I began my teaching career in 1981 and finally hung up my chalk (younger readers substitute board marker or e-board) in 2015. By my calculation, I had taught over 25,000 lessons to goodness knows how many students. I'd love to claim I can remember them all, but I can’t. I'd also love to claim all my lessons were awesome, but that would also be untrue. Every teacher takes risks – sometimes lessons flop and sometimes there are moments of total genius (you just hope for more of the latter).
For the majority of my career I worked in schools in deprived areas, with many youngsters living in very challenging circumstances. Making a positive difference in their lives was crucial. That might be increased knowledge or ability on curriculum subjects, but it often wasn’t about data, exam passes, levels of progress or league tables. Areas, such as raising self-esteem or confidence, improving social skills or reducing anger, were what really changed lives for the better.
It’s hard to know if you have helped your students when it comes to this, though. It’s often only when you bump into an ex-pupil or receive a message – sometimes years later – that you hear about the difference you made. For me, the broccoli section of Sainsbury's (other supermarkets are available) has been a frequent source of revelation. While it’s slightly unnerving to hear, "Fancy meeting you here, Sir!" as you are trying to decide between tender stem or purple sprouting, it is a great feeling. At that very spot I've met everyone from a pupil who thanked me for 'saving him' and offered to take me out for a beer, to a lad who told me that my support got him off drugs and allowed him to have a career.
My favourite revelation stands out simply because of the intrigue, though. It wasn’t an ex-student I bumped into, but their mother. She nudged me as she leant in with her elbow. My first reaction was ‘How rude!’, but as she turned, she said: ‘Hello Mr Smith, fancy meeting you here.’ I recognised Mrs M* immediately as we had met regularly at parents’ evenings over several years.
I asked how Sam*, her son, was doing. I was told he was doing very well, which led to my next question, “What’s he up to then?” I am always wary and excited to hear what life has had in store for my former pupils, but I had never had a response like this. Mrs M looked left and right and then whispered, “Mr Smith, if I tell you I’ll have to kill you.”
This is not the sort of thing you expect to hear in a supermarket aisle. It took me a while to process, and Mrs M waited to see if the penny would drop. “He works for the government,” she added. Looking back it was almost a comedy sketch.
We chatted further, and I was very pleased to hear about Sam. It was the last thing she said, however, as we parted to buy other vegetables, that really made my day. “You know he couldn’t have done it without you. It was you who inspired him to read and challenged him by giving him different books that opened up a new world to him. You changed him and gave him confidence in himself – he never looked back."
I can remember Sam well. He was a quiet and reserved lad. I call them the 'grey' kids; you know, the ones who blend into the background because they are neither confident enough to put up their hand to answer questions or behave in a way that draws attention to them. Sam was just quiet and did what he had to do well.
I set out to 'open him up' through literature and, after marking one of his writing pieces, I found the lead in. He'd written a nice passage about The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes, and had really enjoyed the romantic swashbuckling nature of the text. I'd just read a ‘Sharpe’ historical novel by Bernard Cornwell, so I gave him my copy and he devoured it over the weekend. For the first time the next week, he hung back after my class and asked what else he should read.
Now it's always nice as a teacher when you get a 'lightbulb moment', when a student just 'gets it’ like Sam. But, at the time, I had no idea what doors had opened up for him. Sam remained a quiet lad overall; now I know the outcome of his journey, I can see the difference I made, but it’s only by chance that I know this.
That's quite an issue for all in the profession really. The data we generate tells us the attainment and progress story, but not the full picture. I believe that brilliant teachers weave daily magic and often changes lives for the better. It may be as simple as just listening to a child and making them feel valued or something larger and holistic, but mostly it flies under the radar. My best suggestion is that you trust in your instincts and back your quality, knowing that the job you do is the most important one in the world, where you make a difference for kids. Either that or spend more time in the broccoli aisle.
* All names have been changed
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