This is the seventh – and final – article in a series about Valerie Jackson’s career as a teacher
I applied for and gained a position as Head of Nursery Assessment in a Special Needs school in Cambridgeshire. The school had originally been built to accommodate boys with learning needs but had eventually been forced to accept girls despite the head teacher’s protests. It was quite a difficult environment to work in, as most of the teaching staff and support workers had been there for years. They had a culture that was insular and almost chauvinistic. The majority of teachers were male and the support staff female. This was a new direction for the school to take and as such, there was some pressure on me to make it successful.
The intention was to support children from pre-school age where there were diagnosed learning difficulties or problematic obstetric histories or genetic issues that would lead to difficulties in learning and achieving.
The children were bussed in from miles away and often had been on the road from 7.00a.m. in order for them to get to school for 9.00a.m. I was responsible for three classes and for line managing the staff – teachers and support workers. The children’s ages ranged from three years up to seven. We had support from a peripatetic speech and language therapist and her students as well as frequent visits from social workers, health visitors and other professionals. Quite a number of children had severe language or speech difficulties including dyspraxia, aphasia and global delay.
The days were very busy and ‘full-on’. The children in most cases had already experienced social services and other statutory services and they tolerated most of the ‘interference’ with little or no fuss. Occasionally we had a child who had additional problems and they were quite challenging in their own right.
One little boy, Martin, had severe epilepsy and for most of his childhood – he came to us when he was four years old – he had been heavily medicated to try to prevent the seizures taking over and damaging his brain. He was so confused and it was problematic trying to hook the actual child amongst the medicine. His parents were heart broken for him and were terribly upset every time we had to call them because his fits had gone into status – for longer than a specified safe period of time – and he was rushed to hospital yet again. Every time he was given different medication or a different dose, his personality went through a marked change. Sometimes he was very aggressive and other times he was weepy and sad. I don’t think we ever saw the real child.
Another child, Richard, had delayed development and appeared to have autistic tendencies. He was obsessed about lining toys up or making sure everything was tidy. He had little or no speech when he started to attend the unit at three years. His father felt that it was his fault as he had been considered to be autistic when he was a child and he certainly identified that he struggled to cope in a social situation. He had attended a school for children with learning difficulties and considered that his son’s problems were genetic.
Within a few months, Richard proved to be an exceptional child. He went from being completely silent to making sounds and then forming words. He absorbed all information like a sponge and began to show how talented he was in construction play and creative skills such as drawing and painting. He had fewer tantrums and gave evidence of understanding what was being said to him.
There were other children that I remember with fondness for odd reasons. One child, Charlie, had a shock of ginger hair, which he wore long and in an ‘afro’ style. He was always in some trouble or other and he was articulate in his dealings with adults. His attendance at the unit was due to the fact that his family were well known to social services and there was a history of non-attendance at school, so it was agreed that he would be given a head start by attending my unit.
I visited the family on a number of occasions and always found them to be friendly and approachable. His grandmother claimed to have had an affair with a very well known guitarist from a pop group and she produced two sons from this liaison. I must say that both of her sons did look like the person she mentioned.
Charlie’s behaviour was sometimes out of control and I suspected it was because he was indulged more by the staff, because of his red hair and flamboyant hairstyle. I asked his mother’s permission to have his hair cut and when she agreed I took him to my hairstylist and he was given a boy’s haircut. It radically altered his appearance and from that time his behaviour calmed and I would almost suggest that his hair was his permission for bad behaviour. Without it he was just like any other child.
I enjoyed my work in the unit even though there were several personal challenges from the established staff team. I really had my work cut out to show leadership and effective management. This was also the last job I would have working with small children. I realised that I needed to do something else for my own sake.
After three years I applied for and gained work as tutor to student nursery workers in a London College and moved again. I remained in this work for the next twenty years and then stepped out to be a self-employed consultant.