This is the story of how a very unmotivated, naughty student became a teacher.
On my teaching course – my PGCE in Nottingham – I felt like the odd one out. I’d spent a lot of my school years doing anything other than studying. However, I felt my somewhat shady background would make me a good teacher. And it did. Former students – some now adults themselves – tell me so, anyway. I hope they’re right.
From the age of seven, I used to climb onto the roof of our house, sit above the garage and look at the stars. My bedroom had an edge of roof running below it, a tiled pathway to the garage where there was a perfect apex on which I could sit, feeling like a bird. I was afraid of sleeping as I had nightmares but out there, under the sky, I was at home. I was also afraid of my father, so when he caught me one night I was petrified about what he’d do. I’ve never understood why but he told me to be careful and not tell my mother. I nodded and carried on climbing, night after night. At the time I had a group of imaginary friends – there was a lack of real ones – and though it was them who first tempted me to go out there, it was me who had the guts to wait until everyone was asleep and open my window for my night time adventures.
We moved from Yorkshire to Surrey (via Kenya, another story) three years later, where my brother and I slept in a converted attic, with the roof a dizzying three storeys high. That didn’t stop me and though a fall would have meant serious injury, I visited my private rooftop world via the bathroom window night after night. Up there, I could be anyone other than the troubled child I’d become.
I was an angry rebel and I fought against any authority if I believed that authority to be wrong. I may have had reasons to be angry, but my anger got me in trouble. I got into all sorts of scrapes at school and spent a lot of time smoking in the school toilets, bunking off and lying about my whereabouts. I’d gained some friends by now, but we egged each other on. I had too many boyfriends. I did exciting things too, making opportunities for myself by working a variety of jobs from the age of twelve; learning to scuba dive aged sixteen, jumping out of a plane when I was seventeen. But I took all kinds of less healthy risks, probably best not mentioned here because one day, my children might read this.
I scraped enough GCSEs to study for three A-levels but struggled to motivate myself. I was told after six months I could only continue with two subjects but I’d decided I wanted to go to university and needed three. I rebelled against my own rebellion and fought to continue, pleading with the Head for a second chance and managing the grades I needed to escape, getting accepted by Swansea University. I never looked back.
Four years later, equipped with a degree in English and Politics, I went to work in Surrey with adults with learning difficulties – beautiful rebels, every one – whilst I worked out how I’d use my degree. I lived in a shared house owned by a guy called Yeti. His house had a rooftop terrace (accessible roofs were my main criteria for choosing a place to live) where I used to sit and stargaze after a particularly challenging day. I looked out into space and thought of my life stretching ahead, and how I could do anything I wanted in the world. I’d always wanted to be a writer but was savvy enough to know I needed to feed myself while I found my writing voice.
One night on the roof I had a revelation: I wanted to help children who’d struggled like me. I thought of my own English teacher, Mrs Gray, one of the few who saw that under the belligerence there was potential, and realised I wanted to be that person to other children.
Even becoming a teacher involved rebellion. I applied as soon as I’d decided but it was late; I found out just days before the course began that I had a place in Nottingham. I owned a beige Morris Marina called Frank and it was into Frank that I packed my stuff, after waving goodbye to Yeti and my other nutty housemates, and in Frank that I slept before finding a place to stay. My tutors were horrified and told me I couldn’t continue on the course if I was sleeping in a car because I needed stability. I persuaded them I’d be fine.
I discovered I was a good teacher, especially when motivating children who were struggling. I knew how it felt to sabotage yourself so I taught them not to rebel against their own potential, only the stuff that was limiting them.
I remembered how it felt to not want to learn, to think that being good equalled being uncool. I knew how it felt to be labelled the angry, shouty, awkward one, so I listened. I knew how it felt to hate yourself, but I knew how it felt to save yourself and learn to love yourself, too.
No matter what’s happened to you, you can rebel against it to do well. I try to pass this on to my students.
I like to think rebels live fuller lives; are original; think out of the box; take the risks they need to succeed. I like being one – now I’ve tamed myself a little.
I still dream about my rooftops. I dream they are bigger than they were, and have nooks and crannies I’ve yet to explore. I wake up reminded that there are whole worlds inside each of us.
Dare to dream. Dare to climb. Dare to be a rebel.