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After a brief and largely unsuccessful foray into secondary school teacher training at St Martin’s College in Lancaster, I completed a part-time RSA/UCLES CTEFLA course at Huddersfield Technical College in February 1994. A week later, I was faced with four teenage Parisian students in my living room, who expected a teacher’s discipline but found a nervous man trying to be their buddy. It was a salutary experience.
My next class, less than two months later, were given a set of rules almost as they walked through the door, with the promise that failure to work would mean my boss ringing their parents. It was a practice other teachers working for the same company adopted with similar success.
What followed then were treasured times: talking in halting English about international politics with one student; helping another with special educational needs learn to ice skate; and a letter from one student thanking me for helping him get through his school exam. And, of course, devotion to planning and resourcing as high a quality of teaching as I could possibly manage.
Poland is where I discovered what I really loved about teaching: when the classroom door closes, it’s all yours! I love that independence and responsibility. And I love the fun of trying something new.
I planned hard, taught hard, played hard and took chances. My employer, something of a rebel during the Soviet occupation of Poland, encouraged me to take risks and have fun, but she was equally a stickler for standards.
It's a balance I got right - mostly.
In my leisure hours, I painted the town red with my flat-mate and shed some of the demons that had long haunted me.
My intention was to stay there for a year, satisfying the requirements for an MA in TEFL at a British University which would then qualify me for an EFL teaching position in the UK. But it was not to be.
In February, 1995, my partner rang me to tell me my son Joel - then aged 30 months -had stopped talking. I knew she had been concerned about him for some time and was struggling to cope back in England. But that a once very vocal and lively child should have suddenly become mute, withdrawn and unmanageable was a cause for very serious concern.
I therefore decided to cut my year short and return home.
“The best kind of jam is always homemade”.Along with my life-partner, there have have been two constants for much of my adult life: first, my anarcho-pacifist politics, originally inspired by the music of CRASS and the Dead Kennedys, and by the life and work of Emma Goldman; the second is social housing. Back in the summer of 1991, my home was a local authority council house, part of a small suburban council estate populated by mostly poor young families like my own. Of all the houses I have lived in, this had by far the biggest garden and it was an ideal place for children to play. I had let one end grow wild for so that my young daughters could explore and catch grasshoppers.
One day, Leanne and I were pretending to be space-ships 'flying' noisily around the house when two other young children who lived nearby joined in. We ended up playing together for the rest of the day. The next day, their mates turned up. By the end of that Summer, the garden was regularly host to a dozen or so local children, with our slide ‘extended’ using dustbin liners and soapy water, or whatever activity we (and I mean we) could come up with. Nobody told me I was running a playscheme, it was simply children and one or two adults having a great time together. Conflicts were resolved in the context of mutual respect and friendship.
This experience was to stand me in good stead for what I had to face when, in October 1995, my son
Joel was diagnosed as having an autistic spectrum disorder. It
was soon clear that the question, ‘What is the best way to educate a child with
autism?’ - would require the kind of independence of mind that has become my mark. My research soon made it clear that, if anything was to be
done, it had to begin at home and at once. What local authorities were offering
pre-school kids with autism was quite clearly half-baked and too thin on the
ground. I therefore set out to find all I could about educating children with
autism. And I became Joel’s teacher.
This began perhaps the most rewarding 6 months of my life, working four days a
week at Cambridge Road Day Nursery. Six months of playing with young children
for a living! I took the opportunity to begin reading for the course and applied my increasing knowledge to my work
at the Nursery. This
included resourcing it for emergent writing and introducing other
literacy activities such as 'scribed' story writing. I was also named as the person in
charge of meeting the Ofsted action plan recommendations for mathematics. This
involved providing activities to support the development of early addition and
subtraction, such as ‘boxes’, using score sheets, and creating a ‘counting back’
calendar for library visits. However, my greatest pleasure was in encouraging
the children to use the large gardens at Cambridge Road more fully - that and a
project involving snails!