Teacher Feature: Simon Casey

If you’re a teacher, you’ll know what it’s like when television drama decides to turn its attention to schools. Everyone who’s not a teacher will assume that your working life is just like that of the teachers depicted on Grange Hill or Waterloo Road or whatever the current favourite might be. When I was a fairly new entrant to the profession, the series everyone was watching was Teachers on Channel 4, and my then Year Tens were obsessed with the idea that all of their teachers spent every evening in the pub and every breaktime crammed into a toilet cubicle, discussing their sex lives and enjoying a crafty cigarette. According to Teachers, we were all hopping in and out of each other’s beds: it was amazing we had time to do any marking. Teaching must be a brilliant job. And the kids on Teachers could call their teachers by their first names, so why couldn’t they?

Simon, Susan, Kurt and Brian (Source: thetvdb.com)

Teachers doesn’t feel like a particularly old series, but it made its screen debut on Channel 4 in the spring of 2001. That’s twenty years ago, and twenty years before that the TV shows that made their debut in the UK included Juliet Bravo, Bergerac and something called Only Fools and Horses. Channel 4 didn’t even exist, back in 1981. Now I’m starting to feel ancient.

I’m watching Teachers again on All 4, and it’s all so familiar. The bouncy Belle and Sebastian theme tune, the random donkeys appearing in the background, the days of the week appearing on road signs or adverts. The first couple of series focus on Simon Casey, played by Andrew Lincoln, fresh from the iconic 90s drama series This Life. Simon is a newly-qualified English teacher, but there never seems to be a huge amount of English teaching going on in his lessons: there are a few cursory references to The Crucible, a random GCSE coursework task on Shakespeare’s sonnets, and after that he seems to get bored and give up. One of his students, played by a very young James Corden, is worried about whether they’ve covered everything they need to, but Simon doesn’t care. Off to the pub for another few pints, and he’s back again tomorrow for another desultory day at the chalk face. He does use chalk, too: it’s another world.

Simon has his sidekicks: there’s IT teacher Kurt and PE specialist Brian, plus Susan, who teaches Psychology and spends far too much of her time listening to everyone’s relationship woes. He has his nemesis too, in his fellow English teacher Jenny, who he both hates and fancies. In Series Two, they’re joined by a fresh-faces Shaun Evans with long hair and a Scouse accent as JP the Modern Languages teacher. Simon, Kurt and Brian spend a lot of time playing would-you-rather games focusing on who they’d rather have sex with (Clare, the headteacher, or Carol, the dopey secretary? Jenny with Clare’s head or Clare with Jenny’s head?) and it’s all a bit Neanderthal and unreconstructed.

Simon is essentially the kind of man-child who you wouldn’t want near your department in a million years. He gets through his NQT assessment by the skin of his teeth, and my blood pressure is rocketing as I imagine chasing him up about schemes of work or student data. I know exactly how he’d react, too: he’d shrug, his lip would curl, and he’d sneak off behind the boiler room to smoke an illicit ciggie and whinge about me to a passing Year Eleven. Eventually, he gets bored with playing at being an adult, and decides to go off travelling. It’s probably a relief for everyone concerned.

Where would Simon be now, twenty years later? Working in a pub specialising in craft beers, I reckon, or running a website dedicated to obscure pieces of football trivia. I don’t think he’d still be teaching. You don’t get much of a sense of him being dedicated either to his profession or to his subject, and that’s sad. It’s clear that teaching is something he’s fallen into, without really knowing why. But at least he does the decent thing, and leaves. And maybe, at some point, he learns how to be the grown-up in the room.

Teacher Feature: Miss Caroline

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We’ll get to Miss Caroline eventually. First, here’s Lola:

Lola, from I Am Too Absolutely Small for School by Lauren Child

I have a lot in common with Lola, at this stage in the school holidays. I had a lot in common with Lola when I was four, too. School was looming on the horizon and I couldn’t see why I needed to go. I had lots of important things to do and school was going to get in the way. I could read, thanks to a combination of my mum, Enid Blyton, and Twinkle, the picture paper specially for little girls, which I pounced on as soon as it dropped through the door and pored over endlessly. I was competent at writing, especially now my big sister Julie had taught me how to do a capital N the right way up. And I could occupy myself for hours on end. I’d recently discovered that I could create my own horse by putting two dining chairs together and making a bridle and stirrups out of leftover knitting wool. I had Lego and plasticine and any number of things to do. Life was pretty good, thank you. I was a busy little person with a busy little mind, and I didn’t want school to get in the way.

The morning of 3 September 1977 saw me scrubbed and defiant. My school didn’t have a uniform, but I’d been put in a dress – outrage – and was standing in the hall waiting for my mum. I had a drawstring bag with my new black plimsolls in it, ready for PE, and I was swinging the bag backwards and forwards. My anger gave power to my swinging and before long my drawstring bag was flying up in the air in a steady arc. Back and forth, back and forth – and then, with a final furious swing, it smacked me square in the face.

