Did a Teacher Change Your Life?

I occasionally read articles in the newspapers where famous persons (I hate the term ‘celebrity’, as if being famous is somehow to be celebrated) write/talk about the teachers who made a difference to them in their formative years, and I, as a teacher, always feel slightly guilty.  The thing is, I don’t remember any one teacher having an enormous effect on my life; indeed, I can’t remember many of them at all.

Actually, that’s not true.  I can remember the ones I didn’t like, and those who taught the lessons I didn’t enjoy.  Oh, how I hated Spanish!  I worked really hard in Geography because I didn’t want to attract the attention of the teacher, because he smoked cigars and I hated the smell and the way he breathed all over me when he came to my desk to answer my question.  I remember the primary teacher me and my friend Kay detested, because he had favourites, and made it clear we weren’t.  And I remember the Deputy Head at my secondary school, the one we were all terrified of, because he was renowned for giving the cane with a run and a jump.  We would fall into silence as he strutted around the school, a small man in a brown nylon suit, a man who I can’t remember ever teaching me.  Most of them, though, have disappeared out of my memory, never to return.

But I know, as an adult, a parent and a teacher, how important this person can become in the life of a child.  Take my daughter, for example.  She has taken the line of least resistance at school so far. She is there because she has to be, tolerates the working side of it because she has no choice, and has actively aimed to keep herself below the level of notice-of-the-teacher.  Until this year, that is.  This year, all is different.

This year she is actually trying hard at school.  She wants to get a pen license (good luck with that, kiddo!).  She wants to answer questions.   She wants her teacher to know who she is.  I know this, because she talks about her a lot, and makes her gifts.  I don’t for one minute think that she has changed in her attitude towards school because she has better targets, or knows what her next steps to learning are or how she can improve.  I don’t think she gives a monkey’s about any of that.  She wants to do well for this young teacher because she likes her.  Likes with a great, big, capital L.

And what has this young woman done to inspire such devotion in my daughter?  She hasn’t given her a single sticker.  L hasn’t come home with any prizes.  She got a bit excited about the end of term party thanks to there being enough marbles in the jar, but the little girl’s heart was won way before that.  L loves the fact that she knows that her teacher’s favourite animal is the giraffe. She is knowledgeable about Cornwall because Miss comes from there.  She thinks she knows her first name.  As well as being kind, with a gentle voice (these are top teacher qualities according to my daughter), this teacher has been prepared to share something of herself with her class.  She isn’t afraid to show the children her soft centre.  And L thinks she is wonderful.

Sam always found it hard to have a relationship with his primary school teachers.  Of course, it was difficult to tell what he thought because it is only recently that he has been able to express his feelings about them (his form tutor is his ‘darling’ apparently – cue much smirking and blushing!).  It was partly down to having a TA – much easier for a teacher to engage with the TA rather than Sam, partly down to the number of different groups he went to. Different sets for Maths, English, time out for ‘fizzy’ or horse riding at the local RDA.  Having only worked in single entry primaries or smaller schools, I had no idea quite how much setting there would be.

And I am not convinced that this is entirely a good thing.  I can see it in my daughter, I can see it in my eldest son, I can see it not happening (again) for my middle child, and I knew it when I was standing at the front myself.  The reason they want to try, to do well, to behave, is because they care about their teacher.  They love them, and are loved in return.  What their teacher thinks, of them, and their work, matters to them.  Yes, some children are motivated by being top of the class and wanting to do well academically, knowing where they stand in the class pecking order, but I don’t believe that these are in the majority, and my children certainly don’t belong in this group.  It cracks my heart that A, my little line of jam in the family sandwich, has yet to find a teacher he really cares for.  Why should he bother to try if his teacher’s opinion, either good or bad, doesn’t matter to him?

Sometimes I feel as if my children have stepped into a world I know nothing about.  I used to think that the primary school was the one place where certain things never changed.  I used to read ‘Please Mrs Butler’ to my classes, and we would chuckle in appreciation of our shared experience.  I used to think that when they entered the school system, they were entering ‘my’ world.  But I don’t recognise the world they inhabit.  Theirs is a world where playtime has been reduced, where lunch is stuffed in(or not) in less than an hour.  Where silent reading doesn’t happen much because it’s much more important to be getting on with the questions rather than simply enjoying the story.  I know that my sons are somewhat introverted, but I never thought it would be almost eight years before one of my children fell for their teacher in a big way.

I’ve never been any good at keeping the children I teach at arm’s length.  When I was expecting Sam I pinned up his scan picture on the door and whenever my class lined up they would discuss whether or not it was going to be a boy or a girl.  I never went back to that school, other than to visit, because we moved away (and I’m not sure I would have coped, anyway), but I know that I mattered to them, that particular class.

