Although there is a great deal talked of learning and teaching, with the emphasis on the latter, as it constitutes a major part of public policy, requiring a large amount of public money, there is not always a discussion about learning generally and the plethora of experiences which contribute to the overall dynamics of learning through life itself. Life can be a great teacher and the lessons are often more useful than those learned in school.
The ability to reflect on one’s own life probably depends on age and when one hits decade milestones, it is often the opportunity to look back on what has been as well as looking forward to whatever is in the dream store to be accomplished. So this piece is an opportunity to reflect what were the influences on the person I am now.
1952, September, the beginning. Born in a small Devon town, to J and M, he from a fishing family in Devon, she a miner’s daughter from the South Wales. He was mid-30s, she a little younger. Both post-war, still carrying the scars from serving in the medical corps (39-45) or from making do at home, as well as the hopes that came with peace.
I’m hoping that I was a cause of celebration, memory not very good! My sister came along 11 months later, so they had their hands full.
Probably 1954 or 1955. My earliest memory is of sitting with my mum, in our caravan, with her working through the alphabet, drawing pictures and writing letters. It was obviously the wish that I should get a head start at school, or maybe I was just precocious and needed a lot of entertaining, pre-TV. I did learn c (si) is for cat, not phoneme/grapheme/initial blends/ vowel digraphs. It was simple and we heard stories from Listen with Mother on the radio. I enjoyed the pleasure of hearing a story read aloud.
1957. Exeter, Devon. Primary School. You may have read about this school, fictionalised by Gene Kemp in “The Turbulent Term of Tike Tyler”. While the detail of actually being taught has not left an indelible mark on my memory, the highlights are school plays, Aladdin and Nativities; paintings on the wall, especially one very colourful fish painted after a trip to Brixham; reading (Janet and John) outside in the sunshine as a reward for finishing work early; making models out of junk material and having some work published in the school booklet. Not a great haul of memory from three years. Maybe learning was too easy, but it was fun. I remember walking to school alone, or with friends, from the earliest days, as a five year old. I recently walked the route and it seemed a long way now, crossing main roads and over railway bridges.
Holidays in Wales meant time with other family, large gatherings, aunts, uncles cousins, all seeming to live together, or within a few minutes’ walk. Uncle Don was a miner, who would arrive home after a night shift, bath in the kitchen, sleep for a few hours, then get up to join in the chores, after which he’d take us for a walk through the fields, pointing out different plants, animals, birds, opening eyes and minds. My Godfather Charlie, an ancient neighbour, living in a pipe-smoke filled house, who delighted in giving mental challenges, like reciting the alphabet backwards for sixpence. I never got a sixpence, but remember the challenge.
Childhood and parenting had different meanings at this time. We played outside, from after breakfast until lunchtime, went out again until tea, then out to play football at the park in the evening. If it was wet, we went to one or other house, played board games or with chemistry sets and microscope, pretending to be scientists. Our playgrounds were the meadows bordering the university grounds and the road. There was a lot of reading, with special books such as “The Wonder World of Nature”, Biggles and the regular magazine, “Look and Learn”. A world of wonder and misconceptions to be addressed at some later stage. I was not consciously learning, just growing up wanting to find out, encouraged by interested adults.
1959. Selling up and becoming part of the mass emigration to Australia, £10 Poms. Six weeks on a huge liner, crossing immense oceans, visiting the strangest, most evocative places ever seen, only read about in books. New sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures.
Transit camp, lumped together in prefabricated houses until work, house and schools sorted.
Zillmere, Brisbane, three years of childhood, outside in sunshine, chasing snakes, catching and watching other strange wildlife, sitting high in a neighbour’s mulberry tree eating fresh berries, warm, sweet and succulent. Reading Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and living an outdoor life. Walking to school barefoot, like everyone else, learning to write copperplate with a nib pen. Rugby, League and Union, Aussie Rules and cricket. You develop hard feet and quick reactions on concrete pitches. A great growing up, having fun and learning.
1964 Selling up again, with an agenda hidden from the children. Moved to Shorncliffe, by the sea, to a rented house, opposite the pier, so plenty of time to learn to fish, swim well and learn about sea life first hand, by collecting, catching or watching. Reading Gerald Durrell. Had been a harsh winter in the UK. Not sure if this caused the return, maybe.
July/August 1964, sitting in the local education office “doing the 11 plus”. Not a clue what that meant, but someone said I had “passed”, while my sister didn’t. Pleasure and pain for the family on the same day. Torquay Grammar for me, Paignton Secondary for her. I didn’t know Torquay would only be for one year, but while there I learned that I could write quite well and was good at a wide range of sports, that I could sing (whole class audition for choir, singing “Early One Morning”. I had never heard the song, but learned it as I was near the end of the line) and that I couldn’t draw well or do maths, after very destructive comments. I also learned that some teachers took pleasure in inflicting physical hurt, tweaked ears, clipped ears, slippering, blackboard rubbers or chalk thrown. Learning was pleasure and pain.
Early summer 1965. Mum announced that she would be leaving on October 6th, when her contract with a local hotel finished, that she was going back to Wales and that we could go if we wished. Went to school on October 6th to come home to her not being there and an immediate transfer to my paternal grandmother’s; home for the next four years, with a couple of temporary interludes in a flat or a caravan. Divorce was long and drawn out, over three years, acrimonious and damaging, as accusations flew between solicitors. How do a thirteen and twelve year old decide between parents?
