Teacher writes book about pupils’ devastating depression, neglect and self-harm

Teacher writes book about pupils’ devastating depression, neglect and self-harm

When Kate Clanchy was a child, she would line up her teddy bears and teach them everything she knew.

She wanted to make the world a better place, and since then she’s embarked on a 30-year career as an English and poetry teacher.

“At least if I’ve done a decent day’s work in a school, I’ve made the world better and I still feel that,” the 53-year-old says.

Over the years, what’s affected her most are not the lessons in the classroom but what she’s learnt of the troubles her children have suffered away from school, such as deprivation, depression and addiction.

Now she has written a book about former pupils who have inspired her, such as Elsa, a keen poet who is so poor and neglected she has to wear school uniform from lost property.

Kate, who now teaches at Oxford Spires Academy, says: “We see more extreme poverty coming into schools and schools are having to do more than they used to.”

It is a sentiment which has been echoed repeatedly this week at teaching unions’ conferences.

Here, in exclusive extracts from Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, Kate gives a first-hand view of what teachers are really up against and the amazing things they do for our children…

'Elsa is small and freckled and mostly silent. She comes to Poetry Group very regularly, and writes small, sad poems.

She is particularly keen on having her work typed out; when she was absent once she brought me an extra sad poem on a sheet of A4.

Another teacher, Miss B, is very taken by this progress, and when we are offered a day trip to London by a charity, we agree: a place for Elsa.

But we can’t get her mum to sign the form. Forms are an endless nuisance; we expect delay. We anticipate it, in fact; we photocopy extra forms, we dole them out several times, we nag, we write notes in planners, we phone home.

Two days before the trip, this has worked for everyone but Elsa, and on my way home at nearly six at night, I spot Elsa walking away from the Co-op, holding a loaf of bread.

I catch her up, and she is so alarmed, she walks faster, pulling her hood up over her heavy wings of dark, greasy hair.

“Don’t you want to come on the trip?” I ask her.

“Yeah,” she says, outraged.

“What about the form then?”

“I got it,” she says.

“Well then, could we have it?”

“I lost it,” she says, with equal conviction.

We have stopped at the gated entrance to the flats behind the Co-op, where Elsa seems to live, and I have one of my brilliant ideas.

I have a spare photocopied form right here in my bag. Why doesn’t Elsa just pop upstairs and get her mum to sign it?

“You want to see my mum?” says Elsa. And I say no, it isn’t necessary, I can wait right there. There is a long pause. Elsa looks at her small, turned-in feet.

“But,” I say, “I could come in. If that would help. If it would help if I explained.”

And so I find myself in a small red room with a loud television and an acrid, woody smell, where a woman in a velour dressing gown is huddled in an armchair, and a yellow bird bashes my face like a slap.

“They like to fly about,” says the woman.

And I see that there is a bird cage in front of her with an open door, and two canaries loose in the room, and seed and bird droppings everywhere underfoot.

Elsa still has her coat on. She stands quietly by the door, feet pressed together.

“I”m Elsa’s teacher,” I say nervously. “I just bumped into her and I thought… There’s this trip to London. I expect she told you?”

“Ain’t heard nothing about it,” says the woman. “We can’t pay this month.”

“It’s free,” I say. “I wondered – could you just sign this form?”

And I hand her the form, and she takes it and studies it. “Uumph,” she says. “Dunno.”

Suddenly, Elsa appears with a pen. “Mum,” she says, “just there, sign there.”

And the woman puts down a scribble, and I realize she can’t read.

“Miss has to go,” says Elsa.

Afterwards I tell the story to Miss B. “You wouldn’t know,” I say. “Elsa looks quite normal in school.”

“No,” says Miss B. “Lost property is a wonderful thing.”

And it turns out to be Miss B who greets Elsa every morning for breakfast club, and unlocks the shower in PE for her, and hands out clean uniform.

It is Miss B who whizzes the clothes round the school washing machine, the one bought for PE kit, every week.

Miss B says Elsa only ever misses one day of school each year, and that is Red Nose Day, when no uniform is worn.

Uniform provides a safety net for children like her.

Then there’s Tia. In her chosen corner, Tia is writing another poem for her sister.

Tia’s sister died of heroin addiction last year, and Tia lives with her dad and her gran because her mum is also an addict.