My nose started to bleed. Handkerchiefs were deployed. It wouldn’t stop. My mum tutted and admonished and replaced one handkerchief with another and then yet another, and at some point the decision was made that I wouldn’t be going to school that day. Result! ‘Don’t you dare try that again tomorrow’, I was told. I hadn’t been trying at all, but I’d got one more day of freedom to enjoy.

So when I finally started school, I was a bit of an oddity. I was even more of an oddity because I had a book with me. It was In the Fifth at Malory Towers and it was a new world. Reading about school – especially a school with midnight feasts and lacrosse matches – was fun; it was the reality I didn’t like. My mum figured that if I took the book with me, it might make things easier. So when we got there, and while my mum talked to the teacher about why I hadn’t been in the previous day, I sat down and started to read.

The teacher’s name was Mrs Woods. She was old, like a grandma, and dressed all in brown. ‘What’s she doing?’ she asked. ‘Is she just looking at the words?’

‘No, she’s reading.’

‘Really? Can she read out loud?’

I gave a demonstration. The headmistress, the redoubtable Miss Spelman, was summoned. It was established that I could write, as well, and I was asked if I could write a story. So I did. I can’t remember what it was about, but Miss Spelman was very impressed that I could use speech marks. I was put in Class Two for Reading, rather than staying in Reception with everyone else, and went to sit with the big boys and girls every morning while flash cards were held up and we chanted the words that the teacher pointed to. Differentiation, 1970s style.

I started to see the point of school, after a while, but it’s a good job I didn’t have Miss Caroline. Miss Caroline is Scout’s first teacher in To Kill a Mockingbird, and the fact that Scout can already read when she starts school does not impress her one little bit. Miss Caroline tells Scout that her father must not try to teach her any more; that she will have to ‘undo the damage’. She tells Scout that she must not write until she is in the third grade: ‘We don’t write in the first grade, we print’. Miss Caroline, with all the wisdom of her twenty-one years behind her, has firm ideas about how children should learn, and will not be swayed from them.

It’s clear that Miss Caroline herself has a lot to learn. She learns about cooties; she learns not to lend anything to a Cunningham – the Cunninghams never take anything they can’t pay back – and not to expect a Ewell to turn up to school for more than the first day of each school year. She finds out that there are children who don’t fit her fixed notions of what should be learned and when. She has to face, in short, the knowledge that all her training, all her years in college, can only go so far towards preparing her for the reality of being a teacher. The most important part – understanding where her pupils come from and having a sense of the reality of their lives beyond the classroom – is something that can only be learned on the job.

I was lucky to have Mrs Woods and Miss Spelman, at the start of my formal education, who responded to what I could already do by helping me to do more, rather than telling me (and my mum) that I shouldn’t have been able to do it in the first place. Miss Caroline makes Scout feel guilty for not sticking to a schedule that she never knew about in the first place. You’d hope, in time, that she will let go of her certainties about the way young people should learn; that the years will soften her corners and teach her which battles are worth fighting and which can be abandoned. You’d hope that she gets to spend less time sobbing on a desk in an empty classroom and more being astonished by what her pupils are capable of.

It’s twenty-five years now since I was an NQT; it’s forty-four years – bloody hell – since I finally made it into Mrs Woods’ classroom with my dog-eared copy of In the Fifth at Malory Towers. Not all newly-qualified teachers are as sure of themselves as Miss Caroline, and not all four-year-olds arrive at school able to read and write and do speech marks. But all NQTs, and all four-year-olds, have a lot of learning ahead of them. Good luck to all of them, and let’s hope, for all our sakes, that this year is calmer than the last two have been.

Teacher Feature: Mrs Tilscher

It’s 1984, and I’m in my final year of primary school. Our teacher is Mrs McGrath and she is like no other teacher we’ve ever had before. She’s tall, dark-haired and exacting, and probably – at least, to our eleven-year old eyes – somewhere in her forties. She sets high standards. She’s precise and exacting: one scruffy piece of work, one desk left untidied, and you know about it. She doesn’t raise her voice, because she doesn’t need to. We respect her and we have an appropriate level of fear for her, too. She introduces us to things that we need to know about, even if we’d prefer not to, like the effects of smoking and what would happen if there was a nuclear attack. It’s classic Haunted Generation stuff, a classroom counterpoint to the Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water. More than one person has nightmares because of what Mrs McGrath teaches us, but they’re necessary nightmares, preparing us for a world where things are more complicated than we’d ever realised.

We do fun things in Mrs McGrath’s class as well. We make sweets – fudge and coconut ice and peppermint creams – and decorate chocolate eggs at Easter. We paint, and make models from clay. We have a disco. Frankie is telling us to relax; Nena sings of ninety-nine red balloons, floating in the summer sky. The Los Angeles Olympics loom and beyond them, secondary school. We know that this is the end of something, an important time. Mrs McGrath is steering us as far as she can. At some point, we’ll be on our own.

