Stuff happens, sometimes when you least expect it. But you just have to deal with it.
One day I lost a child on the London Underground. Beat that.
It was my first term and I wanted to impress my ‘lively’ Year 6 class by doing a topic on dinosaurs. Kids love dinosaurs – Pterodactyl, Diplodocus, T Rex and all that – they’re terrifying and great fun. In London we have the wonderful Natural History Museum with its amazing life-size exhibits. I organised a trip.
In those days, getting there from Hackney in east London involved a bus ride to Kings Cross Underground station followed by a tube ride to South Kensington. I don’t know if you have ever been to Kings Cross Underground? It’s undergone a transformation recently. It needed it. 350,000 people pass through that station every single day. It’s an easy place to get lost…
There I was, six weeks as a teacher. I had 30 kids. I was on my own (except for a mum who worked part-time at the school – known in those days as ‘a Lady Helper’). The kids are excited. It’s a day out. All they care about is comparing their sandwich fillings. We are on the platform and I see the first train coming is not going our way. So I’m trying to make myself heard above the melee of commuters, dancing up and down the platform trying to keep the kids back: ‘This is not our train everybody! Stand back! Stand back! It’s not our train!’ I think I’ve got the situation under control.
There’s always one isn’t there?
It’s Maxine. She’s a lovely kid but she’s not taking a blind bit of notice of me. The train comes in, the doors open and she jumps on thinking everyone is going to follow her. The kids see her and shout: ‘Maxine! Get off, it’s not our train!’ But it’s too late, before she can, the doors close.
I will never forget her face.
It’s a bit like that painting by Munch – you know the one – it’s called ‘The Scream’. Only this time it’s with a black girl wearing horn-rimmed glasses and her face is pressed against the door of the tube train as it passes me.
Now… just pause for a minute and think how the other kids reacted to this?
Maybe with horror? Shock? Panic? Perhaps even a little nervous laughter? Well, if you think laughter, you’re only half right.
It was raucous, uncontrolled hilarity. Those kids were laughing hysterically. ‘Maxine! You idiot!’ they screamed, pointing at her and bouncing down the platform, chasing the train for as long as possible before it disappears in to the darkened tunnels of the London Underground.
I am the one in a state of horror, shock and panic – because I don’t even know where the train is going.
These days when you use the London Underground it has announcers, information boards, help points, CCTV, friendly people in blue uniforms everywhere. Then, there was nothing. You would have to go back up to street level to find someone to help.
I set about trying to organise my ‘Lady Helper’ to manage the kids while I set off for some real help. I am running back and forth trying to find where the train has gone and what to do. The kids are still falling about laughing. They think this is great. Even the ‘Lady Helper’ thinks it’s funny.
Within a couple of minutes, someone walks round the corner and I get a real shock.
The head teacher? Wrong.
Maybe Maxine’s mum? Nope.
It was Maxine.
How did that happen? Well, the next stop is Euston Square, only 50 seconds away. She had obviously jumped off the train there, run over the footbridge and there was a train coming back in the opposite direction. I kid you not – she was back with us within three minutes. Ok. Four. Tops. In fact, it was so quick, the kids were still laughing when she walked round the corner.
But boy, was I relieved. Phew!
So off we went to the Natural History Museum. We ate our sandwiches, we saw the T. Rex, we got a tour, we drew pictures, and we learned a lot. When I got the kids back to school I asked them to write all about dinosaurs… they wrote pages and pages…
but what do you think they wrote about…? Yeh… you’ve guessed it.
But I’ll tell you this… and this may surprise you… even shock you. It didn’t even occur to me to report that incident to the head teacher. I’ve often wondered why. But I think over the years I’ve concluded that, in a funny sort of way, nothing really happened.
Yes, I know. I lost a child on the London Underground… (did you have to remind me?) but… if you know what I mean… there was no real incident to report. Maxine wasn’t hurt, she wasn’t even upset. Maybe she was a little embarrassed because the other kids were laughing at her, but other than that there was no crisis, not even an issue. I didn’t even think of mentioning it to Maxine’s mum.
Fast-forward 20 years.
I am now the head teacher of a primary school in Hackney and my Year 6 teacher wants to take her 24 kids to the Natural History Museum because she’s doing a topic on… yep… good old dinosaurs!
How many adults do you think she has going on the trip this time? Four? Five? Six? Actually it’s seven. This includes two parents who won’t agree to let their children go on the trip unless they are in attendance too.
