When seven children are just not enough;Interview;Margaret Lowrey

10th April 1998 at 01:00
Margaret Lowrey had a large family, then decided to become a teacher. Now she is the head of their school in Edinburgh. She talks to Seonag MacKinnon about what it was like to sit behind the big desk for the first time...

Usually you are given two guest tickets for the Moray House graduation ceremony. My tutor told me he was going to get hold of nine for me, so that all seven of my children could come. They'd never had a student with as big a family as I had.

My children were born in the space of nine years and were between five and 14 when I embarked on the course in 1970, at the age of 35. People ask how I managed it. I was organised, had good back-up from my husband and parents - and I desperately wanted to be a teacher.

I remember as a parent walking into St Francis RC primary, Craigmillar, the school where I am headteacher now, to register my first-born when she was five. It was something to do with the smell of the chalk, the feel of the place. I thought: "This is me. This is what I want. This is what I need."

The head then was Robert Davidson, a military man and very old school. I was an ordinary Craigmillar housewife and was terrified when I once got a stark letter with an appointment to see him. His desk was completely bare apart from a blotting pad and an ink well. There was a coal fire burning, highly polished green lino and a very timid woman in the corner who did his typing. All he wanted to tell me, was that my daughter was to be the May Queen. His room is my room now. I sit where he sat.

I wanted to be a teacher when I was a teenager at St Thomas's. I got my Highers but my mother came down with TB and I left school to look after her. Later I took a job as a clerk in a garden nursery, which allowed me to get home at lunchtimes to my mother, and met Charlie who was a gardener there. After we decided we were for each other, I told my parents I wasn't going to Craiglockhart training college after all.

My mother was a waitress and my father a bus conductor. They were desperately disappointed, as no one in the family had ever been a teacher before. Anyone could get married, but not everyone could be a teacher. If any of my kids had come home to me and said the same thing as I said to my parents, I'd have eaten them alive, but my mother came round once she met Charlie.

The kids came along one after the other. At night I tidied everywhere and laid the breakfast table. I got up early to do housework and made the kids take responsibility for things like sorting out their own clothes for the morning. I knew exactly how much washing I had to do in the week. School shirts did two days, jumpers and trousers a week. Older children took the younger ones to school and my husband helped a lot when he was around.

This is how I managed to make time to read in the early afternoon in the bower that Charlie made in the garden for me. I went to the library twice a week for books and read every inch of every newspaper I could get hold of. I was in a choir and very active in the community and in everything for parents. I was extremely happy in my marriage and I loved my kids. But it wasn't enough.

In the late Sixties there was a big cry for teachers and a friend worked on me to send off for information. I waited until the youngest started school and in that period did a couple of O grades at night school, to see whether I could study.

Because you had to take two buses to get to Craiglockhart, I chose Moray House. I absolutely loved it. The training was wonderful, less fragmented than it seems to be now. We had a solid term of teaching practice each year.

Myself and the other mature students were amazed by the younger students. They seemed to take this education as their right, whereas we felt we'd been so lucky to be given a second chance. They would moan and groan about little things, saying perhaps that an essay deadline was too short while we felt that there was plenty of time.

We did miss out socially, however. They would be taking part in everything from canoeing to debating, while even in the coffee break we'd be rushing out to get bread. I have to say that many (although not all) of the students who seemed to be flibbertygibbets went on to become damn good teachers. I definitely felt the difference between myself and young students when we listened to psychology lectures. Because I had kids of my own, I could see how the theories applied, but I also felt that - more importantly - I knew when with some kids they didn't apply. Come graduation I was in the top 15 in a year of 320, and I thought I was the bees knees - which is partly why the first half-term of my first teaching job was such a shock.

Without even a formal interview, the head of my kids' school had offered me his P4. In those days there wasn't the support there is now for probationers. It was: "Here's your key. Here's your cupboards. Here's your class."

I worked with a battered old copy of a syllabus, which someone managed to find and the Plowden Report. I'd thought I was going to give all these marvellous "A" lessons, but I found the classroom desperately difficult.

Sole responsibility for a noisy class of 35 was so different to teaching practice. You walked in and stood there, completely alone, as if you were in a firing line with no gun.

At home my own kids were not my kids, as I was so busy preparing and correcting. I remember thinking, what good did Moray House do me? For the first time my work and my home life were in a guddle. Also I was no longer my own boss. I was answerable to the head and had 35 bosses in the classroom. But after a week's complete break, when I just enjoyed my own children, I walked back into the classroom with more confidence.

Things improved through that year as I began to feel in control, but the real turning point for me came when I was given Primary 7. I went in like a dose of salts and told them they'd been getting away with murder and that was all finished.

For two to three weeks I didn't smile and stalked about like a policeman. I threw things on the floor and stamped on them. Said I wasn't marking that jotter - put it in the bin. We really did things in that class. When they left, we were all weeping. Five of them later went to university. I still get Christmas cards from some of them. One drives her own kids some distance to this school every morning, because she wants them in my school.

I did a lot of outdoor education with the children, hillwalking and orienteering. There was a choir too. The school was on a real high in that period.

On my first day on the staff I had felt very little. I was the sprog probationer, not the big noise I had been among the parents. I soon felt comfortable with most staff, although I felt different to the younger ones because I had family responsibilities and a mortgage.

The infant mistress approved of me because my kids were bright, which she never tired attributing to the fact that we refused to have a TV in the house.

One of my daughters was in my class once, but she was very mature and always called me Mrs Lowrey. She never took advantage of the fact that I was her mother. In fact, if anything, I was a bit harder on her than the others.

After about 13 years teaching, I began to get a bit restless and started applying for jobs. At 50 I became the assistant head to Tony Dilworth here, and then five years later succeeded him. Sometimes, when I walk in the gate, I get a flashback to the days when I would come in as a parent with my brood. Parents who knew me then were puzzled by the way I brought them up - no TV but with music and "awfy educational toys". "What are you going to do with all that money?" they asked, when I first came back as a teacher (and earned pound;1,650 a year). They couldn't understand why I wasn't going to Spain or buying a car. I didn't drive and we were saving to buy a house of our own. "Why?" they asked.

We eventually moved out, because it became too much never being off duty, people asking you in the shops about their son. But people were supportive, and proud of me too, I think. "I kent her when she had nothing" is the phrase I hear a lot.

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