An apple, for Mrs Tilscher? (Source: Creative Commons)

This transition from those last few months of primary school to the start of secondary, from childhood to adolescence, is captured in Carol Ann Duffy’s poem ‘In Mrs Tilscher’s Class’. Fittingly, the poem starts with a journey, but it’s an entirely imaginary one, a voyage up the Blue Nile with Mrs Tilscher chanting the place names. There’s a brilliant evocation of the atmosphere of the primary classroom. Mrs Tilscher’s room is ‘better than home’: it glows ‘like a sweetshop’ and is filled with ‘enthralling books’, brightly-coloured resources and jars of frogspawn. Duffy fills the poem with smells and sounds you’d almost forgotten: ‘the scent of a pencil, slowly, carefully shaved’, ‘the laugh of a bell’, ‘a xylophone’s nonsense heard from another form’. For all its excitement, though, Mrs Tilscher’s room is also a safe place, where ‘Brady and Hindley / faded, like the faint, uneasy smudge of a mistake’. Mrs Tilscher loves you, and some mornings she’s left a gold star by your name. You’re secure, in Mrs Tilscher’s class.

Except that everything’s about to change. Over Easter, the tadpoles grow, and so too do the children. A ‘rough boy’ tells you how you are born, and you’re appalled. The knowledge you’re gaining isn’t just about physical journeys, now: it’s about those metaphorical ones, the ones that involve something less comfortable and much more troubling than a list of place names on a map. School becomes restless. Reading the poem’s final stanza, you can feel what it would be like to be in that classroom during the last weeks of term: fidgety, full of new curiosities, ready to move on and be somewhere else. Duffy’s description of the atmosphere here is a wonderful example of pathetic fallacy:

That feverish July, the air tasted of electricity.
A tangible alarm made you always untidy, hot,
fractious under the heavy, sexy sky.

And Mrs Tilscher can’t help you any more. ‘You asked her / how you were born and Mrs Tilscher smiled, / then turned away.’ She’s ready to move on, too, to a new class. She’s done her job.

A few of us said we’d go back and visit, when we got to the end of primary school, but we never did. There are some things that you have to leave behind. I don’t think Mrs Tilscher’s students would be going back, either. That turning-away at the end is an odd gesture. Is it an abdication of responsibility, a refusal to face up to her students’ inquisitiveness? Is that smile patronising, telling the narrator that she doesn’t need to know about those things? Whatever it is, it’s definitely final. It’s up to somebody else, now.

I don’t remember my own last day of primary school, but I do remember my son’s, five years ago. There were tears at his final assembly and when we said goodbye to his lovely teacher, who did so much to build his confidence. I am always in awe of primary school teachers, because there is no way I could do what they do, and I am especially in awe of Year Six teachers, who see their students through that final year and get them ready to fly. If any of you are reading this: thank you. I hope you know what an important job you do, and how much of a difference you make.

Teacher Feature: Mr Smart

There’s been a lot of discussion on EduTwitter this last fortnight about performative attention. Should students receive a sanction if they look out of the window, fail to smile or sit up straight, or reply to a teacher in a manner that is less than upbeat? I was an extremely diligent student, but there were probably many lessons that I spent daydreaming or doodling in my planner. It didn’t mean that I wasn’t thinking. Beyond the obvious signs of engagement – putting your hand up to answer questions, completing everything that’s asked of you, making progress according to whatever system is being used to assess your work – there’s a whole lot we don’t know about what students are thinking about the things they do in class. Someone who seems to be completely switched off might suddenly reveal themselves to have been thinking very deeply about particular topics. There’s a whole hinterland in our students’ minds that we don’t necessarily have access to.

Admit it: we’ve all been there. (Source: Creative Commons)

Mr Smart, in U. A. Fanthorpe’s poem ‘Dear Mr Lee’, is one teacher who doesn’t recognise this. His student – the anonymous narrator of the poem – has been studying Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie and it has fired off things in her brain that Mr Smart has absolutely no idea about. She doesn’t want to write character studies or explore issues about ‘social welfare in the rural community’; she just wants to lose herself in Lee’s wonderfully rich stories of his childhood. She pours all of this out to Lee in her poem, wanting to address him by his first name, even though Mr Smart says this is rude. She wishes she could ‘see everything bright and strange, the way you do’. She’s taken As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning out of the library, but Mr Smart is scornful about it, and says Spain isn’t like that any more. At the end of the poem, we learn that the narrator has failed her exam, but doesn’t blame Laurie Lee for it. His book isn’t a mere set text, but a book that has lived with her, ‘stained with Coke and Kitkat and when I had a cold.’

I used ‘Dear Mr Lee’ in a conference presentation I gave some years ago, to illustrate some of the tensions that exist in English teaching. What is the study of English Literature all about? Should we prioritise student enjoyment, or disciplinary knowledge? This is what my PhD focused on, and one thing I looked at was the fact that debates that were circulating at the time English literature became an academic discipline in the universities, back in the late nineteenth century, were still apparent in discussions about Curriculum 2000. They’re still going on today. There’s been a lot of discussion on Twitter this weekend about whether English should aim to promote a love of reading, and if so, how it should do this. I admit that I’m on the fence about this. Over the years I’ve heard advocates of the full gamut of approaches, from letting students read whatever they want, even if it’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in Year Nine, to listening to canonical texts being read out loud in tutor time. I am deeply sceptical about both of these particular approaches, but I’m not convinced I’ve found the answer, either.

