I took early retirement from my teaching post on Tuesday, July 21st, 2015 – drawing a close to a 35 year career.
I began teaching in 1980, when the pop charts were ruled by bands like ‘Dexy’s Midnight Runners’, ‘ The Boomtown Rats’, and ’The Specials’ – and my bedroom wall was adorned by posters of Debbie Harry. Showing in the cinemas were blockbusters like ’The Shining’, ’Raging Bull’ and ’Star Wars – The Empire Strikes Back’. This was the year of Thatcher’s ‘The Lady is not for turning’ speech, the shooting of John Lennon, and the last time the old sixpence figured as legal currency. To emphasise the depth of my 35 year teaching career, I had already been working for seven years before my youngest teaching colleague had been born.
Times were certainly very different then. My first exam class was filled by no less than forty students, all crammed into my room to admire the beautiful chalk art work created lovingly for them on a old chipped blackboard. I remember the extended lunchtimes very well – over an hour of relaxation time to join in with students’ sports practices, or take a place in one of three bridge schools in the smoke-filled staffroom.
I smile now to think back to the technology available to support my lessons. Today, I try to push the boundaries of learning with I Pad tablets, but I remember cutting my technological teeth on computers that demanded you sitting for ages while the software loaded via cassette tape. This was the pre-video age, and visual treats had to come from 16 mm films hired from the county library service. Then video arrived (anyone remember the battles between Betamax and VHS?), and moving with the times, my school created a dedicated ‘video studio’ that teachers could book out. The whole class was marched up to the room, and sat in front of Geography legends of the day like Bernard Clark or Bill Grundy for a full fifty minute lesson – probably a welcome break from their Waugh textbooks.
There have been very few low moments in my 35 years, although I was attacked in school by a parent many years ago. After (rather effectively) defending myself, I ended up in court accused of assault by my attacker. Fortunately, the incident was seen by a number of school cleaners and pupils, and they later gave their accounts in the witness box. I was quite shocked when my assailant arrived at court in handcuffs, accompanied by a prison warden – but It later transpired that he was at the time serving a sentence for fire-arms offences. That probably didn’t do his case a power of good, and charges were eventually dropped.
Nearly all of my school memories have been good ones, and it is very hard to pick out particular highlights. My most embarrassing moment came in my first few years of teaching, following a visit to school from an environmental health inspector. One of my many hobbies is taxidermy, and I had persuaded the food tech teacher to help me out by providing some freezer space, as I had filled up mine at home. While the Inspector was checking out the school freezer contents, he was horrified to discover a badger pelt, a fox head, a mole and a couple of plovers – all neatly wrapped and labelled. I was called to account, and let off with a stiff telling off – not so sure I would have got away with that one today.
Probably my best school memories involve the residential fieldwork excursions I have organised. In my career. I have led 7 European ski trips, 20 Lake District field weeks, 18 Lundy Island field weeks, 6 whole year seven trips to Dartmoor, and most recently, three 10 day trips to Uganda. When added together, this amounts to over 2000 students benefitting from great experiences beyond their local area – I am proud of that fact. Interestingly, they combine to over 370 days (a full year) away from home! I would not be able to accurately add together all of the day or part day trips that have also been enjoyed over the years – and this is genuinely a part of my job I will miss in retirement.
So why did I decide to retire? I always intended to stop at 55, so I like to think I carried on for 2 extra years rather than finish (at 57) three years early. My epiphany moment involved a common garden bird – hence the title of this piece. One morning back in April, I was walking my dog through the 3 acre woodland I planted over twenty years ago. While I rested for a moment on my favourite seat, a chaffinch flitted amongst the branches above me. The chaffinch is the UK’s second most common breeding bird, and easily recognised by everyone. But how many people can recall with any accuracy the real detail of this spectacular bird? Who can picture the blue-grey crown of the male, or the chestnut back that contrast the bright pink chest? Who has noticed the jet black bar at the base of the beak? Who remembers the double white wing bars that flash so brightly when it flies? Picking out those colours as the little finch posed for me made me realise how little time I have in my life to pause and study things in such detail. Everything moves at such a rapid pace, there is only time for a brief acknowledgement of what is there – no time to dwell, reflect and enjoy. It reminded me of the delightful poem by W H Davies:
“What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?
No time to stand beneath the boughs,
And stare as long as sheep and cows:
No time to see, when woods we pass.
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass:
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like the skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance:
No time to wait till her mouth can,
Enrich that smile her eyes began?
A poorer life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.”
In recent months, my responsibilities of Head of Geography combined with my Senior Leadership role, had become all-consuming. Although I continued to relish the challenges on offer – there was less and less time for any other distractions. I was missing the detail of life going on around me, and decided there and then it was time to step off the treadmill and take things a bit slower.
I do leave with a number of concerns for our education system, and will watch closely how it shapes in future years. Although I fully understand the need to evidence progress, I have been increasingly concerned by the way data has come to dominate our work. We have so many labels for our students – pupil premium, FSM, SEN, GAT – and so much data on each of them, that I worry we are starting to blur their identities and lose the individual and unique back story each one of them has. I am not convinced that the same joy of learning and breadth of experience in schools is present in the same amounts as when I started out. This was all brought to a sharp focus for me when I was using the new ‘Mint Class’ programme our school has recently installed. This excellent piece of software presents all of the key information needed for each student in an easily accessible arrangement, along with a picture of the individual concerned. One student in my group had only recently joined the class, and a photo was not yet available. So, on the screen I had this grey shadowed avatar accompanied by a pile of data about reading age, target grades and so on. This acted as a frightening metaphor for my concerns – an anonymous student, neither male nor female, identified purely by a scramble of numbers.
However, I do still hope to be involved in education – and think it would be a shame not to continue to make use of the subject knowledge and experience built up over such a long time. I will happily return to my old school for cover work, and have offered my services to the Geographical Association – having been on their consultants’ register for ten years or so. I should also have more time to devote to regular blogging – not just the quick single offering each month. My real passion over recent years has been the use of I Pads to enhance learning, and I hope to be able to offer support and advice to teachers wanting to make progress in this area. I would really love to get the opportunity to apply to be an Apple Distinguished Educator in the future.
Outside of education, my 7 acres of land and gardens will receive the attention they deserve, and hopefully, my golf handicap will shrink a little with the extra practice. l have promised Mrs B I will make more of an effort in the kitchen, and my ‘new skill’ to learn will hopefully involve the making of pies – although there is absolutely no connection here to my taxidermy hobby which I also intend to develop. I have been fortunate to have many opportunities in my life to travel far and wide – visiting all seven continents – so now the plan is to spend more time exploring the corners of my homeland – searching for the detail on the chaffinch, so to speak.
I am not really sure what the immediate future holds for me – but I kind of like that. Let me sign off by quoting the words of Groucho Marx: “There is one thing I need to do before I quit – and that’s retire” – so that’s what I have done.