An interview with a lucky man

I’m not sure I want to be a class teacher ever again…

So, having said that yesterday, I volunteered this morning to take my colleague’s class so she could get a few jobs done and d’you know what? I quite enjoyed myself!  And that despite the bombshell that I had to teach maths!  Which was hit and miss to start with, I have to admit, though my Math’s Trivial Pursuit activity, courtesy of one of the gurus of the UK EAL world Gordon Ward, was probably the best bit of the whole morning.  Pitting the Year 5’s against the Year 6’s in a head to head match, one of the bright ones spotted me trying to select questions to give an even outcome and I was forced to select the top card in the pile each time instead.  And give questions I considered too difficult to children I was sure wouldn’t be able to answer them correctly.  But they did.  Which just goes to show that you’re never too old to be amazed. That’s the thing about working with children, they do something to amaze and astound you pretty much every day.  And the buzz that gives you is worth the salary of a thousand CEOs.

It’s fourteen days and counting, now, and the end of term is still hurtling too quickly towards us, with too much to be crammed in before it gets here.  It’s scary how quickly time passes, and it only seems five minutes since it was this time last year, with the end of term hurtling too quickly towards us and too much to cram in before it arrived.  The most momentous thing we were facing then was the retirement of our beloved headteacher after 21 years in our school.  We were gutted he was leaving and convinced that we wouldn’t survive without him.  And yet here we are one year on, looking and feeling very different, but still very much alive.

Before he left the school, I interviewed him for a creative non-fiction piece for my MA course.  And here it is.


An interview with a lucky man

The voice recorder clicks and plays back the tail end of a conversation it caught whilst being switched on.  “…that’s all right, I know where you live!” – a deep, male voice chuckles and is joined by my own, self conscious giggle.  “There, that should be recording now” – do I really sound that nasal? – then scratching sounds and a knock as the recorder is placed on the table.  “Do you mind if we go right back to the beginning?” – my voice again, nervous and unsure.  “Okay, but we need to be done by break time, I’m on duty today.”  Clearly, this is someone used to being listened to.  I mumble my assent.  “So, where did you grow up?”  “Ashbourne in Derbyshire.”  There’s a hint of amusement in my interviewee’s sing song answer.  “I was born in 1951.”

And so begins the recording of a novice journalist interviewing the soon-to-be-retired head-teacher of a small primary school in the East Midlands.

I first met Henry Charlton seventeen years ago when he interviewed me for a teaching post at Rothbury Primary School.  I knew nothing of the place until I stepped inside on the day of my interview.  To my surprise, I got the job.  People like me didn’t become teachers and though I’d been qualified for a year, I still expected to be tapped on the shoulder and asked to leave, to make way for someone who knew what they were doing.  And at the majority of interviews till then, that’s what had happened.  But that day I was lucky.  Less people generally apply for mid-year appointments and the small number of other candidates must have been real no-hopers.  Or else more expensive than me.  Either way, I was chosen and in January 1994 became the new teacher for one of the infant classes.  I left the school two years later to start a family and worked elsewhere on and off in between, but ten years ago, Rothbury drew me back.  It’s that sort of place.  Few people want to leave it and many who do – staff and students – make their way back, if only to let everyone know how they’re doing.  And a lot of that is down to Henry himself.  Mr Charlton: a strong, respected leader, with a clear vision for the school he has led for twenty-one years.

“My home was very nurturing, very caring.  It was a really nice environment to be in for a young child.” It’s a warm, sunny morning and the tape has caught the sound of a fan whirring in the corner, noisily stirring the air.  We’re sitting in Henry’s office, the door slightly ajar to allow a view of the corridor.  I have sat in that office – that very chair – many times before, engaged in varying levels of discussion as both a parent and a member of staff.  But today is a different scenario altogether, and though Henry shows no concern, I’m decidedly nervous about it.  The interview is mapped out in notes before me, however, and we tentatively move on.

