In my first few years of teaching I was honoured to share an intimate office, some might call it a broom cupboard with a colleague called Hilary Matthews. We were quite different Hilary and I. We were at different points in our careers; she was a teacher of many years and I was a greenhorn, she was originally a music teacher who had become an English teacher who had taught in the UK and Alaska and I was an ambitious, inexperienced, newly qualified teacher who had only taught in his placement college and thought he could do it all straight out of his PGCE. In the beginning, we were both tutors and teachers of level 1 students in an inner-London FE college. The students were delightful if complicated and gave me fairly instant feedback on “how shit that lesson was”. We have all had those white knuckle moments where students can adeptly puncture our teaching egos. In the same class, a student called Letitia used to know how to buckle me from the get-go, before I had welcomed the class she would raise herself to her full height in front of her audience and announce “Sir, are you going to talk all lesson”. It was perhaps a fair question but delivered in the full knowledge that it would unravel my newly qualified confidence in what I had prepared.
There were lots of reasons why students had ended up on a level 1 course and we had only 9 months to decode the causes and work out solutions for each student. For some it was a skills deficit combined with maturity or emotional and behavioural difficulties whilst others had more complex home lives which had impacted on their educational journey. Over 40% of this cohort were dyslexic, most were EAL learners and many had felt that they had a rough deal in their secondary schools (interestingly, during my tenure all the surrounding schools became academies as they were struggling to hit the 1990s floor targets). Whilst wanting to avoid cliched or stereotypical descriptions, it is true to say that this cohort represented a difficult and challenging introduction to the world of teaching combining the dark arts of behaviour management with the task of teaching numeracy and literacy to vocational students on a Friday afternoon.
Our office was called 2M3 and it was conveniently located right outside the boys toilets. Not the best table in the restaurant but it meant we were on a main thoroughfare in the college and that we had more than our fair share of footfall from students and staff alike into our broom cupboard. Our unofficial duty was managing the behaviour in the toilets at all times, a joy at the best of times. Large colleges do not really have structured break and lunchtimes like schools do, so this meant a steady dribble (imagery intended) of students all day long. Alongside the smokers and graffiti artists, I had the more distressing experience of finding a student who had put another student’s coursework into the toilet then done his ‘business’ on top. It was the day before submission, much of it was handwritten and I found myself putting on the gloves and fishing out what I could.
Whilst the office was ideally suited for storing cleaning items we somehow squeezed in two desks, a filing cabinet and a cheap kettle from Tesco. As a side note, I still do not know how Tesco manages to produce a kettle for £3, the economics baffles me, but nonetheless we took advantage of this cut-price offer. We had no fridge, so we kept our milk on the windowsill, a la halls of residence. The office was probably a toilet at some point and had frosted glass on the victorian windows so there was no view unless you opened the window.
We both had a computer and our own telephone extension, an experience I have not had in the secondary school system; who would have thought that FE would have the upper hand on giving staff sufficient space and resources to work. This really was one of the most difficult things to sacrifice when I entered the secondary sector. There is something about having your own desk and office-space where work can be left and returned to. In secondary, my experience has been very different. You teach in a range of different rooms and you are largely expected to cart your stuff around like a packhorse. You can always work in the staff room says a senior teacher who has their own desk and fridge. Moreover, it is the inefficiencies of setting up camp at each change of lesson, this is not a professional or kind way to live, but I suppose we all get used to regimes. This enlightenment took place in the last century as the college had realised how much more efficient it was to give staff this professional courtesy. When I made the move into secondary, it felt like a foreign country with very different norms and expectations around working conditions. As a secondary teacher, it has taken me many years and the wearing of different hats to argue for a similar commitment to teachers’ working spaces.
We shared a printer and a bookshelf. The office was located at the rear of the building, 3 or 4 stories high, so when we opened the 6ft windows we had a wonderful view of the boys toilets and a block of flats opposite. The man on the third floor used to sit in his string vest and watch daytime television, occasionally standing up to show us his pants. We did not open the window often. The building was a classic Victorian School built in the style of ER Robson. A multi-storey red-brick building with multiple gables and segmental windows which whilst a beauty to admire suffered from many of the practical issues of these London School Board designs. The heating was intermittent and the layout of many of the classrooms was impractical, the paint was falling off the walls and the windows rattled in the wind. In winter, we had to scrape ice off the inside of the windows. But I loved it. My confidence grew in the classroom and whilst I was only a page or two ahead of the class, I felt as if we were all making progress together.
Hilary was an excellent person for me at that point in my career. She would put the kettle on and patiently listen to my blatherings about problems in the classroom or teaching ideas that I had. She was non-judgemental and used what today we would call a ‘coaching’ approach by being that person who could help me frame my thinking about teaching and learning and contain my anxieties about the role. She would ask the right questions and encourage me to come to my own conclusions. She helped me make links between the micro-interactions in the classroom and wider institutional and systemic issues. She tolerated my naive adherence and beliefs in all things progressive, even though she knew that a traditional knowledge-based curriculum was still what many young people needed. She encouraged my wilder experiments in group-based learning but quietly brought me back in the room without destroying my house of cards. She took an interest in new ideas that I had gained from my IOE PGCE but politely refused to accept the evidence for learning styles. (What on earth was the institute of education doing peddling such nonsense in the 1990s?)
I used lots of other teachers in those first years to help grow my approach and develop my creativity but Hilary remains an anchor in my values. She was not my line manager, she was not my named mentor but she was and remains a pivotal person in my early professional development. If she knew I was writing this, she would probably wave it off as tosh but there was nothing more inspiring than working alongside someone with so much depth.
Teaching can be the loneliest profession in the world. Surrounded by people all day but with no one to really talk to. Hilary helped me make sense of the emotional landscape of teaching and my place within.
The tables are somewhat reversed now. I am the greybeard as I enter my 17th year of teaching and I wonder if I am able to offer anything as valuable as I got from Hilary. I am blessed to work with fantastic colleagues who are undeniably better teachers than I am but the task is to use that talent and depth of knowledge to reflect on the journey. I often think “what would Hilary say?” I should probably phone her and ask. We need more Hilary’s.