Geek that I am, I’d like my students to be able to enjoy their engagement with the discipline of English, to recognise that there is something deeply pleasurable about analysing texts and writing about them. I’d also love it if my students read outside the curriculum, and as an English teacher it’s part of my job to recommend books and give students the space to share their enthusiasm for reading. There’s a problem, though, when we make English teachers responsible for something that spills over into students’ lives outside school and doesn’t necessarily correlate with their success in curricular English. Some students will love reading, but some won’t. Some will achieve stellar grades regardless of whether they read outside of lessons. Some will be avid readers but struggle to get a Grade 4. We can encourage independent reading and even give space for it in the curriculum, but reading occupies a complex area, a bit of the Venn diagram where ‘something you’re made to do in school’ overlaps with ‘something you do at home if you really want to’.

And while we should strive to create a culture where reading will flourish, we also need to recognise that some of our students might not want to share their feelings about books with us. I remember what it was like to be fourteen or fifteen and immersed in books that I wouldn’t have wanted to discuss with my English teacher in a million years. The thoughts and feelings I had about them were often so complicated and half-formed that I’d have hated to write them up as a book review or record them in a reading journal. Leave me alone, I’d have thought. It’s none of your business what I’m reading. Let’s give students the right to think their own thoughts. And let’s recognise that the daydreamers and doodlers might have a deeper relationship with the texts they read than we will ever know.

Teacher Feature: Miss Stretchberry

There are all kinds of metaphors for teaching. ‘You’re not filling a bucket, you’re lighting a fire’, one earnest trainee once assured me (although students do need to Know Stuff, and fires can’t be created from nothing). You’re spinning plates and playing Whack-a-Mole. You’re conducting – possibly an orchestra, possibly a bolt of lightning – and planting acorns that you hope will one day grow into great oak trees. And sometimes, you’re opening locks.

Miss Stretchberry, the teacher in Sharon Creech’s wonderful book Love that Dog, is one of life’s unlockers. The lock that she needs to open is in the heart of Jack, a little boy in her class. Jack is reluctant, and resistant. His class is doing poetry with Miss Stretchberry, and he doesn’t want to engage. Boys don’t write poetry, he reasons. He can’t do it. His brain’s empty. He doesn’t understand the poems that Miss Stretchberry reads in class. Slowly, gradually, Jack starts to come round. He writes a poem about a blue car splattered with mud, speeding down the road, and lets Miss Stretchberry read it, as long as she doesn’t let anyone else see. A few weeks later, he allows her to put two of his poems on the board, as long as she doesn’t put his name on them. And he starts to ask questions about the poems that his class reads. Why does so much depend on the red wheelbarrow and the white chickens? What’s that business about the snowy woods and having miles to go before you sleep?

The genius thing about Love That Dog – a book about a young boy’s feelings about poetry – is that it’s told as a series of poems from Jack to Miss Stretchberry, written throughout the school year. So we see this process of unlocking through Jack’s own words. Here’s what he says about William Blake, on October 24:

I am sorry to say
I did not really understand
the tiger tiger burning bright poem
but at least it sounded good
in my ears.

And here’s what he says on November 6, once he’s allowed Miss Stretchberry to put his poems on the wall:

They look nice
typed up like that
on blue paper
on a yellow board.

(But still don’t tell anyone
who wrote them, okay?)

(And what does anonymous mean?
Is it good?)

But then the barriers come up again. Jack is asked to write about a pet, but he doesn’t have one. He used to have one, but he doesn’t want to write about it. He asks if he can write about a different pet, but to no avail. Eventually, we find out that Jack used to have a dog, a yellow dog called Sky. (If you can read the poem where Jack and his family go to choose a dog from the rescue centre without feeling a bit teary, you’re a monster.) Sky was a friendly, happy, slobbery dog, a waggy-tailed dog who joined in games of football and loved everyone. Jack starts to write abut Sky, inspired by Walter Dean Myers’ poem ‘Love That Boy’, and is so inspired by Walter Dean Myers’ poems that he writes to invite him to visit the school. A couple of weeks before the visit, Jack finally manages to write about what happened to Sky. He was killed, by a blue car splattered with mud, speeding along the road.

It takes Jack a long time to write about Sky. You sense that when he does, it’s as if a weight has been lifted. There’s the huge excitement of Walter Dean Myers’ visit, and the lovely descriptions of his voice:

low and deep and friendly and warm
like it was reaching out and
wrapping us all up
in a big squeeze

And there’s the sense that Miss Stretchberry has unlocked something for Jack: not only a way of expressing his grief and processing his feelings, but a love of poetry, of playing with language and making it his own.

We don’t find out much about Miss Stretchberry, apart from the fact that she’s good at making brownies. But we also find out a lot about her, through the poems that Jack writes to her. She’s patient enough to persist with this unhappy young boy, rather than writing him off. She’s tactful: she doesn’t nag him or hassle him, but he knows that she’s there. She respects his desire for his poems to remain anonymous. She builds his confidence, by getting him to write to Walter Dean Myers rather than doing it herself. She recognises that quiet praise goes much further than a big fanfare.