To a discussion about Henry’s grandmother, a pupil-teacher who worked her way up to teacher status at the beginning of the last century.  I’d heard his tales of her mathematical prowess many times in the staffroom.  Was it her influence that made Henry want to be a teacher, I ask, and had it pleased his grandmother that he had?   “No and no,” he replies slowly, lifting his gaze to look me in the eye.  “I didn’t always want to be a teacher and she died whilst I was training to be a teacher.”  He stresses each verb carefully.  “She wasn’t very confident I was going to complete the course.”

I falter.  Was teaching an after thought to his degree then?  No, he doesn’t have a degree.  He has a certificate of education, which he studied for for three years.  The humour in his voice is gone, replaced by a more matter of fact tone.  “So when did you decide you wanted to be a teacher?” I ask, the surprise evident in my voice.  “I didn’t, someone decided for me.”  “Someone?”  “Someone from County Hall.  I was working in a factory and someone rang me up and said ‘I’m the careers advisor – you need to come and see me’.  So I went.  We talked a bit and then he said ‘I’ve decided you’re going to be a teacher and you’ve got an interview at Teacher Training College this afternoon.  Now go and get your hair cut and get changed’, neither of which I did.”

A telephone rings in the background and once again I hear my uncomfortable laugh.  Henry in a factory?  The possibility he wouldn’t finish the course?  So what made the careers advisor think he should be a teacher then?  “I was an excellent primary pupil,” he answers, “and my O levels were ok – I won the maths prize at O level.  But at grammar school I slowly became more and more adolescent.  By the time I was seventeen I was out doing things I shouldn’t be doing.  You can’t rely on ability at A level, you actually have to do some work.  So I failed.  I scraped two A levels in re-takes at Tech and stayed on doing a Business Studies HND, which was a disaster.  After the first year, they asked me not to come back.”

I’m puzzled.  “How had the careers advisor heard about you?”  Henry repeats the question, the humming fan filling the void as he considers his answer, children’s voices in the corridor sneaking onto the recorder.  “Well, they’d heard about me because I was from a single parent family.”  Again he looks me in the eye, almost challengingly.  “I must’ve been on their radar somewhere.”  “You popped up on some chart then?” I question, flippantly.  “That was lucky.”   “It was more than lucky.  It shows these things work sometimes, when they exist.”

A tall, athletic man, always smartly dressed in suit and tie, with hair that was once dark but is now cut close into grey stubble, it’s some years since the school secretary felt it necessary to guard Henry from the attentions of over-eager mothers but never-the-less, he is still a commanding presence.  It’s hard to imagine him turning up for interview at Teacher Training College in “early 1970’s garb with hair past my shoulders.”  He was given hour-long tests in maths and English, followed by two one-hour interviews.  With a hundred percent score in the maths test and a very high mark in the English, Henry was “offered a place there and then”.  Following his old pattern, he continued to be a poor student, struggling to get essays and projects in on time.  “I scraped through college, really.”  It was teaching practises which made the difference, earning him good marks.  “I enjoyed them, so I put more effort into preparing for them,” he explained.  What was it about them that he enjoyed?  “Interaction with children.  Being in a classroom with children was energising and exciting and,” his voice lifts a little, as if the idea takes him by surprise – “interesting.”  So is it an interest in children that makes a good teacher?  “I don’t think you can be a good teacher without it,” he answers, “but there’s something in people that makes them good teachers.  You can improve, but I’ve got a sneaking suspicion good teachers are born, not developed.  There are lots of teachers out there who don’t know they’re good and lots of people teaching who actually aren’t.”  What exactly is the something good teachers have, then?  “I don’t know,” – you can hear the smile as he speaks – “I don’t know.”   We agree he could be a rich man if only he did.

Henry believes his own talent is for forming relationships with children.  “I’m confident with children.  Children have to see that you’re a figure of authority but at the same time, that you care for them and are interested in what they think and believe.  But I also believe very strongly they have to understand you’re the authority figure and that what you say goes.”

Like Henry, becoming a teacher was my second career – third, if you count the months I worked in a shop, biding my time whilst looking for something better.  It took till I was 24 to work out that office work wasn’t for me and another few years to gain the qualifications I needed to get myself out of it.  No helping hand, no wise advisor intervening in my life.  Just acute boredom and a determination to find something more stimulating and rewarding.  And teaching most definitely can be that – children can be that – when teachers are allowed the freedom to teach instinctively and creatively.  Truth be known, though, I was probably also drawn to teaching by unfinished business: my own school-life had been very unhappy.  Still, I like children and was keen to make school life better for the pupils in my classes, particularly those who reminded me a little of me.  My lack of skill and experience was made up for by enthusiasm and good will.

