IT’s May 1971. Spangles are children’s favourite sweets, orange miniskirts are all the rage and Tony Orlando and Dawn are top of the charts with Knock Three Times.
For Kath Padgett, then a fresh-faced 23 year-old, it also marked the start of her career as a school teacher that now spans more than 45 years. During this time she has fended off all the slings and arrows the profession could hurl at her and she’s chronicled some of her early experiences as a secondary school teacher in Wakefield in her new book, Are you strong, lass?
Mention the education system in England during the 1970s to some people and it conjures images of dilapidated sports equipment and beige, soggy dinners. But for Padgett it was also an exhilarating, albeit it challenging, experience.
Otley-born Padgett, who grew up in the West Yorkshire market town, says teaching was something she wanted to do from as far back as she cares to remember. “I used to make up pretend classes and even had pretend registers so I knew I wanted to be a teacher,” she says.
Having studied French at Warwick University she returned to do her teacher training in Leeds. After completing this she took a job teaching French and games at a school in Wakefield.
“Teaching was the thing to do back then, especially for married women and I’d just got married a couple of months earlier. There were a lot of new education initiatives and teaching was seen as a really good career,” she says.
Padgett was one of the first of a new breed of graduate teachers which created a bit of tension in the staff room to begin with. “We took a bit of stick for it because they thought that we thought we were better than them, which of course we didn’t.”
Her book doesn’t look back at this period through rose-tinted glasses, nor does she try and put a gloss on what could often be a demanding job.
“It was a mixture of confusion, fear and wonderment because for all the training you didn’t know what to expect,” she says. “It was a life of contrasts and challenges. You had high ability kids and low ability kids and you experienced both joy and despair.”
Padgett started out at an estate school where most of the children came from working class families. “It was a hard school where I taught, so anything you achieved with the children you really had achieved. The kids weren’t spoon fed at home and given hundreds of books to read or taken off to museums all the time.”
She recalls taking a group of children on a field trip to the Normandy beaches where less than 30 years earlier the fate of Europe had been decided. “Some of the kids had never been out of Yorkshire never mind to France. We saw the Sherman tanks on the beach and they loved it.”
If trips like this were a highlight, there was no shortage of low points. “Sometimes you knew you had a few kids sitting in front of you who came from deprived backgrounds and were unlikely to make anything of their life and you couldn’t do anything about it.
“I remember in my very first week one of the teachers telling me that, not in a dismissive way but just as a note of caution. And they were right because the cards were stacked so heavily against some kids. We got through to some but others we couldn’t and I found that hard to deal with.”
Padgett has taught at Yorkshire schools throughout her career during which she’s seen education diktats come and go and curriculums and teaching methods change. “Teaching has got more bureaucratic and target-based,” she says.
“It’s a lot more regimented. We always worked to a syllabus but you could bring in some of your own ideas and a bit of spontaneity. Whereas I feel today teachers are more nose to the grindstone and they have to be on a certain page by a certain date.”
Health and safety is another consideration that teachers didn’t have to contend with to anywhere near the same extent as they do now. “We had none of that. You went on a school trip and that was it.”
But while the job, and the demands that go with it, may have changed she’s not convinced children necessarily have. “Pupils, although some people will disagree with me, are essentially still the same. I think the extraneous circumstances change and what is expected of them, but deep down they don’t change. You still get the same range of characters in a classroom that you used to.”
However, she believes children are less inclined to stand out than they were 30 or 40 years ago and that teachers, too, have become more guarded in today’s increasingly litigious climate. “I think it’s more difficult being a teacher today, they have a hard job.”
Nevertheless, she believes a good teacher remains crucially important. “You can have as many ipads as you like, but if you haven’t got a good teacher your subject won’t inspire children. To me, a good teacher is inspirational. Computers have their place and they’re a very useful resource but they can’t replace a great teacher,” she says.
“A lot of people think teachers just stand in front of a class and talk and the children all sit there quietly and listen and it’s nothing like that. Teaching is a hard job if you do it properly.”
Which is why she feels it deserves greater kudos in this country. “The profile of teaching needs raising. It used to grieve me that we didn’t have more people going into teaching.
“There’s perhaps more now and I think Teach First [an initiative to recruit graduates to teach in deprived areas] has been good. But thirty years ago teaching was looked down on a bit. Everyone was rushing off to study law, or finance, or medicine, and teaching wasn’t rated.”
Padgett, who turns 70 next year, still does bits and pieces of teaching and from time to time is stopped in the street by former pupils. “They still call me ‘miss’ which makes me laugh,” she says.
There have been other fringe benefits, too. “I’ve had free buses rides into town, I’ve had my shoes mended for nothing... all sorts of things.”
There are few professions outside of sport, or the fickle world of celebrity, where you get such public thanks for doing a good job. “I take my hat off to teachers. You get poor teachers just like you get poor doctors, or poor lawyers or journalists, but kids know who the good teachers are and the fair ones. So it’s nice when they thank you, it’s like you’re getting a return on your investment.”
It’s why she looks back on her career with fondness. “It was tough. I laughed and I cried in equal measure in those first few years. But it was a wonderful experience and I felt that I made a difference... I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.”
Are you strong, lass? is out now priced £13.99. For more details contact Scratching Shed Publishing on 0113 225 9797.
Lessons in the art of ‘tough love’
At her very first job interview after graduating Kath Padgett was asked, “Are you strong, lass? You’ll need to be to work in this school.”
However, Kath says teaching was a rewarding experience. “There was a lot of bad language and they could be hard to control, especially in the lower bands. But having said they were very loyal in a funny sort of way.
“I remember a lad joined us from London who had a strong cockney accent and some of the boys felt he was trying to upset me and told him to back off, as if to say ‘if anyone’s going to rattle her cage, it’s us.’ So that was a kind of backhanded compliment in a way.
“It was tough love. You couldn’t be too strict or too lenient but once you had their respect they were loyal, rewarding kids.”