The teacher, a great girl who has bags of energy and ideas, has already spent her weekend doing a reconnaissance visit. She’s done a risk assessment, insurance forms, permission slips and planned the educational outcomes brilliantly. Off they go to the Natural History Museum with 24 kids and six other adults. It’s still a bus down to Kings Cross and the tube round to South Kensington. They get to the platform of Kings Cross Underground… guess what happens?
No… it’s not the teacher who gets on the wrong train this time.
No… Maxine has not grown up to be the Station Manager of Kings Cross.
Believe it or not, exactly the same thing happens. Only this time, it’s not one girl, it’s four!
The train pulls in and the teacher is calling out: “It’s not our train everybody! Stand back! Stand back!” But in spite of the fact that there’s a group of girls with an adult stood right next to them, they are so excited they are not listening to anyone. As the train doors open, they jump on. Everyone is shouting for them to get off. But before they do, in the melee of the crowded train, the doors close… and the train moves off…
What’s the reaction of the other kids this time?
Wrong. (But you probably knew that already.)
Shock. Panic. Screaming. Crying. This time it’s all of those and more – not just from the four on the train, but the other 20 still left on the platform, plus some of the adults too.
And the four girls on the train didn’t do what Maxine did and jump off at the next stop. No, they were so freaked out by this they stayed on the train… to the end of the line. It was the Metropolitan Line. It finishes in Amersham in Buckinghamshire.
Back at school I get a phone call from the station manager there saying to me “I’ve got four of your girls here… what do you want me to do with them?” So I send a teacher out in a taxi to bring them back. There was no harm done. But the next day I get those 24 kids together and I ask them: “How many of you have been on the London Underground before?” Out of 24 Hackney born and bred kids, only eight had ever previously been on the tube.
Now there’s a change of life-style for you. Twenty years previously, Maxine, as a ten-year old girl had taken herself off to school everyday using buses and tube trains without the slightest care. She had built up knowledge, a sense of direction, common sense and most importantly the confidence to deal with a situation if something went slightly awry.
These kids – and it’s not their fault – but they don’t have what Maxine had. Most live within three hundred yards of the school but their parents drive them to school every day. Most don’t have the confidence and the ability to assess risk and deal with it in the way Maxine did.
But the reason I tell you this story is not because of the reaction of the children that day, but the reaction of parents. I said earlier I didn’t even mention the first incident to Maxine’s mum though I think if I had told her, her likely reaction would have been to give Maxine a roasting for ‘not listening to her teacher!’
But with these parents it was different. Within hours of the class getting back, I had over twenty parents outside my office demanding to know why this, that and the other had not been done, why hadn’t we organised a coach, why hadn’t we “protected their children from the hazards of London transport?” All questions we could well answer, and did.
But at the time I remember quite clearly, these questions exasperated me. Here was a talented, hard-working teacher who had only been in the job a couple of years and had planned a fantastic day out for those kids – only to get ear-ache for her thanks.
Later, on reflection, I realised that was unfair.
These days we all – the public that is – have a different attitude towards ‘professional people’. The relationship between professional groups and their clients has undergone a transformation and this is something we should welcome – both as members of the public and professional teachers.
Not so long ago, we were very deferential to the likes of doctors, lawyers, accountants, social workers, architects and believe it or not, teachers. These days we expect, quite rightly, that professional people are accountable to us for their actions, especially when they take important decisions on our behalf. The days are gone when for example, I would turn up at my GP’s surgery and feel too intimidated to ask questions. Now when I see my doctor, I expect to be engaged in a dialogue. I expect to ask questions and get answers about the issues affecting my health and if necessary, involved in decisions about any treatment.
And that’s all these parents were expecting – a dialogue. It was a challenging dialogue I grant you, but it was a dialogue. So the reason I tell you this story is not to frighten you from organising school trips or to wax mythical about ‘the good old days of teaching’.
No. The point of this story is change. It illustrates how the teaching profession you are entering today will be a different ‘place’ in ten, fifteen, twenty years time. The relationship between a profession and its client group – and in our case that’s children and parents – is constantly transforming. That is something we all have to accommodate. The landscape within which we operate changes too – sometimes quite dramatically. This may happen as a result of a change in government or it may result from a critical incident, like the tragic death of Victoria Climbie, which revolutionised the way professions work alongside each other to safeguard children.
However changes come about, we have to be ready to accommodate them. And we will. Professional people do. It’s what we are here for, to meet the ever-changing needs of our clients – the children and parents we serve.
Alan Newland worked as a teacher and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures on teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk. You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk. His new book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) is published in February 2014.