Schooldays: Living in the ’70s

We don’t need no education
We don’t need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teacher, leave them kids alone
Hey, teacher, leave them kids alone

All in all it’s just another brick in the wall
All in all you’re just another brick in the wall

We Don’t Need No EducationPink Floyd- 1979

Joanne completed three years of teaching at her first school.  Now she was a fully qualified teacher and the bond to the Department of Education was automatically wiped.  She decided she would apply for a transfer closer to home and was excited to receive notification of appointment to a school nearby.

She was somewhat disappointed to discover that she was a supernumerary (surplus to requirements) and spent the first couple of weeks doing odd jobs, taking classes for an hour or so and generally feeling directionless.

The principal called her to his office.  The inspector was there as well and had an interesting offer.  If she stayed where she was she might be transferred anywhere at any time.  However, a position had come up at a nearby school teaching a class of special needs children.  The previous elderly teacher had gone off on sick leave and wouldn’t be back.  Over the past weeks there had been a series of teachers who didn’t stay for long and the children needed someone who was there for the long haul.

Joanne thought she could do it.  I mean, how hard would it be?  Sure, the children had learning difficulties but she would give them the security they needed.

It was scary arriving at the new school.  She had loved her previous appointment, with its swimming pool and happy band of young teachers. Her classroom was a separate building out in the middle of the playground.  The children filed in after Scripture lessons and stared at their new teacher.  Joanne emphasised how she wasn’t like the others.  She would be staying with them all year and they would have a great time together.

This didn’t impress one of the children.  He decided he had had enough and climbed through the window.  Joanne picked the most well-behaved child and sent her to the Principal to report the absconder.  It was difficult to continue after the disruption but she had to.  What else could she do?

The window climber was put into one of the school’s mainstream classes to cool his heels for a while.  Joanne spent hours each night preparing individual lessons for her students.  She tried to make them fun and interesting.  Whatever she tried didn’t work.  Some children swore at her, some argued with their classmates and began fights.  Joanne concluded that these children did not just have learning difficulties.  They had behavioural difficulties as well.

Roneo machine for duplicating pages of work

Leo would come into the little classroom of an afternoon to see Joanne, her head in her hands, weeping at the desk.  Stones hit the roof and rattled down the corrugated iron.

‘I’m not giving in,’ she said.  ‘They will come round eventually.’

Who knows how things would have transpired because what happened next came totally out of the blue.

One day, at recess, the principal called her into his office.  ‘I’ve just heard from the inspector,’ he said. ‘He is trying to place a teacher newly returned from New Guinea.  He is trained in the teaching of children with moderate intellectual disability.  Also one of the teachers at your last school has gone off on sick leave and may not be back for months. They need a teacher. You don’t have to decide straight away but would you consider going back to your former school?’

Of course Joanne had to say how much she would miss the children and what a difficult decision it was to make but she knew this was a gift she could not refuse. The next day she was back at the school with the swimming pool.

‘It’s a difficult sixth class,’ said the principal.  ‘They were devoted to their previous teacher who has been in the school for many years.  You might find it hard to take his place.’

Joanne assured him that nothing would be difficult after her recent experience and she was right. She spent five happy years at the school, growing in experience and confidence, always conscious of her lucky escape.

As for the replacement teacher specially trained in teaching children with intellectual disability, he lasted one day.  The class was eventually disbanded and the children returned to their own schools.

E for Eating Garlic and Razorblades

#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter E

While I was facing the stresses of a new job, John was still researching cars.  He liked the look of the Ford Focus but without the internet was not getting very far.  He visited two car yards in Chasetown without any luck.  We only had one more day before the rental car was to be returned to Birmingham airport.  He also made an appointment with Carol’s doctor so we could be accepted on his list of patients.

A week later I made an exhausted diary entry as I was too tired each night to do anything but fall asleep.  I noted the things I found to be different from my school in Australia.

Children bring a ‘kit’ to school for ‘games’ which includes ‘pumps’.  After they finish they remove their pumps which are covered in mud.  I must remember to take two pairs of shoes in future.  Children also have gym, which consists of setting up complicated and colourful apparatus and then rotating from one station to the next.

Some of the gym equipment. I have blocked the children’s faces but they would be in their mid twenties by now.

The first week was spent giving ‘Spellings’ every day.  These tests are marked by an assistant and are the same words tested in the SATS test in Year 6 along with Reading, Writing, Numeracy and Science.  My Australian accent was as strange to the childrens’ ears as their accent was to mine and some even tearfully told their parents they couldn’t understand the words the new teacher was saying in Spellings. Hmmm, now I have to develop a Midland’s accent.

