I started at Connaught School for Girls in Leytonstone, east London, in 1988. We had good teachers at the school, but the teacher who stood out was Mrs Cowhig. Her name was as unforgettable as she was.
Mrs Cowhig taught my mother and my sister, who is seven years older than me. My mother went to Connaught in the 1960s, after coming to the UK from Ghana, when she was 14. Mrs Cowhig was my sister’s favourite teacher and my sister was one of her favourite pupils. On my first day at Connaught, Mrs Cowhig was like: “Oh my goodness, I love your sister, let’s hope you’re as good as she was…” So my sister was a hard act to follow.
Mrs Cowhig was the deputy head and the longest serving teacher at the school. She could have become head, but she never wanted that promotion, because she was still keen on being hands-on with the girls. She went on to teach at the school for another 15 years after I left it.
The greatest gift she gave me was to embrace and celebrate diversity
Mrs Cowhig was one of those women who just knew how to bring out the best in her students. She brought sunshine everywhere she went and made you smile when she walked into a room, [because] she was so nurturing and so inspiring. But she was also strict. Mrs Cowhig had standards and expected them to be met. If they weren’t, there was trouble. The thing Mrs Cowhig could not stand was lateness. If you were late she didn’t sign you in on the register and you had to explain why you were late at the end of the day. I used to be late all the time; Mrs Cowhig is the reason why I’m punctual now.
While Mrs Cowhig helped me to be punctual, the greatest gift she actually gave me was to truly embrace and celebrate diversity. Mrs Cowhig was so welcoming of different cultures and never made anybody feel less than anyone else. Our school was a very multicultural one, with white working-class students, whose grandparents fought in the Second World War, and students of Nigerian, Ghanaian, Guyanese or Jamaican origin. Students of Jamaican origin were the coolest – everyone wanted to be Jamaican! There were also Jewish students, Muslim students of Pakistani origin and a big Mauritian contingent. Mrs Cowhig encouraged us to talk about our rich heritage and history and gave equal value to it. She even encouraged us to bring food from our country of origin to school. So our school was like a mini UN, and that in part was because of Mrs Cowhig. It was also the ethos of the school in general, to celebrate diversity. We celebrated Friday night Jewish dinners, Jewish holidays, Sikh festivals and Diwali, the Hindu festival.
Mrs Cowhig was a petite powerhouse – just 5ft – with the biggest bosom you’ve ever seen in your life… It was wasted on a girls’ school! She used to wear dark coloured V-neck jumpers and pencil skirts with blocked heels, which she would totter around in all day. She was quite stylish. Mrs Cowhig had salt and pepper cropped hair. She was in her late 30s or early 40s when she taught me and married with two or three children.
My favourite subjects at school were English, science and performing arts. Mrs Cowhig taught geography. She was such a good teacher because she made geography engaging and interesting. Instead of bombarding you with data, she would encourage you to come up with answers by analysing what had happened. Mrs Cowhig made you think.
I got into a massive argument with a girl when I was about 13. I was showing off and wanted to be in with the cool kids. I ended up pushing her and she pushed me back. Our altercation lasted seconds rather than minutes, but it became the thing everyone was talking about at school. It was my only altercation at school and the reason why is because of the way Mrs Cowhig dealt with it. She said: “I always thought you were better than this and today you’ve proven me wrong.” I was mortified and never wanted her to be disappointed in me again.
I had a car accident when I was 14 and ended up doing part of my GCSEs in hospital. While I was in hospital, Mrs Cowhig regularly visited me and organised a rota of girls to visit me. She was phenomenal, like a second mother.
Mrs Cowhig was very educated, very middle class and the sort of teacher who could have taught anywhere, but she was so passionate about helping girls from the East End of London do well. I got work experience at Kiss 100 because of Mrs Cowhig, as all the work experience placements went through her.
Mrs Cowhig encouraged students to go to university, but I ended up getting the thing you go to university for – a great job. If I had not got a job at Kiss 100, I would have gone to university.
She was everything a teacher should be. You remembered her because she took the time to remember you. You never know if a child is valued in their own home and so it goes such a long way if a teacher is able to make them feel they matter when they are at school.
I have returned to Connaught School for Girls many times over the years to do assemblies and much of that was because of Mrs Cowhig inviting me back.
June Sarpong MBE was talking to Adeline Iziren. June is set to launch Ldny, a new clothing collection, in partnership with the United Nations Trust Fund, to end violence against women. Ldny will be launched at Best of Britannia, an annual event that showcases more than 200 British-made brands. The event takes place in London from 30 September to 2 October 2016. For more information, click here. For more on Ldny, click here.