Doing Something Badly

Last night I had to do one of the most difficult things of my professional career.

It was the sixth form prom and as an English department we were awarding a ‘Top Totty’ award. This was a really special award for me and for the department because it was in memory of a very special lady who died in December.

I had in my head exactly what I wanted to say. Gill was an absolutely outstanding teacher, her lessons ticked all the boxes and she got the best exam results in the department. More importantly though, she showed us all what teaching was really about. She managed to see the good in absolutely every student who walked through the doors at Penistone, even those who I could have quite easily throttled on so many occasions.

She championed every single student and put every bit of energy in ensuring that every student did their best. She played mum to staff and students alike, and if anybody had a problem Gill was the first person they turned to. She always knew how to make somebody feel better, how to build their confidence and how to cheer them up. She often complained about the way the education system was going, not because she was afraid of change but because she could see that it was no longer about turning children into people, but children into numbers.

She cared about the whole person, and for Gill exam results were only part of the story. Just as important were your hobbies and your home life. She genuinely cared about your weekend and how our family and friends were. She wanted students to take responsibility for their own actions but never judged when they made mistakes. She listened openly and responded honestly, even if she knew the truth would be difficult to hear. Her words of wisdom reverberate around my head on a daily basis.

She fought off breast cancer once, but it sadly returned. We all believed that she would fight it again, as did she, but it became apparent last September that she’d lost the fight. Her bravery in the face of her illness will stay with me for the rest of my life. Despite the fact that by last July Gill had lost significant movement in her arms and was suffering from the side effects of radiotherapy she was still coming into school to teach lessons. She never complained and never gave up. She still smiled, joked and laughed. It was an absolute pleasure to have known her and I wouldn’t be half the teacher I am without her help and support. In 14 years of teaching at Penistone she touched and affected more lives than most people will do in their lifetime.

The award was designed to recognise the unsung students. To recognise a student whose hard work often goes unnoticed. Who succeeds despite difficult circumstances. Who always put their best in and never once complaining. Gill would have hated an award being named after her, but she would have loved the idea of just such an award.

Of course last night as I stood in front of Year 13 I said little of this. I walked up to the front with tears already forming in my eyes. My knees were shaking and I could hardly control my voice. The speech I’d carefully rehearsed in my head disappeared and I crawled around in the depths of my brain for the right words. Last night I did a poor job of remembering a wonderful woman. I hope this goes someway to righting that wrong.

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