The email from my former pupil that stopped me from leaving teaching
25th May 2017 at 10:32
This headteacher was considering leaving teaching until a former pupil reminded her why she was in the job in the first place.
This year has been a tough one, both professionally and personally. I suffered a close bereavement and, combined with a relationship breakup, life has been tough.
Being a head, and particularly teaching, has always been the part of my life that has kept me going despite other difficulties, and I have always viewed my school as a little cocoon.
This year has been different, though, because school has been tough, too: staff bereavements, increased demands of the curriculum, wider goalposts and a shrinking budget have led my staff into difficult waters.
I feel as though the increasing demands for higher standards and the pressure that puts on teachers has led us a little away from the reason we all went into this profession.
We don’t have as much time for individual children, we worry that a sporting trip means less grammar revision, and a trip to the beach is at the expense of extra maths sessions. But we know in our hearts that unless our children are safe, secure, cared for and resilient they will struggle to thrive anyway.
We have been moving away from the school we want to be, and that made us who we were.
During the Easter holidays I was seriously considering a career change, when out of the blue I received an email. It was from a child I taught 15 years ago in a tough primary school elsewhere in the country. He wouldn’t mind me telling you that he was one of the most difficult children I have ever taught.
Our school was situated in a part of town where the children had it tough. This young man had been placed in care voluntarily by his mother at a very early age, and at age seven he had just returned home. He was angry and confused, and would lash out verbally and physically at everyone around him.
He had an IQ off of the scale, which meant he could outwit any unsuspecting supply teacher or student teacher (both of whom were easy targets in his life). I taught him for two years as his class teacher, and in Year 6 he spent a considerable amount of time in an inclusion unit I ran for children excluded or at risk of exclusion.
For three years, my mantra remained the same: "you are better than this, you can make better choices". I repeatedly told him: "one day I will be at your graduation".
It was frustrating to see someone waste so much potential and lash out daily at those who cared the most for him. His crowning moment was the day he absconded on a school trip. He refused to get on the coach back after we had retrieved him, and called me a rather choice name in front of a coach full of parents and children.
He inevitably had to sit with me on the return journey, where realisation dawned and he offered me a piece of chocolate out of his bag by way of apology.
This was a young man who got under my skin. I always wondered what had become of him, but I left that school and the area when he left my school for secondary, so I lost track of him. Until the Easter holidays this year.
Out of the blue I received an email saying, "do you remember me, Miss?" It was Philip* – he is 25 now, and about to graduate from Sheffield University as a GP. A GP who had spent his spare time working for medical charities around he world.
This was my invitation to see him graduate.
His email was lovely. He attributes his success to the fact that I (and a teaching assistant who is also invited) would not give up on him, that however hard he pushed us away we believed in him, and we could see a future for him that he couldn’t.
The school I worked in had an amazing ethos, supported difficult children and their families, and we never ever gave up. The headteacher was inspirational: her passion allowed us time and space to care.
So I went back to school after Easter with a new resolve: come what may, we must make time to nurture our children, to support and encourage them and to never give up. It is easy to forget the impact we can have on children’s lives, and the power we have to shape futures. I am incredibly grateful to Philip for reminding me.
Christina Zanelli is headteacher at West Cliff Primary School in Whitby
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