The brief trending of #ThankYourMP on social media in mid-June highlighted how often we fail to appreciate and thank those around us. Thankfulness is a subtle but powerful antidote to our fast paced and 'consumptive' lives. So when I learnt of the imminent retirement of one of my primary school teachers, I wanted to join with many other pupils across the country and say thank you to my teacher too.
I live in east London in a commuter suburb that has seen a lot of change over the last 100 years. Goodmayes Primary School was built in 1909, as the railway line from Liverpool Street opened up what had formerly been farm land. Much of the housing here was privately built before the First World War, to serve city workers. But with the call for 'Homes fit for Heroes', the next batch of house building was the publicly built Becontree Estate, which makes up much of what we now know as Dagenham. Goodmayes sits on the edge of Redbridge next to Dagenham. Just as the housing dramatically changed from privately built Edwardian to interwar public builds, so the people in this area have been changing. Already a fairly diverse area in the 1980s when I grew up, it is now one where white British children are in the minority.
In the uncertain sea of 'progress' we need anchors
How does this relate to a retiring teacher? Flux of population has been one of the things in the background of the EU referendum debate, particularly in the post mortem discussion around the seeming disunity of the United Kingdom. Why do people feel disconnected from government? From political parties? I think the answer is that people feel disconnected generally. We used to live in the same area for 20 year plus on average; now this is reduced to six years. A recent report from an east London borough talked about the need for 'anchor' organisations. I would go further: we need anchor people, anchor families and anchor groups. As my mum said of Miss Proctor, "In a fast changing school, it was nice for me as a mother and now as a grandmother to know there was someone who had shown care to my family, a familiar face - someone who knows our family." Longevity is an important quality that we can easily overlook.
What I learnt from the best teachers
In 2003 my wife and I bought our current house which is on the same street that I lived on when I went to primary school. When my eldest was in year 2 his teacher was Miss Proctor, almost 30 years to the day from when I was in her class. She was well able to deal with his dreaming and tangential wonderings: after all, she had dealt with an earlier Singleton day-dreamer. The calmness with which she was able to dispatch parental concerns and appreciate the individual behind the difficulties was part of her gift to us as a family.
With a sometimes overbearing focus on professionalism, the passion and love of the amateur can sometimes be squeezed out. The root meaning of the word amateur is 'love'. When a teacher likes a pupil it can make a huge difference. I believe the best and most inspiring teachers are not those who are technically the most competent, qualified, or professionally distant, but those who have a passion they are generous enough to share. I taught alongside one such character, Severin Herbert, who had an uncanny ability to win over any student and engage them. His approach wasn't clean cut, but it was passionate, inspiring and sometimes confrontational.
Peter Bennett and David Torn, two excellent practitioners themselves, go even further in their book for secondary teachers: they talk of the need to love your students. It is clear that relationship plays a great part in the success of a teacher. This, combined with the longevity and commitment mentioned earlier, inspired my brother Nathan (who was also taught by Miss Proctor) to develop the VIP Programme for mentors, youth workers and teachers. A cornerstone of the programme are mentors who build long-term relationships with young people in order to spark vision, identity and purpose in their lives.
What I wish I'd learnt at school...
As I embarked on my teacher training, I was talking to one of my former teachers, who said 'I don't care what people say, I still believe it's a noble profession'. But as I look back it would be wrong to leave you with the impression that I think all is perfect in education's past. The reading methods I was taught as a child in the 80s were limiting. I still work out unfamiliar things by looking at what else is going on (mind you, this is as much a lesson for dinner parties as it is for reading the classics). The fact we were not taught anything about grammar outside of what we picked up in French is something that you as the reader are now probably all too aware of!
If I could have my time again, I would persuade my six-year-old self to learn your times tables and work on your handwriting more. However, if I could speak to that six-year-old's teacher, I would say "Miss Proctor, keep up the good work, because that daydreaming child might someday write an article in an online newspaper thanking you for your hard work, commitment and dedication."
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