Love That Dog is dedicated to ‘all the poets and Mr.-and-Ms. Stretchberrys who inspire students every day.’ It’s a gorgeous book. If I were being political, I’d say that every Secretary of State for Education should read it, as a reminder of why poetry is important, and why education is about so much more than preparation for work. I’m sure there’s a lot more that we could put on their reading list, but it’s a start.

Teacher Feature: Mr Sugden

I hated PE at school. It was the one subject at which I was truly rubbish. I probably wasn’t that rubbish – I could catch a ball, as long as I knew which direction it was coming from, and one joyful year in primary school I actually got a B+ for PE in my end of year report, to put alongside the smug row of As that I’d got for everything else. But I was bad enough for PE to be something I dreaded, week after week. I read a blog post this week about the anxiety that many students experience in Maths, and could recognise a lot of it. Fortunately, my main Maths teacher at school was the lovely Mr Wilson, who was just about the least anxiety-inducing individual on the planet and got me safely through GCSE to the point where I would never need to do Proper Maths ever again. But PE: no. It wasn’t exercise that was the problem. It was the rules; it was the picking of teams; it was being shouted at for my incompetence by people who hadn’t wanted me on their team and whose team I didn’t want to be on anyway. It was a horror.

All of this brings me to Mr Sugden, the subject of this week’s Teacher Feature. Mr Sugden is the PE teacher in Barry Hines’ 1968 novel A Kestrel for a Knave, and was immortalised by Brian Glover in the 1969 film Kes. (Fun fact: Glover was a PE teacher himself before he became an actor, and worked with Barry Hines at Longcar Central School in Barnsley). Mr Sugden is the proxy for every hated PE teacher who has ever existed. He stands in for all those petty tyrants who let the best students pick the teams while the weaklings and fat kids shivered miserably on the sidelines; all those sticklers for the rules who forced people to wear discarded kit from Lost Property; all those wannabe FA Cup-winners who thrived on taunting the kids who couldn’t move quickly enough. If Sugden was your PE teacher, your whole week would pivot around that hated lesson. You’d barely sleep the night before, and then you’d wake, gritty-eyed, and drag yourself off to school hoping against hope that something would happen to mean the lesson was cancelled, like a fire drill maybe, or a smallish meteorite landing on the school.

Brian Glover as Mr Sugden, ready for action. (Source: top10films)

Sugden’s lesson isn’t really a lesson at all, because it’s all about him. He’s there in his spotless kit, his socks held up with tape, his boots ‘polished as black and shiny as the bombs used by assassins in comic strips’, his laces tied meticulously. He captains one of the teams and gets first pick of the best players. His team is Manchester United: he is Bobby Charlton. He’s also the commentator, and the ref. He threatens and domineers and takes it all far too seriously. ‘Are you tryin’ to tell me about football?’ he challenges one pupil who dares to question him. He’s let down by his goalie – the reluctant Billy, in too-big borrowed shorts – and spitefully throws the ball at him, knocking him over into the mud. So determined is he to win that he makes the boys play on after the bell, missing their lunches, until the winning goal is scored. Except that it’s his opponents who win, the ball allowed in by Billy.

Sugden definitely gets his revenge. In the changing rooms after the game, he forces Billy into the shower, barring the exit and spraying him first with hot water, then cold. The other boys are uncomfortable. They plead with Sugden to let him go. It’s the kind of behaviour for which Sugden would nowadays, quite rightly, be sacked. Watching the film now, he’s a ridiculous figure. But he’s dangerous, too: the kind of sadist who, in real life, made the school careers of countless children an utter misery.

School PE has changed enormously since the days of Mr Sugden. It needed to. PE teachers are aware of the vital role they play in safeguarding, building confidence and tackling issues of self-image, and in emphasising the importance of exercise as well as competitive sport. Nowadays, too, there are brilliant grassroots initiatives to get people exercising. I am a massive fan of both Couch to 5k and parkrun: parkrun always has a volunteer tailwalker so that nobody ever needs to be last, and celebrates the fact that in the years since its launch, the average time that participants take to complete their 5k has actually increased. Yet on the women’s running groups I follow on Facebook, there are regular posts from people who, for years, have seen themselves as rubbish at sport, who struggle to exercise in public, and for whom putting on a pair of trainers will always bring back memories of shame and failure. The real-life Mr Sugdens – and the Mrs Sugdens, and Miss Sugdens – did a lot of damage.

Teacher Feature: Tom Crick

What do we do, as teachers, when we hit a crisis in our own lives? How do we manage if the world around us is falling apart?

That’s the situation that faces Tom Crick, the fiftysomething narrator of Graham Swift’s 1983 novel Waterland. His wife, Mary, is in a psychiatric unit after abducting a baby from a supermarket and pretending it is hers. Meanwhile, at the south London comprehensive school where he teaches, his subject – History – is under threat. His headmaster sees it as an irrelevance, and indulgence, in an age where budgets are being cut and future employment prospects are everything. He is also being challenged by a student called Price, a ‘teacher-baiter’ who argues that history is nothing more than a fairytale. It’s the 1980s, and the world faces the nightmare of nuclear annihilation. What’s the point of looking to the past when you might not have a future?