So Henry believes good teachers are born, not developed.  Yet if he hadn’t been guided by events in his own life, his own teaching skills might never have been known.  Once again, he puts this down to luck.

Having qualified in Derby, Henry followed his student girlfriend to Littletown, because, he says simply, “it seemed like a good place to be.”  Did he get a job straight away?  “Yes,” he answers, laughing, “life was amazingly different in those times.”  Like other newly qualified teachers, Henry applied to join one of the pools of teaching staff which local authorities put together and drew from to fill vacancies.  Derby wouldn’t touch him with a barge pole – “probably because they had my history in front of them” – but he had interviews in Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire, where “hundreds of students were being interviewed, all at the same time”.  His most successful – and bizarre – interview was in the County Rooms in Leicester, where two ‘chaps’ behind a desk watched him walk across the room and commented on his stature.  “‘Do you like doing PE?’ they asked.  ‘Yes, I do.’  ‘There’s a job in Littletown, are you interested?’ ‘Yes, I am.’  ‘Right,’ they answered, ‘go and see Sister Angela.’” Henry re-enacts his amazement, eyebrows raised, lips pouting comically, hands held wide in disbelief.  Sister Angela, the head-teacher of the town’s Roman Catholic junior school, appointed him though he wasn’t Catholic, interested that he liked sports and had a maths qualification.  “And that was the interview process, really”.

St Joseph’s was “a hugely challenging school to work in but very rewarding,” with a “potent mix” of children from both privileged and challenging backgrounds.  “We did lots of sports and activities involving children of all abilities and we didn’t have the paperwork and things we have now that took us away from the children.”  He worked in the school for eight years, promoted annually up the salary scale by Sister Angela because, he believes, “she wanted me to stay and do what I was doing.”  Only her impending retirement prompted her to suggest he move on, the implication being that if a head who strongly valued Catholicism came along, he’d be in trouble.  “She said ‘there’s a deputy-headship going which I think you ought to apply for’, which I did, and I got it.  That was the only job I’d applied for.”  “Is your middle name Lucky by any chance?” I ask, laughing. “Yeah,” Henry agrees, laughing too, “’cos this was the only headship I applied for as well.”

Henry’s luck held.  His next school, Charnwood Juniors, was very different, not just because of its high Asian population, but also in the way it was run.  The head-teacher was looking to move on and Henry’s second year saw him in the role of acting head.  “I was sitting in the office on the first morning, thinking, ‘yeah, this is alright!’, when somebody walked in and slapped The Sun newspaper in front of me.  It said ‘Paedophile lives in flat overlooking school playground’, ‘and,’ they said, ‘that’s the flat just there.  What’re you going to do about it?’  And I thought ‘maybe this isn’t such a good job, after all!’”  He chuckles at the memory.  So what did he do?  “I got in touch with County Hall and at that time they had lots of support systems.  People came out to see me and we made statements for the press and all sorts of things.”

With a new head-teacher in place and himself back in the classroom, Henry was “once again lucky” when the local authority decided to amalgamate the junior school with the infant school next door. It was usual for leadership posts to be filled by the head from one school and the deputy from the other, which would have left Henry out in the cold.  But for reasons he never knew, the infant school deputy stood down and he was able to continue in post.  “I’m very grateful to her for that, whatever the reason,” he smiles.  After amalgamation, Henry spent a year out of the classroom, pulling things together and motivating staff, before returning to full-time teaching, a period he describes as “fairly fraught”.  He’d been at Charnwood for seven years when the headship came up at Rothbury.  “This was the only headship I applied for,” he repeats, “and I was lucky enough to get it.”

