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Former pupils – stories of teachers leaving their mark…

From fond memories of encouraging chats to the odd sweary scream across a football pitch, you can’t say educators don’t make an impact…

Kevin Harcombe
by Kevin Harcombe
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My governors like to keep track of successful former pupils and keep meaning to set up a mahogany alumni board with gold lettering recording achievements:

‘Soap, J. Class of 1998, currently a successful artist in Devon.’

‘Mint, T. currently senior civil servant in the Home Office and still spending her days staring out the window.’

For balance there’d need to be another board, made of MDF with magic marker lettering for those less glittering prizes; ‘Bill, B. Class of 2002, currently in Parkhurst doing a six stretch for robbery.’ 

Former pupils often like to reach out to us. For a secondary teacher friend, this sometimes means shouts of “Oi, you baldy p***k!” at the football.

Tales from the city

Once, standing in a crowded city centre bar, I’d noticed three young lads looking over at me and clearly weighing me up. They looked menacing and began pushing their way through. 

I was convinced I was going to get a random hiding till one said, “Mr Harcombe, how’re you doing, Sir?” and smiled and extended his hand.  

“Nick?” I queried, recognising him from Year 6 many moons ago. Cue some catching up and reminiscing about rehearsing the Christmas concert when Nick tripped while walking to the altar and exclaimed “S**t!” – the oath echoing through the silent church above muffled sniggers. The 11-year-old looked at me in deadly earnest and claimed, “God made me say it!”  

You don’t forget children like that and, happily, they don’t forget you either.  

Soft power

Teachers sometimes forget the profound effect they have on thousands of children’s lives and how much former students remember.

Analyse the hundreds of episodes of Desert Island Discs and count how many celebrated guests mention their school days (all of them), how many talk of an inspirational or influential teacher (nearly all of them) and how few (a handful) mention a malevolent b*****d who said they would never amount to anything – so they set out to show them they bloody well would and, hey presto, even the evil teachers have a positive effect. 

Queueing to pay for petrol, once, I ran into another former pupil. He recalled my asking him after a school concert, “Well, that’s Year 6 nearly done – what are you going to do with your life now?” – a big question and one which I’d long since forgotten asking – but had clearly stayed with him.  

“I quite like maths,” he had said.  

“You’re a really good mathematician, go for it!” I agreed.

He now runs his own engineering firm. Whether my support was pivotal I would doubt, but it clearly contributed. Such is the soft power you wield on other people’s lives. 

For every positive…

For every future success and pleasant encounter there are bound to be some failures.

The odds are heavily stacked against some children and have been since they were born and even brilliant teachers might struggle to turn them around. 

I once heard an HMI put forward a theory. He referenced a documentary about anti-social youths, filmed treating residents and the local police with open disdain.

His theory was that, had one of their former teachers walked round the corner at that moment, they would immediately have ceased their anti-social shenanigans.

This was such an optimistic theory, showing teachers in a very favourable light and put forward with typically iron conviction by the HMI that it never left me.

I was reminded of it years later, walking down a street where some surly youths on bikes were idling outside McDonalds, smoking, drinking and jeering and jostling passers-by.

Fully expecting the same treatment, I neared the spot where they were congregated and, as I did, the group magically parted, clearing my way and the alpha male, shamefacedly hiding his cigarette from me by cupping it backwards in his hand, said cheerily, “Hello, Sir, how’re you doing?”

We chatted and then parted on pleasant terms with me telling him to behave himself.

At school he had been difficult but I always had a good relationship with him and I was grateful for the residual show of respect the HMI had predicted.

I’d love to end this piece on that upbeat note but I learned a few years later that young man received a lengthy custodial sentence for drug dealing.

I wonder what the HMI would have made of that? Still, it’s another one for the MDF alumni board. 

Kevin Harcombe is a Teaching Awards winner and headteacher at Redlands Primary, Fareham. Follow Kevin on Twitter @kevharcombe

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