So Crick starts to tell his class a story. It’s the story of how he got to be in his present situation: a story of incest, murder and secrets, unfolding over the previous century and a half, and taking place against the shifting, restless backdrop of the Fens. It begins when Crick was a ten-year old schoolboy, living with his father and older brother in a lock-keeper’s cottage by the side of an East Anglian waterway, and takes in a whole sweep of Fenland history. The story loops back and forth, worrying away at the past like a persistent student and approaching it from different directions. As Crick’s lessons veer away from the French Revolution, and as he approaches his enforced early retirement, he tries to get his class to see that history not so much a collection of facts, but an attempt to understand oneself: to look at the process of cause and effect that brings you to your present state.

Geese over the Fens, near Boston

I first read Waterland when I was doing my A levels, and one of my A level History teachers was a Tom Crick. The other was a giant Welshman with a walrus moustache and a penchant for rugby, but our Mr Crick – who was also my form tutor – was a troubled man who was clearly undergoing a crisis of his own. He had several long spells of absence, and then a period when he only came in to teach his A level classes. He told me one day, during a tutor meeting to discuss how my A levels were going, that he’d been prescribed pills and sent to see a psychiatrist. It’s a hard thing to find out about, when you’re seventeen. When I was going through my own phase of wanting to rage at the universe, he told me I should go out into the middle of the street and scream. ‘At the top of your lungs. Better that way than on the edge of a building.’

Teaching, we’re often told, is like acting. You put on a face and perform. But if you spend more than a few years in teaching, it’s inevitable that you, or a colleague, will face something in your personal life that will shake that professional persona. Back in 2004, I was undergoing investigations for infertility. I had a series of blood tests to measure whether my ovaries were functioning properly. I got the results of the final test – which confirmed that basically it was all a bit of a disaster – one morning while I was at school. I had a choice. I could let everything fall to pieces, or square my shoulders and go off and teach my next lesson. We were in the middle of an Ofsted inspection at the time, so the former wasn’t really an option. I took a deep breath, and went off to my classroom, where there was already an inspector waiting to observe my next lesson.

I never thought, when I first read Waterland, that one day I’d end up teaching in the Fens. It’s a weird landscape, huge skies, flatness, and the constant presence of water, pumped out from the land into drains and ditches, gleaming straight lines of silver. No broad sunlit uplands; no moments of the sublime. As Tom Crick asks: ‘To live in the Fens is to receive strong doses of reality. The great, flat monotony of reality; the great empty space of reality. How do you surmount reality, children? How do you acquire, in a flat country, the tonic of elevated feelings?’ The Fens have a beauty all of their own, but it’s a strange beauty, an acquired taste.

I never found out what happened to my history teacher, and we never find out what happens to Tom Crick and his wife, either. Teaching is many things. Sometimes, it’s frustrating: sometimes, it’s a slow, laborious daily grind, and sometimes it gives you moments of joy and hope that bring home what a real privilege it is to work with young people. And sometimes, it’s a form of support, a splint: a chance to put on a mask and carry on, a sense of purpose that takes over when everything else seems meaningless.

Teacher Feature: Miss Honey

In the early weeks of my PGCE, on placement in a comprehensive school in the middle of one of the largest social housing estates in Europe, I attended a seminar on pastoral care. It was sobering, to say the least. Rows of eager trainees, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at the start of the day, grew increasingly silent and serious as we listened to what the teachers told us about the challenges their students faced. We heard about children who slept on bare mattresses and whose only square meal each day was their free school dinner. One teacher took several students’ uniforms home to be washed and dried, because she didn’t want them to be teased about having dirty clothes. Others spent their own money on supplies: not just pens and pencils, but sanitary towels, clean socks and snacks for breaktime. ‘These aren’t students who aren’t loved,’ one of the teachers cautioned. ‘It’s not that their parents don’t care about them. Often they’re doing all they can, but it’s just not enough.’

This was in 1995, and things haven’t got better. There are lots of children, in the UK and beyond, who are struggling, and who rely on their teachers to help them hold things together. Sometimes, as in the examples above, this is because of poverty. In 2019-20, there were 4.3 million children living in poverty in the UK, meaning that – in the words of the sociologist Peter Townsend – their families lacked the resources ‘to obtain the type of diet, participate in the activities and have the living conditions and amenities which are customary, or at least widely encouraged and approved, in the societies in which they belong.’ 4.3 million equates to 31% of all children, or, as the Child Poverty Action Group puts it, nine out of a class of 30. (Except that because that’s an average, they won’t be evenly distributed. Some classes will have fewer, others many more.) For other children, it won’t be poverty that’s the issue. It might, instead, be illness within the family, whether physical or mental, and some children will bear a great deal of responsibility for looking after those who are sick or disabled: it’s estimated that there are 700,000 young carers across the UK. There might be anxieties at home around finances or housing or any one of the many things that can crop up to throw life off balance. And for many children, these daily struggles will be the result of abuse, whether that’s physical, sexual, or emotional.