Though close in proximity to Charnwood and outwardly sharing many similarities, Rothbury “felt different for a number of reasons.”  The school’s Asian pupils were mainly Gujarati speaking Hindus as opposed to the Bengali children he’d taught at Charnwood, and this community had different educational expectations of their children.  In addition, the previous head had left Rothbury with unresolved issues.  “He had moved the children on with learning and the structure of delivery, but there was some hard work to do in terms of staff.  But that made it easy for me, coming in as a very different person.”

As he talks, I think to myself how ‘different’ is a pretty apt word to describe Rothbury.  The school’s acceptance and celebration of difference isn’t just a strap line on some policy document, filed away till school inspectors come by.  There are such a blend of cultures, classes and experiences here that ‘difference’ is the norm, no longer visible to insiders and a shock when visitors make mention of it.  Rothbury is an accepting place, where for the most part people can be themselves in a way that doesn’t often exist outside its red-brick walls.

I share with Henry a theory of mine, gathered from schools I’ve worked in and know of, that head-teachers pick a team of people who share their ideals and that when a school doesn’t work well, it’s because the leader themself is flawed.  “So there’s a human being with character defects and they pick everyone else who’s got those character defects?” he asks.  “It’s possible, perhaps. I don’t know.  I haven’t been that analytical about it.”

He believes that putting right the issues at Rothbury and creating its current ethos is one of the positive things about his headship at the school.  “I’ve been lucky to have appointed very good teachers,” he smiles broadly, adding “though I’ve been told that’s because I’m good at appointing good staff!”  He looks for people who will be a positive addition to the team, who have the right attitude towards children, work hard and are professional in what they do.  “I don’t always pick the person who thinks what I think, but I don’t have a problem with that as long as they’re true to their views and we can talk about it openly and honestly.  It would be naive and stupid to expect everyone to agree with me all of the time.  But I have to believe that people have the best interests of children at heart.  I don’t always believe that’s the case with some adults who are in teaching.  If people are totally career driven, then sometimes they walk over children and teachers to get to where they want to be.  I’ve seen that happen and I find it very uncomfortable.”

However interviews are structured, he says, sometimes there’s nothing to base selection on other than a feeling, particularly for newly qualified teachers without a profile behind them to prove their worth.  He’s adamant that you know very early on whether you’re going to want to take someone on – “I just get a buzz about people”.  “So the Sister Angela model of knowing someone is right within ten minutes isn’t such a bad one?” I ask.  “No, I think she was scraping the barrel a bit,” he laughs.  “We’ve rarely been in that position.”

For a long time in the early years I was scared of Henry Charlton.  He was pack leader in an organisation where I was a long way down the pecking order and though I didn’t know it at the time, I had a problem with authority figures.  Often stern and grumpy, you could never be sure if he would smile at you and say good morning or cut you dead with a frown, leaving you wondering what you’d done to upset him.  Additionally, he reminded me of my older brother, another tall, PE-teaching mathematician, who generally either forgot I existed or gave me lectures on where I was going wrong in life.  For a number of years, I made the mistake of confusing the two.

Amongst other things, it was the introduction of performance management that turned this around, the annual opportunity for a chat about how things are going.  The time I cried buckets in his office for no apparent reason remains a classic and I will never forget the look of startled horror on Henry’s face, so clearly asking the question ‘where on earth did that come from?’  But as another member of staff put it, “he’s got a sense of humour and he’s a good listener.  Any problems you have, you can go to him and he’ll sort them out.”  Preoccupied and grumpy he may be, but he is also loyal to his staff.  He is, in the words of another team member, “the rock of this place.” And if his door is open, he’s available for a chat.  The key is not to be too scared to go and talk to him.

Many damaged and dysfunctional children have passed through Rothbury’s doors and a significant number have been children excluded from one, or sometimes several, other local primary schools.  It’s a matter of pride that Rothbury never turns a child away, though in reality, current legislation makes it difficult for a school to do so.  What is a matter for congratulation is that the behaviour of many of those children improves dramatically once they’re at Rothbury, though the improvement isn’t always sustained once a child moves on.

We discuss my strongest memory of Henry.  It was some years ago, when a boy he’d been working hard to keep under control crossed a line and bit him.  Sitting in the staffroom as social workers carried the screaming boy away, Henry fought back tears and told us ‘we’ve lost him, we’ve lost him,’ as if it was the most devastating thing in the world.  I asked if this had happened often.