If you want to use the computers for something which ties in with your other schoolwork you can’t because you have to teach what is in the school program.  I wanted to do some art related work but instead we had to do simulations, which consisted of clicking on musical instruments and hearing them play.

School dinners are served in the hall (after the gym equipment is put away).  Children go out to play, rugged up in their winter coats, and are then called in for dinner.  Years 3, 4, 5 and 6 go in last so often have not finished when the end of lunchtime comes.  As a result I have the class returning in dribs and drabs for about 15 minutes.

A typical school dinner

Reading this 17 years later makes it sound as though I was super critical of the school.  I actually thought it was very well run.  The children were well behaved and the teachers very supportive.  The strict adherence to curriculum was a by-product of a previous era of extreme freedom in which standards slipped considerably.  When my husband taught in London in the 1960s he used his NSW curriculum as there was no guidance on what to teach.

My greatest problem was the teaching of numeracy as I had to learn new ways to perform mathematical operations using number lines.  I decided to change my research topic to the teaching of Numeracy in Primary School.

Meanwhile John had secured his new pride and joy, a Ford Focus.  Over budget at £6,500 it was only twelve months old and had belonged to a government agency. We could go exploring each weekend to make up for the long days spent at school.

The new Ford Focus

Our visit to the doctor had unintended consequences.  All those people sneezing and coughing around me caused me to feel very ill by the end of the first week.  I had already picked up the local expression of ‘feeling poorly’ and I was.  A planned trip to Birmingham was delayed and instead we drove to Stafford, explored a ‘Tall House’ over 400 years old and had lunch at The Vine.  On Sunday we visited Uttoxeter where I would have been living if the second exchange had gone through. The town was large and historic but did not appear to be thriving. Some buildings were three or four hundred years old and seemed to be barely holding together. 

By Sunday night my throat was like razor blades but I hoped I would be able to teach the next day.  On Tuesday I felt so bad I asked the deputy if I could have Wednesday off to rest my voice and go to the doctor.  He arranged immediately for my class to be split so I could go home but that meant that guided reading couldn’t take place that afternoon.  For one of my fellow teachers guided reading was more sacred than Lichfield Cathedral so my feelings of guilt were substantial.

I was able to get in to see the doctor at 5.35 that afternoon.  He immediately wrote a script for antibiotics and suggested I rest for a few days.  However, after one day at home I felt I had to go back.  A week later the sore throat was as bad as ever but the doctor refused to give me any more antibiotics.  He told me to take a week off work but how could I do that? The following weekend we planned a visit to Stratford-on-Avon, staying in a youth hostel, but I couldn’t even summon enough energy to look inside Shakespeare’s birthplace. 

I didn’t get to look inside Shakespeare’s house. “Alas, the frailty is to blame” Twelfth Night
By Diliff – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22120641

Arriving early at the Youth Hostel we found the heating would not be turned on until 6 o’clock so even lying on the bed in the freezing cold was not an option.  Somehow I survived a miserable night in the bottom bunk of our cell like room.

YHA Stratford-upon-Avon Hostel -I’m sure its very nice in summer

As I had no medication John took me to the casualty department of our local hospital the next morning where I was given stronger antibiotics before driving home.  It was felt in England that the over prescription of antibiotics was rampant and was diluting their effectiveness.  I didn’t get tonsillitis very often but I knew what I needed when I did.  Strangely I haven’t had it in the sixteen years I have been back home in Australia.

One of the helpful suggestions given to me at school was to eat raw garlic.  It was thought this might help my throat.  I tried it and all I can say is don’t do it.  It made me feel so sick I almost forgot about my throat, and that is saying something.

Here is an extract of an email to a friend.  Yes, we finally got the internet up and running much to our delight.

Dianne, It’s the weekend!!! I had Monday and Tuesday off and struggled to school Wed Thurs Fri.  What a relief to stop.  I have never been in such bad health.  I like John’s suggestion of shipping me off to Samoa like R L Stevenson but I don’t want my grave there.  We had “loads’ of snow on Wednesday and the roads froze on Thurs so they were like skating rinks.  The schoolwork is building up.  Parent interviews are in a week and a half with inspection of books, report sized comments on Maths, English and Science and a Monday evening devoted to timetabling parent visits so they can see all their children’s teachers in close proximity.

(Because we divided the children into three groups for English and Mathematics we taught children from the other two classes as well as our own. As a result we had to timetable the parental visits so they could see all three teachers within a similar time frame.) 

Interviews are from 4 ’til 6 on Tuesday and 6 ’til 8 on Thursday.  The following day is pupil free with a week’s half term holiday after that.  I’ll need it.  NSW primary teachers don’t know how good they’ve got it.  

