Lesson 30 on the Importance of a Good Mentor
I came into teaching like a lamb to the slaughter. My pupils were kind enough to instruct me in the ways of school, but I was also fortunate in my adult mentors.
At the convent I had a wonderful Head of Year, a brisk little nun with a practical, clear-sighted approach to managing her charges. She had set out a concise list of simple non-negotiable rules for the year group. The aim of these was to ensure an equal playing field for all, in addition to creating and maintaining an ordered environment.
Her basic principle was that you had to give everyone the chance to be good. We drew pupils from a wide area of Greater London so they came from a range of backgrounds. Having a clear set of rules avoided any mismatch of expectations. It is amazing how many children get into trouble, because nobody has ever explained to them, with simple examples, what the school considers good and bad behaviour.
One of Sister Elizabeth’s rules at the convent was “No passing of notes!”
When I asked her why this rule was so firmly enforced, she looked me straight in the eye.
“Tell me one good reason for passing a note to another child!” I thought about this for a bit, then lamely suggested perhaps asking a child to a party.
“No – party invitations should come from parents and be above board. You don’t sneak them out privately. Secret notes are only written to hurt somebody’s feelings or to get somebody involved in trouble. They are intended to make other people feel left out and excluded, or to make mischief in some other way. If something is honest and worthwhile you can say it openly.”
Sister Elizabeth might have held no illusions about human nature, but she was kind and generous to any family in difficulties. One of the other rules concerned strict adherence to school uniform, and every effort was made to ensure that outgrown items were handed on through a system of organised school uniform fairs. There was no disgrace attached to this as everyone participated. The uniform was distinctive and expensive, but surprisingly popular with parents.
One autumn a pupil in my form had everything as required, with the exception of her outdoor coat. Sister Elizabeth consulted with me over this and decided after much heart-searching that we would overlook the non-uniform coat, as it was of a suitable colour and spent most of its time hung in the cloakroom out of sight. The family was large and very poor.
“When she grows out of it, I’ll have a quiet word with her mother and we’ll work something out!”
The day eventually came and Sister Elizabeth phoned to have her quiet word. The next morning she greeted me with a broad smile and waved a letter at me.
Mrs Quinn had written in high dudgeon. She definitely did not appreciate Sister’s consideration. She had a number of scathing comments to make about the uniform coat and about the school in general. She lamented that standards were not what she expected of a Roman Catholic institution. She drew particular attention to the regrettable fact they were no longer made to learn the Novena to St Bridget.
Sister accepted this damning criticism in good part.
“Just take note Anne – however hard you try, you can’t do right for doing wrong!”