“I’ve cried a lot – in public and in private – about children.  We see children in circumstances we wouldn’t put our own children in, that we know we can’t make better in any way.  We cry because we don’t want them to be there, but we’re crying for our own helplessness, really.  I know the instance you’re talking about and I know myself and his teachers had worked really hard with him for four years,” he pauses and thinks carefully – “for four and a half years probably – and it got to the point where we had to decide there had to be somewhere better that could more easily meet his needs.   We’ve had children who staff have worked amazingly well with, to the point of near exhaustion sometimes, but in the end there are people and places that are better suited to support those children.  But to permanently exclude a child is something you don’t do lightly.”

Does he think it can ever be too late for a child, I ask, that if you haven’t turned them around by a certain age, you can map out what their life will be and it isn’t good?  “Yes, yes, I do.  I don’t think it’s finely defined but certainly it’s difficult if you don’t do it by the end of primary school.  We can do all sorts of great things with kids, create situations that enable them to develop and understand different ways of behaving, different ways to live their life, but we let them go at half past three, at weekends, at the end of term.  I don’t think you give up on them but I think you need to have an understanding of your role in their life.  You’re not the ultimate moulder of their life experience.  It’s depressing sometimes.”

Though sometimes, he agrees, their futures turn out surprisingly differently to expectation.  He recalls the story of a boy from his early years at Rothbury who he’d had to restrain a number of times and who, an adult now, recently visited the school.  He had wonderful memories of the place and was proud to assure Henry he was doing well, working in computing.  “But it’s difficult to know at what point the input had effect,” Henry qualifies.  “It may have been me or a teacher when he was 13 or an adult who worked with him when he was 22.  Lots of things impinge on people’s lives and it’s different for different people.  But yeah, I think primary school is really important.”

A positive primary school experience may have carried Henry through the rest of his educational life but he believes it was the nurturing he received at home which had the biggest impact.  “My mother and my grandmother were amazing parents.  It was an incredibly loving environment for a young child, though more challenging for an adolescent, maybe, with no father to keep me in line.  But my mother was very good at not making me feel like there was someone missing.  She played football with me, she played cricket with me and we did lots of things together which were brill.”  As he got older his grandmother became concerned he’d ‘be no good’ and whilst he’s pleased his mother saw him become a deputy-head, he’s disappointed his grandmother didn’t live to see him become a teacher.  “But I’m sure she’s watching now,” he smiles.

“When I first started this job, someone said to me ‘reorganise your office in the first couple of days because you won’t find anything else to do.  Then think of a few insignificant things to change that look as if you‘ve thought them through and wait and see what happens.’”  That was in 1989, when head-teachers controlled a budget of just a few thousand pounds for books and pencils.  1990 saw the introduction of local management of schools and with it, total delegation of budgets for salaries, buildings and services.  Older head-teachers found it difficult, he says.  But as everything about the job was new to Henry, it wasn’t a massive problem: he simply learned as he went along.  “I was already computer literate.  I had all sorts of advantages, really, and was lucky to come in at the right time.  Just lucky again, everything seems to be lucky!”   He laughs.  “And I’ve only got seven weeks to go without something drastic happening!”

“The most useful thing about becoming a head-teacher was probably that it re-energised me.  I’d been teaching for fifteen years and now I was a head-teacher, a totally different job.  There are teachers my age still in the classroom and finding it very difficult.  Some of my best friends have had time off with stress and they’re some of the most laid-back people you could ever meet.  But going from the classroom to this role was an opportunity to change career.  Because it’s a very different job.  Totally different.”

When Henry retires in July, he’ll be just short of his 59th birthday, six years from statutory retirement age.  So why has he decided to go now?  “I’m not a luddite but I think a number of things are moving out of my comfort zone.  I don’t want to become a cynic and whilst I still feel quite fresh and positive towards a lot of innovations, I also feel that there are going to be one or two things I might feel difficult to remain positive about and enthuse the staff.  When I started teaching, nobody interfered and teachers did what they wanted, which was totally wrong.  Now nobody trusts teachers to do anything.  And somewhere in the middle is where we need to be.”