That’s where Miss Honey comes in. Miss Honey is, of course, the teacher of Matilda Wormwood, the star of Roald Dahl’s novel Matilda, and she brightens up Matilda’s sad little life in a way that is desperately needed. Matilda’s parents are truly ghastly. They do not lack material wealth – Mr Wormwood is an extremely dodgy secondhand car dealer – but they do lack warmth, and tenderness, and understanding. While Mr Wormwood is out at work, Mrs Wormwood is either glued to the television or out playing bingo. They treat Matilda as ‘nothing more than a scab.’ It is Miss Honey who recognises Matilda’s quicksilver mind and nurtures her brilliance. Lovely Miss Honey, we’re told, possesses ‘that rare gift for being adored by every small child under her care.’ She understands their fears, reassures them, and helps them to feel less bewildered. In the end, when the Wormwoods decide to do a bunk to Spain in order to avoid the law, she invites Matilda to go and live with her.

Miss Honey, from my ancient copy of Matilda

Miss Honey is a caricature, like all of Dahl’s adults, but there are real-life Miss Honeys and Mrs Honeys and Mr Honeys everywhere, and even the occasional Dr Honey, too. They help to make the lives of their charges a bit less lonely and a bit less desperate. If they’re in a primary school, they will probably be the one adult, outside a child’s immediate family, who has the most contact with them on a day-to-day basis, and who therefore has the biggest chance of making a difference. The role they play in keeping children safe is immeasurable. What they give these children is hard to describe, because it’s so multi-faceted. It could be the first smile they see in any particular day. It could be a banana and a cereal bar to make up for the breakfast they haven’t had. It could be a quiet place to sit at breaktime, when life is overwhelming. It could just be the knowledge that somebody understands, that they’re not on their own. The actual Miss Honeys are the teachers who sit and listen, keep an eye out for someone who’s having a tough time, pull strings behind the scenes to make sure that children can go on school trips that their parents might not be able to afford. They seek out helpline numbers and put families in touch with food banks. Sometimes, they change the whole direction of a life.

It’s not all sparkles and rainbows. It’s difficult, being a Miss Honey. Teacher burnout is a very real issue, especially in an educational environment where externally-imposed agendas and targets exert so much pressure and pay so little heed to the realities of students’ lives. There are days when the real-life Miss Honeys are so tired that they can barely speak. There are moments when they wonder if it’s all worth it, and think about all the easier careers they could have chosen instead.

How different would our education system be if those with the ability to make the big decisions – about policy, about funding and teacher pay, about the curriculum and how it’s assessed – had, in the past, been the pupils who’d needed the Miss Honeys themselves? It’s worth a thought. I’m not sure how it would ever happen, but I think it would be a much better place.

Teacher Feature: Mrs McCluskey

Tucker Jenkins. Bullet Baxter. Roland Browning. Scruffy McGuffy. Suzanne Ross. If you recognise those names, chances are you were a child or young teenager in the UK sometime during the 1980s, and a fan of the BBC children’s series Grange Hill, set in a North London comprehensive. Grange Hill started in 1978, and was extremely controversial: my friend Emma wasn’t allowed to watch it, because her mum said it encouraged hooliganism and that was obviously a Bad Thing. But it was also hugely influential. We used to act out scenes from Grange Hill in the playground at primary school, all the girls vying to be Trisha Yates with her rebellious blonde hair. At ten past five on a Tuesday and Friday young people up and down the country were glued to their screens, waiting for John Craven’s Newsround to be over and the familiar theme music to begin.

Mrs McCluskey, played by Gwyneth Powell, wasn’t the first headteacher of Grange Hill, or even the longest-serving, but she was definitely the most important. She was introduced in 1981, and immediately set about establishing herself, clashing with students over issues such as school uniform, the school magazine, vandalism and smoking. Grange Hill was an eventful place. Mrs McCluskey had to deal with bullying, truancy, racism, abuse and shoplifting. Students were suspended left, right and centre. There were deaths – Jeremy Irvine at the bottom of a swimming pool, Danny Kendall from an unidentified brain disorder – and, of course, there was Zammo McGuire’s brush with heroin. Just say no, Zammo! But Mrs McCluskey steered the school through every crisis, styling it out in an assortment of terrifying polyester blouses, surveying all with her steely blue eyes.

That blouse. (Source: Pinterest)

In her first few years, Mrs McCluskey seemed to be the kind of authority figure who existed to allow people to rebel against them. She cancelled a school trip because the students were too scruffy, and banned access to the school buildings at lunchtimes. She got into many a confrontation over infringements of uniform. Eventually, though, she came to be the epitome of firm-but-fair leadership. She listened to what people had to say and was not afraid to change her mind. She saved the life of Harriet the donkey by allowing her to become the school pet (and let’s face it, who wouldn’t want a headteacher who allowed you to have a donkey as a school pet?) She supported Miss Partridge, a single parent, when the governors wanted to have her dismissed, a storyline that’s a real sign of how times have changed. She even threatened to resign herself unless they backed down. She was indomitable, but never unapproachable, and many a storyline featured students going to see her for help when they recognised that the situations they were in were too big and serious to be kept to themselves.

