some of the really rough areas of Glasgow where some children aren't even getting washed and properly fed. His school is quite well-to-do.

At the end of the day, though, I think we would have quite similar teaching styles. We are both well organised and always in plenty of time for things. He is more of a manager than a classroom teacher now, but I think he would have used his sense of humour a lot in the classroom, which is something I try to do. I remember he told me he used to tell his kids that if they played with their belly-buttons, their bums would fall off. I use that one sometimes. I steal some of his stories.

As told to Emma Seith.

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