Henry has felt incredible pressure for the past few years.  “The pupils, the staff, the school are here and the Department of Education and the local authority are there, and in the middle is the head-teacher and it’s crushing.”  In the year leading up to inspection he didn’t sleep for more than three or four hours a night, waking early to make notes of things on his mind.  Then a close friend, a fellow head-teacher of a similar age, had a stroke which left him paralyzed.  “I just thought ‘this has not got to be all my life.'”  His decision is supported by the belief that the school is in a good place for someone else to take forward.  He himself is looking forward to spending more time with his grandson who is, he says, “a certain sort of rewarding little boy.”

Family clearly anchor Henry and stories and thoughts about them leak into much of his everyday conversation.  A father of four, he admits that as a young teacher, he spent too much time with other people’s children and not enough with his own.  “We have a very close family, which I always say is down to my wife.”  Adults now, his children are proud of him and the reputation he holds in the town.

The noise of the fan is audible for a while as I ponder my next question, wanting to phrase it exactly right, true to my beliefs without sounding sycophantic.  When I speak, I sound surprisingly confident – is that voice really mine?  “I have a theory about Rothbury, that it seems to draw people in to be healed.”  “Oooh dear, that’s scary!” Henry interrupts, and I chuckle.  “Maybe.  But think of the parents who started here as volunteers and became dinner ladies, and have gone on to work in school alongside teachers.  And we’ve had staff who are damaged in some way and seem to find healing here.  I think that’s quite a common pattern here, though perhaps people are on different parts of the journey.”  My chair creaks as I shift in it.  “Now, I’m not elevating you to god-like status and saying you’ve done all that, Henry,” – “Good!” he interrupts again – “but there’s something about working in this team, this place that you’ve created, that allows adults and children to heal and grow and become better people.  And those who’ve been unable to do that, who’ve resisted doing that, have moved on.”

There’s a squeak of springs as Henry leans back, considering his answer.  “I don’t deliberately do that and I’d have concerns if I felt someone had issues, that they might not be the best person for the job.”  The pupils are his prime responsibility, he continues, though he takes on responsibility for the welfare of his staff as a factor in that of the children.  He sees it as getting the right balance.  “But maybe it goes back to my experience of coming here as a head-teacher, because there was healing that was clearly needed and people were quite explicit in telling me that.  Maybe it gave me the opportunity to see the positive effects of doing that, and that moulded the way I became as a head-teacher.  I don’t know.”  He is silent for a while, lost in thought.

I return to my list of questions.  What is Henry himself most proud of about his teaching career?  “That I’ve done it for so long and in a way which I and lots of children I’ve worked with have enjoyed.  It makes you proud that you’ve had the opportunity to be in so many peoples’ lives and that they got positive experiences from that.  But there are lots of other things I’m proud of, including working with individual children who were quite challenging, and making breakthroughs and relationships.”

“When I was doing my re-takes at Tech, there was a guy teaching pure maths, Mr King.  He was a bit geeky, but I liked him.  I clearly remember him coming to fetch me from the games room. ‘Come on, Charlton, it’s time to do some pure maths,’ he’d say, and he probably just squeezed me through that A level.  Without which I might not have got into Teaching Training College when the chap from the local authority sent me.  All the way along, if someone hadn’t thrown a lifeline to me, I might still be working on the shop floor at Nestle in Ashbourne.  I’d like to think I wouldn’t, because I’ve got skills and abilities that at some point I’d have recognised and put to good use.  But I have to say that throughout my life, I feel I’ve been incredibly lucky. I really believe that.”

I glance at the clock and see that it’s break time.  “You need to go,” I remind him.  “Do I?” he answers thoughtfully.  “Okay.”  I click off the recorder as Henry makes ready to go out, a man on a mission with children to watch over.  “You’ve said some very nice things today,” he throws back over his shoulder as he leaves the room.  “That’s because you’re a good bloke,” I tell him.  Then I stand and stretch tall in the empty office, before gathering up my equipment and preparing to follow him out of the door.

© Alison Mott

One comment

  1. Brilliant! Brought a tear to my eye at several points, what a top bloke Henry was…
    is and how true your theory is too!


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