Recently I had to sort through a box of old photographs. There amongst them was a picture of my 24 year old self staring up with the most beautiful, wide eyed 5 year old with his chocolate brown curly hair and the most gorgeous, cheeky laugh emblazoned across his delightful, happy face. My arms embraced him with the love I gave him every single day I had the joy or working with him. That’s what I did then. I supported this glorious little boy with all his extra needs, quirks and unique ways.This picture, in an instant brought back memories of his class mates. From their first day in Reception class on September 2004 they were tiny, vulnerable little humans that were ready to begin their journey through education. I realised this little boy would be coming up for 18 this year. Through the joy of Facebook and social media and because I am no longer education, I am lucky to be able to be connected to some parents and even some old students of mine. This picture, coupled with the fact that a few posts had been written recently by old students from my time in education had made me reflect upon my years teaching and how incredibly proud of some of them I am.
I spent so much time with these children throughout a school year. Sometimes more than their own parents. We would get to know them and their characters and I always felt that was both an honour and a joy.
I remember vividly my last day in education as I was about to embark on my new career in my old hometown. As I walked across the car park on my last day in education three years ago, I looked ahead into Ansdell’s school Field, thebstunning Summer sun sent swirling red and pink tinged clouds lingering in the distance, beyond the red brick rooftop of the building in which I’ve spent endless hours working, planning, marking, teaching. The incredible sky, sharp like fire, added to the poignancy of my last day in this role. The finale of my last school production was done. The SATs were finished and the school year was done like the day itself. I literally got to walk off into this glorious Summer sun.
The late day sky brought to mind Edvard Munch’s famous painting “The Scream” This was one painting I had adored since my own favourite teacher, my art teacher, Mrs Robinson, had spoken about it when I was 15. I think I liked it so much then because I related to it. I felt like I was screaming for my entire teenage life. Munch captured a moment of private terror in “The Scream” The unbridled optimism of his era was giving way to anxiety and ultimately terror in a world where technology had not solved but rather was enhancing the problems of humanity.
“The Scream” represents an existential crisis set against the backdrop of beautiful, even tranquil, nature. A picture that captured my teenage life so perfectly. How appropriate that as I was leaving education, I was able to look up at that Summer sky ablaze and consider my own personal crossroads, knowing that I would soon step away from an identity and place I’d known for my entire adult life. The future was in no way going to be what it used to be, but one thing I knew for certain was the place my students had and will always hold in my heart.
The Scream by Edvard Munch, 1893, meant something completely different to me as a teacher than it did to my 15 year old self. It represented a constant, and it is the students who come and go. So many little souls have walked in and out of my classrooms. Now as I exited stage left after my final curtain call in an assembly bidding me fair well, where I reminded students to never let anyone “dull their sparkle”, I found myself thinking about all the people I had met over the years, the faces that have looked to me for answers, some of which I had, many of which I did not.
And so, with the recent incident with the photographer bringing back all these memories, I felt compelled write to all my little pupils. However, what do I want to say to 11 years worth of little humans? Difficult to put into words, but here goes…
Dear little ones (I know you’re not anymore but that’s how I still think of you),
You have inspired me.
So many of you fought to overcome learning and life challenges. You stretched beyond the identity you entered the room with and found a heart for people who do not look, sound, or think like you.
Things could sometimes get heated with pressures of tests or learning lines for class assemblies alongside your usual daily learning but you never gave up. You respected the environment and, for the most part, each other, even when you disagreed or didn’t like the way someone else did something. The essential thing to learning is a willingness to be wrong, a lesson we often learned together.
So my dear ex pupils, you have defined me.
As educators, we can often e guilty of fashioning ourselves into stars at the centre of an overblown hero culture. Admittedly, the front of a classroom is a stage. A friend recently described me as theatrical. I was confused by this and blamed theatrical friends I have. Then I realised, I spent 11 years at the front of a classroom and therefore “the main attraction” or “the star of the show” as many teachers would think of themselves.
The stage, once stepped upon, I had to play a role, a character who’s an extension of myself. You were a gracious audience, but I hope the role I played was always true, and I hope I never used my position as anything other than passionate educator.