This latter point was phenomenally important, because if there’s anything students need to know, it’s that teachers will not only set boundaries for them (which Mrs McCluskey does, in spades) but also have their backs if they need support. When the loner Danny Kendall was being victimised by the French teacher Mr Bronson, Mrs McCluskey made it quite clear that she wouldn’t have students at her school being treated like that. She visited Zammo at home when he was recovering from his overdose, and stayed in with him to allow his exhausted mum to have some time off. She cared about her school as a place where people grew up, made mistakes, and learned how to become a part of the world. Which is, really, what matters; and it’s important that students see teachers as people who can be trusted to guide them through difficult times.

I have no idea how Mrs McCluskey would fare in today’s world of league tables and performance targets. I’m imagining she’d roll her eyes at nitpicking over accountability measures, and perhaps have a quiet swear, back in her office, about buzzwords and hoop-jumping and quick-fix ways of gaming the system. She’d be in favour of slow learning, enrichment activities, school trips and space to grow. I suspect it’s hard to be a Mrs McCluskey, nowadays, and that’s a sad thing. But her footsteps still echo the corridors, and she still exists in the minds of millions of people as the model of what a headteacher should be.

Teacher Feature: Miss Pomeroy

Oh, Miss Pomeroy. We’ve all had those days. Those days when the mindlessness of rules and bureaucracy just becomes too much; when pettifogging restrictions and other people’s small-mindedness make you want to snap. If all teachers have moments when we’re telling our students to keep their wits about them while we’re talking about scree, we all have our Miss Pomeroy moments, too: moments when we want to step out of our classrooms and scream.

Miss Pomeroy, played by Drew Barrymore, is the English teacher in the cult film Donnie Darko, whose plot – involving time-travel, teenage rebellion and a giant demonic rabbit called Frank – has spawned endless theorizing in various corners of the internet. If you haven’t watched Donnie Darko, you really should. It has a cracking soundtrack – Tears for Fears, Echo and the Bunnymen, Joy Division – and lots of extremely quotable lines. If anyone ever tells you that sometimes they doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion, you’ll know that they’re a Donnie Darko obsessive.

Drew Barrymore as Miss Pomeroy, looking sceptical. (Source: Creative Commons)

The film is set in the run-up to the 1988 US presidential election, and focuses on Donnie, a troubled teenager who believes that he knows when the world is going to end. The school he attends is middle-class and deeply conservative, but Miss Pomeroy is something of a rebel. She is young and cool and beautifully cutting. She is also extremely deadpan: no Dead Poet’s Society-style exhortations to seize the day, no impassioned speeches that set the world on fire. The text that she chooses for Donnie’s English class is Graham Greene’s short story ‘The Destructors’. It focuses on a group of boys – the Wormsley Common Gang – who, led by a mysterious newcomer called T., systematically destroy a beautiful old house by taking it apart from the inside out. They rip out the skirting-boards, prise up the parquet from the floors, saw through joists and scrape the mortar from between the bricks: they are organised and meticulous. Their actions could be interpreted as nihilistic, but Donnie explains that destruction can be seen as a form of creation, with its own strange beauty. ‘They just want to see what happens when they tear the world apart,’ offers Donnie. ‘They want to change things.’

So far, so straightforward. Except that Donnie’s school is suffering its own acts of destruction. An axe has been embedded in the head of a statue, daubed with the slogan ‘THEY MADE ME DO IT’. A water pipe has been vandalised, flooding the hallway. Another teacher, a fundamentalist Christian, blames Miss Pomeroy’s teaching of ‘The Destructors’ and denounces the story as ‘filth’ and ‘garbage’. The school’s principal calls Miss Pomeroy to his office to tell her that her methods are inappropriate. She argues her corner. She tells the principal that he doesn’t have a clue how to communicate with his students. Her words will ring true with just about every teacher who has ever railed against the restrictiveness of the curriculum and its failure to meet the needs of today’s teenagers: ‘We are losing them to apathy … to this prescribed nonsense. They are slipping away.’

Miss Pomeroy’s fight is all in vain. The forces of conservatism and narrow-minded orthodoxy prevail: she’s allowed to finish out the week, and that’s that. And Miss Pomeroy does what many a teacher has wanted to do. She steps outside the principal’s office, and, with all the breath in her lungs, shouts ‘FUUUUUCK!’

I’m imagining Miss Pomeroy coping with fronted adverbials, target grades and assessment objectives. I’m wondering what she’d say to Michael Gove about the utter travesty that is the current incarnation of GCSE. I’m not sure she’d have a ready supply of tissues and digestives, like Mrs Lintott, but I bet she’s got several decent bottles of gin at home, waiting for those days when she needs to rage against the machine. Because sometimes, we all want to tear the world apart and shout ‘FUUUUUCK!’ at the top of our voices at the stupidity of it all; and sometimes, we are all Miss Pomeroy.