The lady in fox fur lured me into governorship

1st April 2016 at 00:00
One teacher explains how a governor at his old school inspired him to become a ‘poacher turned gamekeeper’

When, I wonder, will I be issued with my fox fur? I have to say that I will be disappointed if I don’t get one. But before we get into that, perhaps I should rewind a little.

Once a year, in each of the seven years that I was at grammar school, the governors would visit. On to the stage they would wander, three impossibly old-looking people – in fact, they were probably all younger than I am now – each in their way a fascinating lesson in anthropology.

The one who did the talking had a pinched, rat-like face and a gabardine raincoat that he chose never to take off. Every year he would tell us the same thing: that as we were, academically speaking, the crème de la crème, we should work hard and make sure we kept ahead of those numbskulls down the road at the local secondary modern.

Friends who went to that secondary modern (where he was also chair of governors) said that his annual speech there was somewhat different: he told them to work as hard as they could to prove that they were just as good as those stuck-up Charlies at the grammar school. From this, we deduced that he was a politician.

Governor number two really did look well past his sell-by date and, consequently, was always given a chair to sit on and a glass of water to help keep him hydrated.

But it was the third governor who really caught our imagination. This was the 1960s, but she was like something straight out of the 1930s, in a cloche hat, fitted suit and lace-up shoes with little squared-off heels. Around her neck she wore a dead fox. It was shrunken and blackened with empty little eyes and its front paws hung forlornly by its side. As none of us had ever come across a fox fur as a fashion accessory, we assumed it was a former pet that she couldn’t bear to be parted from.

Why they were there at all – what governors were actually for – we never troubled ourselves with. They were part of the school furniture, like the bike sheds and the prefects, and that was enough for us. To be honest, I didn’t spend too much time thinking about what governors might or might not do when I first started teaching in FE either.

Where I worked, the chair of the panel turned up occasionally at staff meetings, mouthing platitudes and beating the drum for the principal, in whose pocket he was rumoured to reside. He had a notoriously wonky set of false teeth, so mostly we listened to the comical way in which he said things, rather than the words themselves.

Today, my perception of my college’s governing body is really not much different. Their teeth are better, but essentially they are beings from another planet. You see their mugshots in the foyer and occasionally one of them makes a royal progress round the college. What do they do? What are they for? Well…they govern, don’t they?

Suddenly, however, those questions have become more than just academic for me. It all started when an email popped into my inbox: would I consider becoming a governor of my local sixth-form college? Wow. Poacher turned gamekeeper or what? After so long thinking of myself as one of us, could I really make the imaginative leap that was necessary to become one of them?

Before hitting “reply’”, I did some homework. What, I asked my search engine of choice, do college governors actually do? Thousands of words later, I had a lot of generalities but not many specifics.

Governors, I learned, are not managers. They are responsible for strategy and direction rather than the day-to-day stuff. The image that I liked best – possibly because it didn’t sound too much like hard work – was that they “steered rather than rowed”.

Thus enlightened, I steered my way towards an interview. This, I was told in advance, would be nothing like a job interview; just a few gentle questions based on my CV. The first question seemed pretty hard-nosed to me, though: what three things could I bring from my experience in teaching to the position of governor? I must have dredged up some half-way decent answers, as they told me that I would be recommended for the position.

Did I have any questions for them? I did. But then would they really have understood if I asked them the furry one?


Stephen Jones teaches at a college in South London

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