Give me a child until he is seven and I’ll show you the man

Give me a child until he is seven and I’ll show you the man” is attributed to the founder of the Jesuits, St Ignatius Loyola. It doesn’t particularly resonate with me, partly because I work with secondary-aged students and partly because the students I work with have learning difficulties and associated conditions which means that their cognitive, social, emotional and/or physical development can be delayed, sometimes significantly. Also, my son is eight and I’m hoping he grows out of his current habits of costing me a small fortune and of supporting Manchester United.

One of the frustrations of teaching children is that I rarely get to see how they have turned out as adults. Like most teachers I have taught thousands of students with varying degrees of success. With most of them I have absolutely no idea how much influence I have had and I will never see or hear of them again. This makes me sad. However, one of the beauties of teaching children is the chance meeting in the aisle of the supermarket with a former student. You get a very brief period of time to gauge how they’ve done, if, of course, you can remember their name.

I often say to staff and parents at my school that the real measure of our success can be judged when our students are 25. Are they living independently? Have they got a job that pays? It isn’t enough for us to pat ourselves on the back because our students all secured a place at a further education college at 16 or 19. If they don’t then go on to do the things that you and I take for granted then our work may have been of limited value.

I’ve been a teacher for fourteen years and I guess that I meet a former student every couple of months or so. I once met a former student who was working in a garden centre. I’d taught both him and his brother. He was doing well but informed me that his brother had just been released from prison (one of four former students that I’m aware of that have been in prison). In virtually every case the encounter is fleeting.

For the past eighteen months, though, I have had the privilege of working with James, a great man whom I first met when I taught him science when he was in Year 8. My first job was in a secondary school that was considered to be one of the poor illegitimate cousins in the borough. We prided ourselves on our inclusive nature and took students from other schools when they’d had enough of them. We were good (in old seven-point scale money) when others were outstanding. I loved the place and still have a soft spot for it. We worked hard to develop the whole person and some of my fondest memories are from times at our outdoor education centre in mid-Wales and from Sixth Form fundraising weeks. We were a tight unit and this was evident when tragedy struck as it occasionally does for all schools. The brutal double murder of two of our students, one of whom had just left my tutor group and was a close friend of James, is a time I will never forget. It felt like the school ground to a halt for a week, but the collective strength of the staff and students was incredible. Through adversity it brought out our collective best.

Two years ago I advertised for a Sports Coach Mentor – effectively a cross between a sports coach, a behaviour support mentor and a teaching assistant. This role had been one of the cornerstones of the success of the EBD school I worked in in Slough a number of years previously. It requires a special kind of person with subtle communication skills, emotional intelligence and a commitment to working with some of society’s most vulnerable and challenging children. The sport bit is just a lever to build relationships.

I was struggling with the quality of applicants but a chance meeting with Phil Cullimore, a Parent Partnership adviser, set me on my way.

Your name’s unusual. Do you know James Cullimore?

He’s my son.”

I taught him years ago. What’s he doing now?”

He’s working at a PRU answering phones. He was coaching sport so is looking for some work.”

Within a week I had my new Sports Coach Mentor.

Eighteen months later James is embarking on a new life in Lincolnshire and this week I sadly said goodbye to him. It has been such a privilege to work with him as I’ve seen on a daily basis what an amazing man he’s become. As with all children the parents must take the lion’s share of the credit for the qualities of their grown up children but I know that the ethos and principles of the school we were both proud members of have shaped James into the person he is today. Not only has James devoted his working life to some of society’s most vulnerable people, he also gives up a fair proportion of his spare time as a Special Constable with Thames Valley Police (as I once was). Special Constables are unpaid volunteer warranted police officers that have the same powers as regular constables and are, in my view, some of the finest members of society. This does mean he works with my brother, a Sergeant, on occasion.

I have seen James deal with situations at school with such skill and composure that any behaviour management consultant would stand back and applaud. He has built very strong relationships with students but has never crossed the line in to being their mate. He is welcoming and approachable but also firm with high expectations. There were students in tears in the playground on Friday afternoon as they bid him farewell.

I like to think that he’s not the only Emmbrook School student that’s turned out like that and I’m sure he’s not. It would be nice, though, if those chance meetings were more than 60 seconds in the cereal aisle in Tesco.

I didn’t know James at seven, but I enjoyed teaching him at 12 and I’m proud to know him at 25. If you’re hiring in Lincolnshire give him a job – he’s the best.


5 thoughts on “Give me a child until he is seven and I’ll show you the man

  1. Hi Mr O’Brien!
    Great read, sir! And as a good friend (soon to be best man) of Jay he talks very highly of your good self too. I hear you yourself has grown in your career exponentially from the fresh off the press student teacher I first met.
    And as a 25 year old former pupil of Emmbrook, who was in your tutor group, I can say that many of us changed considerably. We grew due to good grounding and above all great friendships that were forged and fostered all those years ago.
    I myself am now a father and married to my ‘high school’ sweetheart. I am also an amateur writer and armchair philosopher and theologian.
    Isn’t it funny how life turns out, the connections we make and the impact we have on the lives of others.
    I’m sure you will continue to touch the lives of numerous young people that pass through your classroom doors.

    Thanks, sir

    Adam Couchman.

  2. Mr O’Brien,

    Great read, sir! As a good friend of Jay (soon to be best man). I can tell you he speaks very highly of you too.
    And as a 25 year old former student of yours, as well being in your tutor group, I can honestly say that many of us have grown and changed exponentially since leaving the Emmbrook. We have grown due to good grounding and the friendships forged and fostered at school.
    I myself, am a father and I have married my ‘high school’ sweetheart. I am an amateur writer and armchair philosopher and theologian.
    And I hear you too have grown considerably in your career from the, fresh off the press, student teacher I first met. And I’m sure you will continue to change the lives of many students that pass through your classroom doors.

    Thanks, sir.

    Adam Couchman

    • Hi Adam!
      Great to hear from you and thank you for your kind words. Our school philosophy centred on developing you as rounded people and others judged us harshly for that.
      You taught me a lot as a young, naive teacher. You definitely set a lot of store in the relationship you had with teachers and that convinced me, early on, of the importance of that.
      Just remind JC that my wedding invite hasn’t arrived yet.
      Best wishes to your sister and wife, both Emmbrook legends in their own right!
      Stay in touch.

  3. Pingback: ORRsome blog posts from the week that was Week 43 | high heels and high notes

  4. Great post, Jarlath. It’s heartening to hear back from anyone who we’ve worked with, and great to see them use their skills and make such an impact with those who face challenges. I’m with you on the importance of building relationships – one of the keys to success for anyone working in schools. Thanks for sharing this story. Best wishes.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s