I wasn’t supposed to be a journalist. And I wouldn’t have been one if it wasn’t for my English teacher.
Around the third year (Year Nine) of my secondary school, which at the time was considered to be the worst state school in the borough, she asked me, out of the blue, if I’d ever considered a career as a journalist. The thought had never occurred to me.
She said I had the right attributes for it, curiosity – I was forever asking questions – and I was really good at English. She saw qualities in me that no one, including me, had noticed before.
I immediately fell in love with the idea and she encouraged me to pursue it. The rest, as they say, is history.
In the late 1980s, Gerald O’Connell was a new teacher at Leyton Senior High School for Girls, a “deprived”
comprehensive in East London.
In his A-level economics class were Sharon White and Sonita Alleyne. He spotted their potential and asked the head if he could help them and their bright classmates get into Oxford, Cambridge and other top universities.
He encouraged the girls to apply to Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, where he’d studied, and with his support both got in.
Fast forward 30 years. Last week it was announced that Ms White, head of media watchdog Ofcom, had been appointed as new boss of John Lewis on a £1million-a-year salary.
Just a week before, Ms Alleyne was unveiled as master of Jesus College, Cambridge, the first black head of an Oxbridge College.
These are incredible achievements for two people who will have no doubt faced double the discrimination by being both female and black.
Gerald is modest about his involvement, but without his intervention their lives may have been very different.
Inspirational teachers change lives and I believe most go into the profession to do just that.
They really are worth their weight in gold.
But with the extra pressure teachers now face, there is a real danger that the staff who can make a difference just don’t have the time.
In this era of austerity where cash-strapped schools, like Downshall Primary in East London, are appealing to Children in Need for funding, they’re expected to not only teach, but to be social workers who dip into their own pockets to help children with food and clothes.
Teachers need to be free to teach and to spot the next Sharons and Sonitas. If they can’t, then something has gone badly wrong with our education system, and our society will be worse because of it.
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