We are human and therefore needy. We desire security in the knowledge of love and a meaningful identity. You granted me such security with each compliment and kindness, with each attentive hour, with each appreciative smile. With each encorebdemand for my “Grand High Witch”
Some of my amazing little classroom stars walked through loss with me.
Let’s be honest, it wasn’t always easy. We were tested in more ways than one. Sometimes I came up short, and so did you.
I lost some of you to a host of things. Some of you gave up on yourselves. Some of you stopped believing in what you could do. A couple of you were taken out by unstoppable bullies that ripped you down from being big skyscrapers to mounds of rubble, difficult to rebuild with the same previous glory and stature you’d been proud of before. However, some of you broke out of your own personal prisons through the learning we shared.
One of you died in a tragic accident. Your last “show and tell” in your hand as you took you last tiny, desperate breath. I had to break the news to the rest of your class, explaining that we would always keep your carpet space for you and nobody would take it in order to keep your little spirit alive in our classroom. I often wonder about the kind of young woman you would have become. You were the little girl in the front row who everyone liked and I had to explain that you would not be back. You were gone. That moment hung heavy and always has. I and indeed the rest of your class wrestled with whatever lesson we were supposed to learn from you leaving us.
You’ve helped me survive.
How many times have I walked with purpose towards the classroom with so many problems crushing down on me? Having to be professional and “leave them at the door” How many times I’d been beaten down at home, got in the car, cried all the way to work and sat in the car unable to get out without the support of a friend and colleague? How many phone calls I had taken only minutes before our lessons? How many days have I fought bitter and negative thoughts in the moments before entering your happy learning environment. I went through some of the hardest battles of my life whilst I taught many of you. A whole host of failures and endings. At one pint, for months, I lingered in a daze yet got out of bed each day because there was work to be done. You were in those uncomfortable plastic chairs, with your plethora of pencil cases on your desks, waiting for me. I never stopped showing up because you never did. Our classroom became a shelter. A sanctuary. Salvation.
Your presence was life-giving and without doubt life-saving. We teachers could often get frustrated and stop feeling the passion. Ground down by jumping through Government hoops but teaching was and is a privilege and students are a gift.
I can’t tell you how much it meant when you told me you used to hate R.E with Miss or Mr X, but with me you loved it; when you described the long conversations you had with friends and family about something that had sparked an interest for you because of something we were studying or just happened to be talking about because of a spare five minutes we had in our class time together; when you forced yourself to consider why you believe what you believe; when you called me a brilliant teacher; when you shook my hand after completing your last SATs test and said all those kind words; when you thanked me for making you love your year in school.
You injected my life with meaning.
I kept every note, card, and gift you gave me as reminders that each of us can make a difference in someone else’s life. Even me.
I hear that some if you as adults, have changed your career path, the very course of your life, because of what you experienced during our time together. Some of you chose to become teachers and are now making a difference in the lives of your own pupils. We are part of an ever-growing Oak tree, our influence like branches that produce more Acorns that grow more mighty oaks.
You have taught me a great deal.
I could write a book about how much you’ve meant to me.
We laughed so much.
We wondered and experienced wonder.
You have often sent me messages months or years later saying, “You probably don’t remember me…”
But I always remember you and will not forget you.
We may not meet again, but I still see you in my memories. Remember what we said in all our times together. It’s memory, how we recall experiences. I told many of you in History that you cared about history even if you didn’t think so because we care about our own story. Now we are part of a shared personal history.
I will always recall my days among you with warmth and affection, some of the best of my life to be sure.
I wish the biggest and best things for you.
Seek truth. Never lose hope. Challenge yourself and others. Wherever you go and whatever you do, leave a mark. Be a massive crater. Make a positive impact. Be kind. Alter the landscape of someone else’s life. Never, ever stop being yourself. Never let anyone dull your sparkle and the minute they do, be strong, close the door and move on. You deserve better!
You’ve already altered my life in amazing ways. I am forever grateful. Thank you for letting me be your teacher.
Yours with a full heart,