Tia copes remarkably well. Not only does she keep out of any kind of trouble or substance abuse herself, but she works hard in school, and is universally well liked: kind, thoughtful, calm, friendly, and balanced.

Tia writes over and over again about her anxiety, about her pain and mourning, and about heroin, about whether she too will be addicted.

She is friends with Kristell.

“I used to be skinny,” says Kristell. “Not no more.”

She did. When Kristell arrived in Year 9, she had a bosomy, curvy figure with a tiny waist and pretty ankles.

She also had huge, fringed brown eyes, a pouting, sorrowful, half-open mouth, lush, waist-length brunette curls, and a downy, newly hatched quality altogether.

She looked like trouble, was my first thought. And she was trouble too.

I taught her English set, and she disrupted it. She wasn’t noisy, as such, but noise followed her, arose around her like thorns around an enchanted princess.

“It ain’t me!” was one of her cries. “Miss, I ain’t doing it on purpose.”

And she wasn’t. She wore less make-up than many other girls, sported no special variation of the school uniform.

But each morning she got out of bed and brushed out her cloud of princess hair, and there she was, locked in a puddle of pretty, a bubble of trouble, and couldn’t get out any more than a fly can get out of milk.

Once, when Kristell complained she couldn’t finish a poem, because it was so noisy, boys were bombarding her with paper balls, whispering her name, taking her drafts from the bin and reading them aloud, and she begged me to explain why, I said: “It’s because you’re very beautiful, and they are trying to get your attention. Because they like you.”

Her pretty face crumpled in pain. She dropped her pen.

“Oh no, Miss,” she said, “you got that one wrong. They hate me.”

And when I demur: “No, Miss, really, that’s hate. They hate me.”

Kristell already had, then, at 14 a contraceptive implant in her arm, but no steady boyfriend. There was trouble in her family; that’s why they moved town, why she arrived in our school mid-year. Just a few months later, she had a sort of breakdown.

Now she is back, shakily, in school, but she has bleached her beautiful hair a coarse yellow and cut it short.

She is on anti-depressants. She has put on a great deal of weight, so that the pretty figure is blurred, so that she looks like her mum, so that she is not such a target of notice and noise.

Now Kristell sits with Tia and writes about assault and rape and arm-slashing and helplessness.

She was right to tell me that the boys’ attention was a form of hate; it was, and so was my attitude to her, so was the attitude of our entire society, the attitude that identifies the disruption as coming from the young girl, not the gazing man, that attributes power to such a powerless person.'

The day I promised to tell all about sex

'To begin at the very beginning, with sperm and egg, with condoms and cucumbers, with ghastly line drawings of urethras and sperm ducts, and me, just starting out as a teacher.

I had promised that I would explain everything to my group of 13-year-olds at a school in Scotland.

Everything about sex, that is. I said that anyone who had a question about sex should write it down anonymously and put it in a box on my desk before class.

I remember the fear of going into that classroom.

But the kids were eager, quiet, already in their seats, a pile of slips in the box on the desk. They fell silent as I picked the first question out.

It was, “What do gay people actually do for sex?” and I took a breath and, cautiously, said sex was the same whatever you did and whoever you did it with.

It was about touching and feeling and also feelings, and people did all sorts of things.

Then I looked round the room and saw the kids were not looking at each other, but at me. No one had sniggered. I said the words “clitoris”, “penis” and “erection” in a single brief paragraph.

I said “orgasm”. Someone laughed, but it was a nice laugh.

Aye, said someone else, aye, I see.

Mostly, the questions were about love: could anybody love; could gay people love; could you change, later on?

I only had to say yes.

In fact, all children will behave perfectly, I believe, if they want to know some-thing, about sex or anything else, and an adult sincerely sets out to tell them.

At the end of the lesson, Callum came up to me.

“Mrs McClanchy?” said Callum. “Whit wis the name for men and men?”

“That was homosexuality.”

“Aye. And whit wis the name for women and men?”

“That’s heterosexuality.”

“Aye. Well, when I grow up, I’m no’ going to have either o’ them. Ah think Ah’ll just have a big dog.”'

  • Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me by Kate Clanchy, Picador, £16.99. Extracted by Rhian Lubin.

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