Maybe current NSW teachers will dispute my comment but in 2004 the amount of time spent by teachers at school in England far exceeded that of NSW teachers (based purely on anecdotal evidence). It was more common for teachers in Australia to leave school early and take work home. After all you can’t get much done in a baking hot demountable. You could actually reduce your heating bill by staying at school in England.

A for Age is No Barrier

#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter A

I don’t know what made me do it. I do know that Mike gave me the idea.  He was an affable Canadian who arrived at my school for a year’s exchange.  I guessed he was even older than me and I was the wrong side of 50. He and his wife were delighted with their exchange house overlooking the beach.  Mike was less delighted with his new class, some of whom showed little interest in Canada or the outside world and treated him with a scorn reserved for all casuals, itinerant teachers or staff who had not been in the school as long as they had.

However, for me, the stars were aligning.  My husband had retired from his job as a school principal, my daughter was working in London and my son was approaching his final year of university. It had always been my dream to live and work in another country long term so that I could get a feel for the culture, watch the change in the seasons and best of all, have a base to explore an entirely new continent.  A year in England with a school and accommodation already taken care of would be a dream come true.  If Mike could do it, why couldn’t I? 

I have the ability to push to the back of my mind worst case scenarios and so blithely went ahead with my application in November 2002. With my principal’s mixed blessing I sent my form to the local district superintendent.  The interview was by phone early in the Christmas holidays.  I answered the call in my dressing gown and heated curlers, trying to sound dignified and intelligent as we discussed my proposed research project.  The interview appeared to be a formality and so the waiting game began.  I looked forward to the new school year with more than usual enthusiasm because I hoped a letter would be waiting, revealing my new home and workplace for the following year.

Days turned into weeks, then months.  One afternoon I returned from a science excursion with my Year 5.  It was getting late in the afternoon but for some reason I checked the staffroom and saw a fat white envelope in my pigeon hole.  John, the principal, had written a congratulatory note on the outside.  With mounting excitement I tore it open to reveal photos of a traditional white English house flanked by established English trees.  It was tastefully furnished with period pieces and looked like something from an English House and Garden magazine. Reading on I discovered it was in Kent with a nearby primary school in Greenwich.  It was so different to my house and my newly built (1995) school in NSW. 

My school in Australia

I rang my husband before rushing home to examine the documents more closely.  It looked as though the adventure was about to begin! After promptly returning my acceptance I waited for a response.

Our house in Australia back in 2003. It looks very different now.

Nothing happened. Until one day a phone call to my principal brought the devastating news.  The exchange was off.  Not my fault – internal staffing problems in the school.

“The next offer might be better,” people said, trying to comfort me. “Maybe it was meant to be!”

Several emails to State Office later it was suggested I consider Canada or the US as the UK was hard to get.  I wondered why as our exchange rate and sunny climate would surely be an incentive for any English teacher.  I really wanted England as my daughter was in London and my ancestors had all come from Britain by ship a hundred and fifty years before.  It was time to return to the “Old Country”.

Another offer did come. The house was a small semi-detached in Uttoxeter, Staffordshire.  The school was on the edge of a ‘50s industrial estate in a nearby city.  It seemed that schools were rated in England by their position on a League Table after the children sat for their SATS tests.  The inauspicious results from the school placed it 125 out of a possible 128 in the county. School numbers were decreasing at an alarming rate according to demographic information available on the net.  To my mind the whole situation seemed to be a self-fulfilling prophecy as enrolments and test results declined simultaneously.

Although somewhat concerned about the school and disappointed that London was no longer 20 minutes by train, but more like two hours, I returned my acceptance.

Time passed and unbelievably I again received the message, “We regret to inform you that the proposed exchange between Linda Curry and X will not be going ahead.”

I couldn’t believe my eyes.  My husband suggested I take leave or resign and work in England for English money but I wasn’t quite brave enough to do that.  My heart was set on an exchange.  At 52 I wasn’t getting any younger and I wanted the security of a house and job before I left Australian shores as well as a job to return to the following year.

An emotional outpouring to the Australian exchange organisers received a sympathetic ear.  They assured me there was nothing wrong with my application.  In fact the first exchange was cancelled because two of the staff had become pregnant and the principal did not want any more staff changes.  Those SAT tests and League Tables had them worried.  In the second case the mother of the exchange teacher became seriously ill and so she had to cancel her plans.

We were having coffee in our caravan, having escaped to the Gold Coast for a winter break in the June/July holidays.  My mobile rang. “Would you be prepared to teach younger children and do you think your principal would be happy to accept an ‘infants only’ teacher’?”  After saying I couldn’t speak for my Principal but as far as I was concerned it wasn’t a problem I had the foresight to ask, “Where?”

“Staffordshire, I think,” was the reply.  Somehow, I knew this was it.

So that is where Staffordshire is!