Lesson 100 Surplus to Requirements

Lesson 100 on Learning what lasts

Early retirement is something that isn’t likely to be offered to another generation.  But it happened to a whole cohort of teachers in the mid-nineties.  It was something to do with the Teachers’ Pension Fund.  It couldn’t afford to keep going as it was, so we were offered the choice to go then and there, or keep working until whatever time in the future the pensionable age might be.

Normally I was very, very cautious of anything that threatened my nice regular salary, but suddenly I felt certain I had to take the chance and go.

But when you unexpectedly become surplus to workforce requirements, it makes you think.  All the work, effort, study and training you put into your career counts for nothing.  Nobody needs any of it any more.

It reminded me of when we culled the stock in the college library. All those books that people struggled to write, putting down the ideas they really cared about, probably giving up hours of time with their friends and families to do so.  And there we were, bagging them up and throwing them away.  Surplus to requirements.

Retirement, early or otherwise, makes you wonder what, if anything, was worthwhile about what you did.

I could only come up with one thing. For a few people at a certain time in their lives, I was able to make things a bit better.  Perhaps they are out there somewhere now, enjoying their lives a little bit more, because of it.

Now that’s something that doesn’t get thrown away on the professional rubbish heap.

Lesson 91. Let Joy be Unconfined

Lesson 91 on Sharing and caring

The inspectors were scheduled to leave on Thursday midday, but around 10 in the morning the head sent a runner round to say they planned to remain till afternoon.  There was still some paperwork they needed to complete.

By this stage the school was running on empty. Everybody, staff and pupils, had reached the end of their ability to be the perfectly compliant school. Owen’s Mam decided enough was enough, and carried him off at midday for a dentist’s appointment.  She wasn’t taking any chances. Three and a half days without a major incident was an all time record.

The staff were gasping for a cup of tea.  Carrying mugs outside the staffroom had been banned and, as everyone wanted to prepare in their classrooms, they went without.  The children were flagging for lack of biscuits. In the pre-reception group the youngest fell asleep on the carpet, exhausted by the sheer strain of smiling brightly and looking attentive.

Then, at half-past two, just before the afternoon break, the head appeared with a mug in her hand and a smile on her face. The suit jacket had been replaced by her comfy cardigan.  She brought the news everybody longed for.

“They’ve gone!”

Break-time was extended so that treats could be broken out of their concealment and distributed. Mugs were reinstated for those supervising in the playground.

The news was good. The relief was ecstatic. Everyone and everything had passed!  Not a single thing was unsatisfactory! Key aspects of the school’s work and ethos had been praised!

“Of course we can’t say anything official yet” said the head, just before she disappeared into her office to phone around and spread the news.

By home time every child in the school was glowing with pride and feeling personally responsible for the successful outcome.  Parents waiting to collect their offspring, came into the school to congratulate the head and the teachers. Everybody could share in the hard-won glory, because everybody, adult and child, had played their part.

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And now the after-Ofsted celebrations could begin!

Lesson 57 Nothing But The Best

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.