I loved my new job. I walked to work every day, setting off at 7.00 a.m. and getting to school for 7.50. On the way I could hear seagulls calling and watched them wheel in the sky over my head. Whatever the weather, I needed that walk to get my energy levels ready for the day ahead.I set up the classroom each day with something different to attract the attention and imagination of the children.
Before I arrived, they had been taught by someone who was ready to retire and she didn’t feel that she wanted to exert herself to make the place inviting or interesting. Provided the children kept quiet, they were not necessarily taught to understand number, reading or any thing else from the curriculum; they were allowed to do a little ‘work’ and then played for the rest of the time.
This meant that I had free rein in how I managed the room and also what I taught and how I taught. It took some time for the children to stop going to the toy cupboard to get out a toy as soon as they completed a few letters. Once they were accustomed to my routine, they worked really well and I was pleasantly surprised by their ability and willingness to learn more.
The classroom had recently been re-appointed and re-decorated. There was one large area where the children sat to do writing or individual work. There was a reading or quiet area, a messy area for painting, water play or clay and a space near a huge window for group activities and stories. I absolutely revelled in the space and the design of that room.
Due to my training, I offered the children different activities and tasks during the day and made sure that I heard every child read or begin to make sense of the letters and sounds I put in front of them. We had tasks to encourage counting and development of mathematical vocabulary. We had reading aloud games and lots of stories. We spent a lot of time looking at the natural world, including some very special walks on the hills or down to the sea.
On one particularly windy day, I took the children down the road to the harbour where we watched waves break over the sea wall from the safety of the viewing shelter. The waves threw themselves high up the sea wall and crashed with spectacular effect sending fireworks of spray and foam all over the ground and high into the air. When we returned to the classroom, the children set about painting what they had seen and I was thrilled with their results. There was so much movement and energy in those pictures.
These children were from working backgrounds. Their parents had very little spare money to spend and they absolutely appreciated everything they were given. Some of them were exceptionally gifted but it would have been quite cruel and unrealistic to remove them from their environment to offer them a more rarefied setting with fewer children because they needed to belong. I wanted them all to do well in life but there was so much discrepancy in the standards of the different schools they would go on to that it was difficult to predict what would happen to them in terms of education, learning and achieving.
Some children were living just below the poverty line and it was obvious from their clothing and appearance that life wasn’t good for them. One child also had parents with some mental health problems – not recognised as such at the time – which meant that periodically the father in particular would become quite violent and strike out at the mother or the child. This unstable family background must have had a very serious effect on the child because years later I read that someone from that area had been found guilty of murdering a child and the name of the killer was very familiar to me. I felt sad that I could not have helped him more when he was a child but I suspect that the damage to him had been done before I even met him.
As in most communal environments, when infectious illness strikes, it often passes through the group, creating casualties where ever it lands. One such occasion was in the Summer Term just before the school closed for the long holiday. Chicken pox descended upon us. It was traditional for the school to host a sports day in the last term where everyone could participate. My children had practised and trained for the various races and tests they wanted to take part in. We had egg and spoon, carrying a bean bag on one’s head, skipping races, hopping races, a variety of relay races and so on. In that final week, the number of children who usually attended my class dropped from 36 to six due to the pox. The older children who had siblings in my class were similarly affected. It was a very short sports day that year.
After two years’ working in this wonderful school I read an advert for a teacher in charge of a child guidance clinic. This was something I had often considered doing even though at that time special education was not a popular choice of career. I applied, feeling that there was nothing to be lost by doing so. I was invited for interview and went along with no real expectations of success. I was offered the position and started working there in September of that year.