This article is an extract from a forthcoming book, The Long Game: The Lessons We Can Learn From Long-Serving Teachers, which will be published this summer. The aim was to interview long-serving teachers, listen to their stories and see if I could draw out any lessons from their experiences. Constructive comments are welcome; they will help me make it a better book.
Shona Barrett talked to me a year before she retired in the summer of 2014. She is from a family who owned the beautiful wooden windmill at the top of the hill in Upminster; I fondly like to imagine that her patient, kind demeanour in part might have been passed through the generations of millers who must have learned patience as they watched the wheels of the windmill turn around and around. She is, in many ways, is an Upminsterian born and bred, coming from a family who have lived in the area for generations. In many ways, this is very unusual because, as we will see with Kevin Chapman’s family, most families have moved into the area relatively recently, usually moving from London’s East End out to the suburb. Shona has a smiling, benign manner, and an appealing softness in the way she speaks. Perhaps it is her mildness which made her descriptions of the sadistic treatment she received at school at the hands of her teachers all the more shocking. She told me:
I was brought up in Upminster. My mother was an Abraham which was the family which owned the Upminster windmill in those days; they had owned it for generations. They made flour; it was a working mill. Since my brother retired he’s researched the history of it in some depth. My granddad worked there. He was a carpenter and all the Abraham brothers were carpenters. I went to the Bell School, Upminster Infant and Junior school. I can’t say I really liked it very much there. My brother was very clever, very good at maths. Unfortunately, when you look at it nowadays, teachers bullied you and physically hit you. We used to get hit with a ruler, across the hand if you didn’t do very well in your maths test. I was about ten when it happened. It wasn’t often. Also the backs of legs used to get the ruler.
I think I was quite a nervous child; I never went to the playgroup. I only went school actually on my fifth birthday so I did things at home really. My parents weren’t affluent; my father was a builder and my mother didn’t work. My father had an accident when I was seven; he fell off a roof and broke his neck so my mother had to go out to work. My father survived; when he was in the war he had a plate put in his head because he’d been shot in the head. As a result of his falling off the roof, he was in hospital for a year and my mother went back to work full time. I basically was left alone; I had an older brother who I got on with very well. But there was five years’ difference between both of us. And so really I had to hold the fort really; in those days you didn’t have child minders or a lot of people to help in the home because my mother couldn’t afford it. My brother had to look after me I suppose; I was eight and he was twelve. I would come home myself and then walk up to Upminster Station and meet my mother from the six o’clock train. I would get the vegetables ready for supper.
There used to be a phrase “spare the rod, spoil the child” which meant that if children weren’t punished for their misdemeanours then they would grow up to be selfish. I think Shona’s story shows how wrong-headed this sentiment is; she clearly was traumatized by the way she was hit at school. First, she’d done nothing wrong; she’d simply failed to do well at maths. Today, teachers are trained to work out why children have done badly and work out a programme of action to help them improve. Back then, many teachers simply hit children who did badly. Second, as Shona shows clearly here, corporal punishment simply doesn’t work; Shona has a lifelong aversion to maths because of these early incidents. As she correctly says, she was bullied by the teachers. It’s not surprising she was a nervous child. Nowadays, teachers are trained to consider a child’s background and psychology and to assist him or her accordingly. Shona had to learn self-reliance from an early age because of her father’s accident and her mother’s need to work; she was a “latch-key” kid fending for herself until her mother got home. Although not an ideal situation, she seems to have coped.