Autumn 1965. Churston provided the stability, warmth and “family” needed without really trying. It just happened to be a humane school, led by a gentle man, filled with enthusiastic humans who sought to inculcate their charges into the wonder and wealth of the world. Their enthusiasm was infectious and built on what I brought. I can recall soaking up knowledge at a rate of knots, like the others around me, actively seeking further knowledge in the library, no problem with being a “swot”, we all were. You name the subject, I loved every one and found that I was good at many, but I adored French, the sciences and woodwork, where a well-honed mortise and tenon joint (more French?) and a smooth planed surface could give a sensory pleasure. Thanks to Mssrs Carter, Beale, Emms, Green, Shaw, Yelland et al, I learned that I really enjoyed learning and so did my class mates. I even managed to take some GCEs early, including maths, so was that me or the teacher? I was good at sports, playing several for school and a few at County/Area level.
Sport was enhanced through local clubs, notably Paignton Cricket Club, where the club professional, Harold (Dicky) Bird and the local vicar Ken Warren took an active interest in developing the colt’s side, providing mentoring, criticism and advice in equal measure, challenge and encouragement. They gave their time well beyond any payment and we lived up to that.
Paignton Zoo was also my weekend retreat, as best friend was the superintendent’s son, so Animal Magic came to life in reality. Hours spent watching or helping, time wasting or time well spent? Climbing trees, cliffs, beach combing, rock collecting and the insect box beside my bed, made in woodwork class all added colour to life.
Girls did make some mark too, but that’s growing up.
One person I never properly thanked was my gran, who was over 60 when we landed in her house. 140cm of sheer determination, who had been widowed just before her second son, my dad, was born, in 1919. She’d worked, bought her house and brought up two boys, who went away to war as nursing auxiliaries. She worshipped her boys. She was a rock and did the same for me.
1969 Back to Australia. It was a time when parents held more sway and I believed my dad when he said that I could continue A levels there. Not in reality, so learning was on hold and I got a job with the Queensland government as a junior office assistant, glorified sandwich and coffee deliverer and post-person. The interview included carrying a sealed envelope from one office to another, checking trust. This lasted only a year, as the care of two older teens became too much for my dad on his own. So we came back again, this time via Fiji, Tahiti and the Panama Canal. The French from Tahiti provided an opportunity to develop my spoken French, but in a gauche way. I can still see why Gaughan fell for the country and the people.
1970-71 Working at the ICI station in Brixham, a year of really growing up, being a “scientist”, working on trawlers off Whitby in all weathers, overnight trailing of drones through harbours to seek effluent flows, walking the beaches to find the fruit and vegetables that were tracking flows at different levels. Counting worms and bivalves and more worms and bivalves, for eight hours a day, for the next forty years?
Fortunately, a mature fellow cricketer had just finished at St Lukes Teacher Training College in Exeter and recommended that I should go and have a chat with the idea of becoming a teacher.
July 1971, a trip to Exeter, walked in and asked how I could enrol. Interview with head of science in summer dress and feet on table, very relaxed. Had a chat, ranged over many things and was asked to fill in the paperwork, so I was in, to start in late September, the first in the family to go to “college”.
1971-74 Usual college experience, friends made, drinks drunk, sport played and teaching practices which showed that I could teach and well. Met D whom I married in 1974, the rock on which I could build a secure life.
1974-1994 Successful family life, three children, buying a house, occasional financial hiccups, eventually changing eating habits to vegetarian as it was cheaper. Tenting holidays, leading workshops at Folk Festivals, running Hampshire Watch Group (young naturalists), making steady progress to headship.
1994 Day of twentieth wedding anniversary. “Your wife has cancer”. A bit of a life-stopper. Took stock, ground and gritted teeth, faced the problem and established a plan. Buy the holiday house in France, a life plan to get heads up and look forward. A gift to all the family and fulfilment of my secret dream.
School was running very well, great collegiate staff, all working to the same agenda, so with sometimes limited resources, we made young lives better, made them think and independent in mind and learning habit. I was lucky to work with such a talented group of people and what they achieved, sometimes one could only wonder.
November 2004, one teacher found a lump, was dead in eight weeks. Harrowing and destructive for everyone within a very close, small team, as well as the broader community.
July 2005 It eventually happened. D died. Don’t need to say any more. Had to step away from school, though. Grieving took its course, but I had grieved during relapses for over twelve years, an intense personal learning experience, so I did my own CBT, writing for myself, often through the night, a very tough period. The local hospice was also very helpful.
I met M, whose kind words and support allowed an opening up and a new learning phase, eventually leading to a new life partnership. My career did not die, fortunately. A phase as a part time SENCo allowed opportunities to send my CV to a variety of companies and the local universities, some of whom saw benefit in talking with me and seeking ways to use the skills that I had. My feeling of worth increased. Status does add to self-worth. I’d lost headship, but gained the potential for new experiences.
So now I am here, writing on a blog about teaching and learning, which at the bottom line is children and their life chances. They will have life’s knocks with which to contend.
I hope they have the skills to cope.