It’s 2006 and a twenty-five year old graduate trainee turns up to meet her mentor and Head of Department at the secondary school that will take her from being a wet behind the ears trainee teacher to a newly qualified teacher.
She’s wearing shoes that are perhaps a little too high for teaching in a secondary school, long black trousers and a crisp white, newly ironed shirt. She wants to make a good first impression. Standing at five foot eight without heels, she towers over most people in the school – her mentor included – but with nerves eating away at her insides, she feels incredibly small.
That trainee teacher was, of course, me and I made it through to the other side and by July of the following year I was qualified and left the school that, instead of looking after me, chewed me up and spat me out.
Let me take you back to 2006 and my mentor. He was small (even in flat shoes, I was head and shoulders above him), he was bald, his teeth were incredibly tiny and he spoke with a strong Newcastle accent that oozed confidence. He was also recently married. He met me in the school reception and greeted me with a smile. Nervous, I stood to meet him and feeling tall and gangly next to his small frame only added to my unease. Trying to make myself look smaller than the heels would allow, I stood and fumbled with the folders in my hands; they clattered to the ground making a deafening noise in the silent corridor.
Was that a smirk? Yes, there was definitely a smirk as I bent to retrieve the fallen folders. He knew I was embarrassed and he liked that. Unintentionally he had put me in my place – I was beneath him. I would metaphorically remain there until my time on the graduate programme was up.
Teaching, for me, was my final attempt at making something of myself. Prior to my applying for the teaching course, I had worked in an office organising sales exhibitions (amongst other PA related jobs) for sales people. For four years I had worked alongside successful salesmen and women and never did any of them make me feel less than them – despite me earning A LOT less money than them. I never thought I wanted to be a teacher but the pull of the holidays and the fact that I could spend my days talking about my passions – reading, writing and literature (yes, fellow English teachers, I too laugh at my naivety back then), was just too strong and thus I entered the world of the red pen. I almost didn’t make it though as the man who was supposed to teach me how to teach left me questioning everything about myself.
It started with a form tutor parents’ evening. I had been paired with a fantastic Science teacher and his Year 9 form. Together, we spent the evening talking to parents and I hung off his every word. Learning. After his last appointment, he told me to go home because it was dark and he knew I lived alone. However, despite his appointments being over, it was not the end of the parents’ evening and as I was driving home, I received a call from my mentor asking why I had left without his permission and he told me I had to return to school. So I did. He gave me a dressing down in front of some colleagues in the staff room and after an hour of me tapping away on a computer, he said I could leave.
When I was training, in order to pass the course, I had to sit a literacy, numeracy and ICT test. Numeracy is not my strong point. I practised and practised for that test and every online practise test I took, I failed. My second incident would be me being rebuked for practising for a test that could prevent me from passing the course. Sitting at a laptop, a fellow trainee and I were laughing at our utter uselessness at maths. We must have been seen giggling because before long, the staff room door opened and the unmissable sound of a Geordie accent asked me if I ‘had a minute.’ I was told that, as a trainee, surely I didn’t have the time to be sitting in the staff room and giggling. I protested and explained that I was working. He sent me away from the staff room to plan lessons. I passed that maths test first time. Practise made perfect and the ability to laugh at myself must have eased the pressure somewhat.
It was after that when the notes and the texts began.
I didn’t think anything of it – not after only one text. It merely told me that he ‘liked’ my leather jacket; it was ‘cool’. I even replied and told him thanks. Other messages soon followed. Not loads, but enough.
Perhaps, I wondered, was I finally being accepted into his inner circle? Was he seeing me as a fellow teacher and maybe even a future colleague? Ah, that inner circle – it was a tough nut to crack. Until that point, I had merely sat on the periphery smiling awkwardly at inappropriate jokes about his fellow colleagues and pupils. Oh how he commanded that staff room – he and his fellow bald, but incredibly tall, companion. In unison, they scoffed and mocked and everyday they sat in the same seats each break and lunch with a gaggle of men and women hanging off their every word. Later I would learn that the tall one no longer teaches – struck off for ‘malpractice’. He lives in my village. On more than one occasion I have seen him in my local supermarket; he’s tried to catch my eye. I’ve ignored him. He is nothing.
However, the mentor. He was certainly not nothing at the time and he was so clever that I began to doubt myself. One evening, after an observation, I dared to stand my ground. He and a member of the senior leader team, who helped run the graduate teaching programme, told me that my classroom was too loud during group work. I have no doubt that it was – my behaviour management had not been developed and I had yet to find my classroom presence. But, they were being relentless and really laying into me. With arms folded, I remained defiant as I knew if the arms came down, my shell would break and I would cry. I felt like I sat there for hours until I realised that they would continue to berate me until I folded. So I did. I cried. No sooner did the first tear fall and they told me how much potential I had and how good I could really be if only I listened to them. There I was – cracked, broken and ready to be remoulded into the teacher they wanted me to be.
Part and parcel of being a teacher is regular observations. Being a trainee meant weekly observations. One of the classes I was given was a Year 10 class about to start their GCSE years. They were a middle ability class with no major behaviour issues. I felt comfortable teaching them. After receiving written feedback on one particular lesson, I turned the page of the two page stapled document only to be greeted by a pink Post It note that told me how nice my trousers were. Not how nice I looked in my trousers – just that my trousers were nice. See, I told you he was clever. I felt my blood go cold but the only people I told were my mum and dad.
Concerned, they told me to keep the messages (both written and texts) and I did. Never though, were they in any way suggestive, they either commented on my clothes, how cool or smart I looked or the fact that my confidence was finally growing. Never did I take it further because all I wanted to do was get through my year, qualify, finally start my career and get the hell away from the school. Also, by Easter, I was passed onto another mentor – a lovely female English teacher who guided me through my final months. The lady, tragically, passed away before her time a few years ago never knowing how much she inspired me and helped me get through those final months. I wish I could tell her. I also wish I could go back to 2006 and tell the naïve trainee that I was being taken advantage of.
What did I learn? I learnt not to sit back and allow things that don’t feel right to happen. I learnt that I have a voice and a choice but most of all I learnt how not to be the teacher I was being moulded into. I like to think that I am kind, helpful, humble and respectful. At work now, I surround myself with a small bunch of like minded people who don’t berate, belittle and bully, they inspire.
A few years ago I bumped into an old colleague from my training school and I finally spoke of all of the texts and messages I received.
“Maybe he was just really into fashion,” they said.
Maybe he was just really into fashion…