Lesson 57 on Tough love and self-respect
Miss Hilary and Sister Brendan were not alone in being indomitable headmistresses of a certain age. Primary education used to be full of them.
There were three unmarried sisters, all primary headteachers in the town where I trained. One was head of my first practice school. I was terrified of her.
The school was a single storey Victorian building set amongst Coronation Street type terraces sloping down towards the river and the shipyards. Because it was built on a slope, the school was on two levels. The head’s office was on the higher level and she could stand at the top of her steps and see into the classrooms, which all had windows onto a central corridor. She could be down those steps and into your classroom like a shot.
As I was getting my class to tidy up at the end of day, she suddenly appeared.
” No, no, Mrs Wise! This is how we clear up! Children, show Mrs Wise! One – we collect up our work! Two – we open our desks! Three – we put things neatly in our desks! Four – we close our desks! Five – we stand behind them! Six – we wait without fidgeting for Mrs Wise to dismiss us!”
From the children’s unsurprised reaction I realised I wasn’t being specially singled out for improvement because I was a student. Everybody – staff, pupil, parent or representative of the local authority – had to live up to Miss Ryan’s high standards in her school.
All her pupils came to school clean and, in winter, warmly dressed. She made certain that uniforms were rigorously recycled, so that nobody, however hard up, had to come to school less than decently clothed. (At least on the surface – getting changed for PE revealed another story.)
I taught in the oldest class and every single child could read and write. Some were better than others, but they were all equipped to function and work in a literate society and this in a catchment area that must easily have been amongst the poorest in the country.
I often wondered how Miss Ryan got her school to achieve so much against the odds. It wasn’t just through force of character and fear, though that certainly helped on occasion.
It was by stubbornly refusing to accept anything but the best for her pupils. An inexperienced student had to brought up to scratch. The local authority had to be badgered for money. The janitor had to be briefed to scrupulously monitor the site. Cleaners had to be encouraged to keep every surface shining. Everybody in school had to be exhorted to take pride in themselves and their work.
A proper pride, based on the honest satisfaction of a job well done.
I bet Miss Ryan could sleep at night.