Mike Parker reminisces on his 40 years in teaching…
I started teaching 40 years ago. My first school was a tough inner-city secondary modern boys’ school and my most powerful memory of it is my first day, when I found that half my Year 11 were missing: they had been arrested and put in police cells overnight because they had caused a riot outside a grammar school! Here, teaching English to children who could barely read was a humbling experience – and one I actually enjoyed. I stayed at the school for 3 years and barely survived the experience. My second school was Wellington High in Timperley, which was at the time also a secondary modern boys’ school. I loved it there, and directed two drama productions, the highlight being ‘Oliver!’ where we had to use a teacher to play Nancy. I stayed 3 years and then got a job at Urmston Grammar School for Girls.
Having been taught at two ordinary comprehensives, coming to the Girls’ Grammar was a huge culture shock. I still vividly remember sitting in assembly at the back of the main hall with the teachers, and the young ladies (for that is what they were!) sitting quietly in front of us. Suddenly, the back doors were flung open and three teachers – the head and two deputies – swept through the doors dressed in academic robes and mortar boards. To my astonishment, the girls all leapt to their feet in one smooth movement, whilst I sat looking around like a headless chicken before finally stumbling to my feet. I felt as though I had stepped into a time-warp and found myself back in the 1950s. I loved the school from my first day. I had a wonderful Head of English – Miss Ganley – who nurtured me. She was a tiny whirlwind who frightened every pupil…. but who actually had a heart of gold. The school was good at encouraging teachers and I found myself launching Media Studies in the first year. When I think of some of the things the girls and I did when filming our coursework, I shake with laughter: I climbed a tree to film from a high angle; we went to a graveyard to film a horror scene; and we put maggots into meat to create disturbing shots. We even went to a pupil’s house to film there …. one of those students was Joanne Daley – now our esteemed Finance Director (from whom you can get more details of our antics). There were no risk assessments, no Health and Safety considerations in those days!
When the Girls’ School merged with the Boys’ school in 1987/88 it was chaos. We travelled between schools, sometimes travelling between lessons when there was no break and arriving at a lesson 10 minutes late. We got a new Head and the English department was taken over by Bill Dixon. He was a marvel. An incredible teacher, he inspired a whole generation of students to love English. I used to go and watch him teach to learn how to be better at teaching…but I eventually realised there was no point: it was just pure wisdom and charisma. My most powerful memory of him is not of his teaching – it was of him driving his 500cc motorbike up the aisle between seated students in the Boys’ School hall!
At the Grammar schools I directed more than 15 Drama Productions in the next 20 years. ‘Oliver!’ twice more, The Importance of Being Earnest, Arsenic and Old Lace (still my favourite), The Wizard of Oz, Annie, Educating Rita, Grease, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest were just a few. One of my fondest memories includes watching Mr Dickson play Bill Sikes, revelling in every minute. When we did The Wizard of Oz we had a trap door built into the stage and we purchased pyrotechnics for the moment when the witch disappears in a puff of smoke. The idea was that the pyro was ignited and the young lady (Year 12) had to drop through the trap door at that exact moment. She had to jump into total darkness, dropping about 6 feet onto a mattresses below. In the ‘tech’ rehearsals, she froze three times and would not drop when the pyro went off with a huge bang. Exasperated, I marched up to the stage and said ‘Look, it’s really easy; just step forward.’ Then I showed her how to do it – the pyro went off… and there I was, standing on stage, suddenly realising how terrifying it was to jump into total darkness! She mastered it and did it every night perfectly, and I couldn’t have been more proud.
Of Mice and Men was another vivid memory. The two lead actors (one of whom is now a parent at UGS) were superb, and I remember the moment when George shoots Lennie going perfectly and looking round the audience and seeing half of the audience in tears: two 17 year-old boys had made them forget that they were in a stuffy old hall and made them engage in the fiction – that’s the power of drama. I also remember the many fluffed lines we had… including one production of The Importance of Being Earnest when the whole cast jumped from Act 1 to Act 3. I sat in the wings panicking, getting ready to march on stage and stop the play and re-start, when – astonishingly – an actress playing a tiny part walked on stage and delivered the only line which could possibly have got them back to Act 1. It worked perfectly and I have always been grateful for her brilliance and courage. The audience never noticed!
Some of the students I worked with have gone on to careers in the profession – some as make-up artists, some in lighting and some in sound. Some of our dancers went on to great success, including Tori (Victoria) Cooper, now dancing with the Tivoli Ballet Theatre. Acting is also a tough profession, so only Emma Lowndes (who played wonderfully the drunken Miss Hannigan in Annie, amongst other things) has gone on to a successful acting career, featuring recently in Downton Abbey, Military Wives, Call the Midwife and Casualty. I remember all the actors vividly: to watch students prove that they can excel is a truly wonderful experience. However, I also remember the staff who worked together in the productions. Mr Fletcher was an immensely talented Musical Director for most of the productions. I co-directed with Mr Dickson for a few productions. But there were huge numbers of staff involved – make-up, stage-management, prompts, advertising, ushers, ticket sellers…Grease had a total cast of 100 people. Miss Forest, the Head of History, was an incredible Stage Manager for most of our productions. The incredibly rewarding thing about these productions was to work as a whole creative team and to bond with all these people to produce amazing outcomes. I have often thought of this as a metaphor for the school itself
My career was slow and steady. Head of Drama, Second in English, Head of English, Head of English and Expressive Arts. In 2008 I helped the school to a successful OFSTED and perhaps my most powerful and joyous memory was the moment when I was promoted to SLT in the middle of Staff Briefing! Mr Spinks was a great Headteacher and I know he loved dropping the surprise on me and watching my face. He was a lovely man and we miss him dearly, dying at just 60 years old. I was promoted to Assistant Headteacher, and then Mrs Wall promoted me to Vice-Headteacher. Working with SLT has been a constant joy. The professionalism, the expertise and the commitment of the SLT is an enriching experience. The care they take to look after all staff and to make the school a better place for all of its members is truly heart-warming. Of the eight Headteachers I have worked with, Mrs Wall has been the most successful and most inspirational. Her passionate commitment to improvement and her determination to ensure that we have an inclusive community has been a delight to work for, and with. This is one of the main reasons why I found the decision to retire so difficult.
I came to Urmston Grammar intending to stay for just 3 years and then move on: I stayed for 34 years. My two children attended 6th Form here. The compelling reason why I stayed is the students. I have had the enormous pleasure of teaching children who want to learn and who enjoy education and – in particular – English Literature. To find the spark which will ignite their passion for a subject is one of the most rewarding experiences one can have, and even now I find it hard to leave my Year 10 and my Year 12 class behind… but I guess I will always feel like that, and there comes a time when I have to leave. There are 50 years between me and Year 7 pupils: I am not a spring chicken anymore, and so it is time to go.
I love Urmston Grammar: it has been a privilege to work here and I wish all of the wonderful staff and pupils success and happiness. It has been wonderful to work with you all.