I know this because years later I went on a weekend away to the city we used to live in, and I happened to pop into my old local Tesco.  There I was, minding my own business at the check-yourself-out and this young woman, as tall as me, no less, asked me if I used to be a teacher.  When I nodded, she asked me if I used to be her Miss.  When I nodded again she introduced herself, and I could just about make out the little girl she had been, one of the ones I was constantly sorting out after a playground spat.  And then she did a wonderful thing.  She asked me how Sam was.  By name.  And she told me all about what she was hoping to do at uni, and how the rest of the class were (I was to feel alright, because nobody had had a baby), and what they were doing.  She assumed that I would be interested, and she was right.

For me, being a good teacher isn’t about checklists for this, that and the other.  It isn’t about fantastic resources or differentiation or planning-to-the-correct-format.  It’s about the relationship that makes funny little boys with SEN come dancing down the corridor to tell you that they were right about the next installment of the story.  It’s about drawings, and letters, Christmas cards and notes from parents in school reports that tell you how happy their child has been in your class.  It’s about the ‘yessssss’ when you start the story and the ‘ooohhhhhh’ when you stop (on the biggest cliff-hanger point possible). It’s not just about knowledge, and it’s not just about skills. For me, it’s about that immeasurable something that you can’t put on a clip-board.

I look at my son, and I think that without love, where would he be?  Would he have stayed in mainstream primary school in his chronological year group?  Would he be riding a bike, or reading the credits for ‘Strictly’?  Would he still be wearing a nappy at night?  Or a bib?  Would he have written his own Christmas cards?  Would he be able to call me mummy?

In my book, if you haven’t got love, you haven’t got much at all.

17 thoughts on “Did a Teacher Change Your Life?

  1. What a lovely post – thank you so much for this. It articulates one of the (many) things I love about primary teaching – the love I share with ‘my’ kids. Often it’s that relationship that keeps me going through the planning, the paperwork and the general exhaustion of classroom life.

  2. Oh my! Not to take away from how moving and brilliant this post is, I want to preface my remarks by saying I am in a weirdly emotional mood (cried watching re-run of the Olympic Opening Ceremony earlier).

    On we go – this was such a moving post and i think reading from someone writing from the dual perspective of parent/child is so reassuring. Often, in this horrible school culture of accountability and performativity, parents have no voice but are spoken ‘for’ as ‘the things that demand the best for their children’. What that means, in their management-speak, is to get on with the important business of viewing children as attainment data and forcing them to learn suffixes by rote etc.

    So it is so good to hear that a parent has the same view of the importance of the ‘pastoral’ side’ of primary education, which we are being trained out of.

    I hope I have made it clear that I love this post!

  3. What a lovely post! Thank you.
    I remember quite a few of my teachers and all for the right reasons. There was Sister Olive Fernandez when I was in Year 2. I don’t remember what she taught me but I can’t forget how kind she was to me when she found out my mother was in hospital. Then there was my Head who made sure we knew what good behaviour was like. This I appreciated when we moved abroad and one of the first things my new Head said to me was that she was impressed at how well mannered I was. Move forward a decade or two and then I had the two most wonderful supervisors. One of them lent me his wife’s bike because he didn’t like the idea of me walking back from the lab in the dark! The other is now my friend on Facebook and we continue to have the most amazing discussions there! What’s the common factor here? It’s the fact that I know they all cared/care about me as a person. Now, that is what makes a teacher great.

  4. I love this post, it reminds me of why I eventually went into teaching which was because I loved two of my primary school teachers. Primary school for me was fantastic and it was the teachers that made it so. Going to high school and finding out that most teachers weren’t like that brought me down to earth with a bump.
    I really hope that your sons can find that teacher to connect with.

  5. For most of my teaching career, I taught Key Skills IT at a college. The management didn’t really rate it as a subject. It was on the curriculum because the govt expected it & it was a source of income. Many of the other teachers didn’t rate it either because it wasn’t a “proper” subject and the kids didn’t because it had been put on their timetable when they had been promised that all they had to study in college was things they were interested in.
    Then, in the first week of term, I get plonked on their timetable & they are told they have to produce a portfolio of work AND pass a test. It’s no surprise they weren’t impressed. But I believed in it. I honestly subscribed to the idea that learning to use IT well and efficiently would help them with their main course and make it easier for them to find work.
    Basically, to get them through I nagged and cajoled and persuaded them. I cared and I let them see I cared. I actually got laughed at in the staffroom for getting excited when a student who had thought they couldn’t pass the test did.
    I think they know when you care (it’s not uniquely liking) and they respond. I honestly think I only got the pass rates I did because I cared, the kids knew I cared and they wanted to please me.

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