I was barely four when I discovered what blasphemy was; how cruel adults could be and that sharp slaps stung like nettle rash.
Neither religion nor aggression had played a part in my childhood so far so the shocking experience became a sharp memory which stayed with me forever.
It was 1961 and mother had installed me in a local private school where we had end of day prayers. I was hungry and tired and as the teacher made us chant The Lord’s Prayer I pretended to skip. Too late I realised the eagle eyed harpy had spotted my naughtiness. She pulled me so violently my feet left the floor and I thought my right arm had come out of its socket. Wrenching my jumper and shirt back, she delivered three stinging slaps on the back of my wrist; teeth clenched, spittle flying, waging war on my alleged mutiny. Mother collected me twenty minutes later. I recall the concern in her voice. ‘You’re very quiet tonight Helen. How was school today?’ I replied in a barely audible whisper that it had been fine. Like most children’s view of the adult world – I thought if she knew I’d get into further trouble. I had no idea that what the teacher had done was wrong.
Fast forward six months – my father had bought a newsagents in town where I met the full wrath of my new private school teacher.
This one hit me across the knuckles, I can’t remember what for. I’d never seen a Perspex ruler so went home and told my father that she’d hit me with a glass one. Oh, how she humiliated me for months after that, making fun of me for the amusement of the other children. She also made us stay in the class room where a child had been sick (I’ve been emetophobic ever since) but at least I escaped having to sit under the table and the dunces’ cap.
Sadistic shrews they were in those days. I did wonder why, if they hated children, they’d become teachers in the first place. I learned very early that home was ‘safe’ but school was a place to fear.
By 1965 we didn’t appear to have made much progress. One teacher reduced me to tears for not being able to cut a perfect circle of cloth in needlework; but at least I missed being shaken violently backwards and forwards by the shoulders by the teacher in the class next door. I’m not sure whether I’d become better behaved or just managed to keep under his radar.
1968 was a big year in my life – secondary school!
They still hit the boys but by then they’d stopped caning girls – we got lines instead. Unless we were in science. The teacher there would haul you to the front for giggling and make you kneel down in front of the class. Then he would ask ‘Does that hurt?’ If you were stupid enough to reply ‘No’ he would give you a couple of pencils and tell you to place one lengthways under each knee. When I told my father many years later he was furious and asked me why I hadn’t told him about the cruelty. Again it was because I didn’t know it was wrong. We had a particularly sadistic teacher there who would make the boys line up after lunch while we were in his class trying to work. They would have to bend over his chair. Some of them were so small their feet left the ground. He would then go his cupboard and make an elaborate charade of taking Annabelle, his size 9 plimsoll, out of its box. He would then proceed to give the victim three, six or nine belts. Maybe it was because I sat by his desk that I saw the pleasure on his face as he trembled with delight as the spittle flew from the sides of his mouth? No coincidence I feel that his was the one G.C.E. I failed through fear.
Despite all this I did quite enjoy school and was lucky to have some fantastic teachers – in English; history and (later) biology and it’s no coincidence that these were the exams I passed with flying colours.
I did not return to the class room until 2001 when I hoped to become like one of the teachers who inspired me and helped shape my young life. It had not been an easy journey – at 39 with two small children and a 20 hour a week supermarket job I took a B.A. in English literature. Out of 50 who started only 24 passed. Then Teacher Training College – 125 applicants for 25 places. I got lucky. Out of the 25 only 18 make it through to N.Q.T. stage. Newly Qualified Teacher – or as we used to joke, Not Quite Teachers. Then there was the year on the job training – fail a term and you’re out. Period.
It felt strange to be seeing school from the other side of the fence. The two most useful things I’d learnt – students hate teachers who cannot control the class. Ironically this was particularly the case with the naughty ones. That – and ‘They can smell fear’. If you can survive that and understand the angst ridden six foot testosterone filled hulks looming over you, your chances of survival are good.
I’ve survived 17 years – twelve years as an English teacher, one year in Special Needs and 4 years ‘On Supply’ and in the main I’ve loved every minute of it.
I’ve tried really hard to be like the teachers who inspired me. No more caning and humiliating abuse. The focus on discipline has changed so much – instead of berating the three who don’t stop talking when you ask, you say ‘Thank you almost everyone – I’m just waiting for two or three now...and you fix them with a steely stare. This is almost always enough and shifts the attention from their behaviour to the good of the majority.
Highlights? When an unknown student became rude in the quad and a member of my tutor group looked at them and said ‘You don’t want to do that!’ and they carried on and were told ‘No, it’s Mrs Hatton. You don’t know her. You really, really don’t want to do that!’ What a compliment! When, two years after I left my last school, I was asked back by my tutor group – both to the Prom and to Prize Giving – and I stood there on stage with their new tutor and shook every student’s hand as they thanked me – there’s no feeling in the world like it. Every results day I’ve ever attended feels like winning the pools – the journey you’ve both been on, knowing you’ve helped them reach their goals and seeing them through to college – it’s priceless. The Christmas cards saying ‘Thank you for not only teaching us about English – but teaching us about life’. Never looking at the clock thinking ‘Is that all the time is?’ more like ‘Where has the day gone?’ How many careers offer all this?
It’s not a popularity contest but the fairer and more enthusiastic you are the happier you become in the job. There’s still a bit more mileage in the tank and all the time the schools are asking for me and I can enjoy it (albeit part time now) it’s a place where I want to stay. Teachers either tend to leave in the first three years or stay forever. I’m proud to belong to the latter. I really have seen both sides of the coin.
Go Part 2 here.
Go to Part 3 here.