In my eight years as a children’s author I have visited many primary schools: huge schools and tiny schools, schools with 50% free school meals and the school Prince William and Prince Harry went to. I’ve been to a state school where the NSPCC safeguarding officer knows many of the children by name and a private school where the gates at collecting time are crowded with chauffeurs and nannies. I’ve visited schools where everything seems stacked against achievement and schools where opportunity is laid out on a plate.
One thing unites all these schools: the dedication and energy of the teachers. I meet remarkable teachers all the time and they put me, with my comfortable, peaceful working life, to shame.
I absolutely love going into schools because I know I’m going to be just as entertained by a classroom full of 9-year-olds as they are by my tales of zombie witch-doctors and farting key-rings. But I’m only in there for a couple of hours – I’m like the naughty granny who whisks the kids out for a birthday treat, spoils them rotten with toys and sweets and then returns them to their poor mother who has to deal with the consequent nuclear fall-out. The teacher is the one who has to perform the thankless task of explaining why they can’t learn about zombie witch-doctors and farting key-rings every day. She’s the one who has to teach them how to wipe their noses and their bottoms, to write the date in the top left corner, to subtract fractions, to stay safe and be nice… and she has to do it day in, day out, whether she’s in the mood or not.
There aren’t many things I take very seriously in life but one of them is my role as a parent. Our sons are older now, so I’ve let the mask slip a bit – teenagers see straight through parental artifice in any case and it does them no favours to pretend that the world and everyone in it is perfect. But when they were small I desperately wanted everything to be reassuringly fair and comprehensible, aware that all that I did was being watched by little eyes and all that I said was being absorbed by infinitely impressionable minds.
How much greater is that responsibility when it isn’t your own children for whom you’re trying to do your best but other people’s – and there are thirty of them? When you have to spend all day trying to be cheerful and consistent and practically perfect? Even Mary Poppins could only manage it with the aid of something mysterious whose side-effect was to make her fly. For the rest of us it requires an enormous effort and the teachers who maintain that effort and make it seem so effortless are utterly amazing and should be hugely admired and appreciated.