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The true cost of care

A talented teacher is forced to retire early. Gerald Haigh bids her a sad farewell

I went to a retirement do recently. It was the usual bittersweet event, both a celebration and an acknowledgment of the loss of yet another experienced teacher who at heart didn't want to go.

Joan (not her real name) was a teacher for 30 years, 25 in the same school, mostly in reception.

In her early years she was a human dynamo, up for anything. She ran a gym club, she was teacher rep on the PTA. Everything was set fair and she seemed set to become a deputy well on the road to headship. She'd have been good at it too. Then everything changed, because her mother sadly and quite suddenly became heavily dependent on her.

Joan had to see her mother, who lived alone a couple of miles from school, three and sometimes four times every day. She called on her way to school, she popped round at lunchtime, she saw her on the way home, and almost every evening she returned at bedtime.

It ran poor Joan ragged and inevitably her career came to a halt. It was difficult to get to after-school or lunchtime meetings and although she tried to get to courses and briefings on new developments and initiatives, she only managed by dint of a whole lot of juggling that involved understanding neighbours and a certain amount of tearfulness on her mother's part. She never made it to the staff Christmas party - "I want to be at the children's play," she'd say, "And I can't do both."

Inevitably, Joan was drowning in an ocean of guilt - about her mother, about not keeping up with developments, about letting down her colleagues.

Nobody saw her smile any more.

What she never did feel guilty about, though, was her performance at the core activity for which she was employed. She was - and she knew it - a gifted teacher of young children. They loved her and she made them want to learn. The parents were relieved when their children were put into her care, and weren't averse to trying to wheedle them in when they weren't.

Nobody could remember her having a day off, and she often said that it was teaching that kept her sane - and she meant that more literally than many assumed.

That's why she resisted giving the job up for so long. For a long time she'd worked with a head who knew how difficult things were for her. He did his best to help, not worrying if she didn't make it to morning briefings, making sure she had time to go home at lunchtime, not leaning on her for courses and meetings.

"Joan," he said to her once, when she was apologising, yet again, for not being at something, "You're the rock that keeps us steady. All the way up to Year 6 we can tell which kids were with you in reception."

Inevitably, things changed. The old head retired. A new one came with a strong improvement brief from the governors. At the same time, new teachers arrived with the time and enthusiasm to give that she'd once had. Joan could tell that they weren't all that sympathetic when she had to leave meetings early, or couldn't get to the combined key stage 1 planning and social evenings, with wine and sandwiches.

Then came the hints that if she wanted to retire there might be a deal on (or under) the table. Joan sighed because she knew that people only had the interests of the school at heart.

In the end, it all became too much. One more new initiative, an Ofsted inspection that caused questioning and upheaval in the school, and she couldn't face going on.

They praised her fulsomely at her retirement do. The chief education officer said warm things. They gave her garden furniture, and told her to have a good holiday. Maybe a cruise? Keep in touch now!

Afterwards, she told her mother about it. "And the good thing is, mother, I'll be able to see much more of you now."

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