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Memories from a Classroom

I used to teach English in a school in Redbridge near London which, though comprehensive, had pretensions to being a grammar school. The English department was meticulous in getting top results, of at least 80% pass rate for its pupils in each exam. I left that school to take up a management position in another comprehensive in Headington, Oxford, which averaged only 32% pass rate for both English and Literature. As the syllabus was familiar, I wasted no time in saying that I could improve the pass rate dramatically. Bad move. I had reckoned without the petty joulousy and prejudice of my colleagues.

For the next 18 months, my life gradually became hell as the children talked about how 'clever' I was, how 'hard and fairly' I marked, and how 'Mrs Sihera knew what she was talking about' while my colleagues sought to disprove that by fear means or foul. It certainly did not endear me to my colleagues one bit. They found as many reasons as possible to find fault with my approach and actions, even complaining about my 'unprofessionalism' to my head of department. As I was also his Head of Year, the situation was rather awkward. Things grew so bad that I almost left teaching but one thing, in particular, kept me there and I determined to prove my point about the schools's underachievement.

In the January of 1987 the weather was bad. I skidded on the icy motorway several times one day trying to get to the school. The headteacher scolded me for coming in that day and told me that he was sending all the children home at break time. English was after break. I thought I would stay anyway to do some work. I usually have 28 pupils in my group.

Maths came before break. I asked one of my group how many were in Maths. She said 7. I smiled sweetly, relishing the two free periods I would have because most of the 7 would be going home, I was sure. I stayed in my office after the bell went, and dawdled a bit, leaving whoever was in the classroom to chatter away. Ten minutes later I slowly made my way to the classroom and opened the door and was shocked by what I saw. 27 pairs of eyes met mine! Only one girl was absent and she had gone home because I was a stickler for collecting homework and she hadn't done hers. They had all come in for my lesson, they said. It brings tears to my eyes every time I remember it.

The final result was even sweeter. I was ill when the exam results came out in the August of that year. I rang up an ally to find out what my class had got and he began with the following unforgettable sentence: "Imagine you are sitting in a field, Elaine, and it is pouring down with rain. However, where you are sitting you are just bathed in sunshine!" I couldn't figure out exactly what he meant until he said "Your group got 80% pass rate in English Language and 86% in Literature. You ought to feel very proud."

Yes, I did, but it was bitter-sweet thinking of all the unnecessary stress involved to get it. And the other top groups? 32% and 34% pass rates respectively. I left the school at the end of 1987, putting two fingers up, having not only proved my point vigorously about teaching methods and the way we treat people, but also having learnt to stand up for my beliefs and personal principles, regardless of costs to myself.

Surprise email
Back to that first school in Redbridge and fast forward to January 2003. I was feeling depressed and miserable one Sunday when I suddenly received an unexpected email from Barbados, with a name I did not immediately recognise. Knowing no one in Barbados, I gave it just a cursory glance at first. It came from a pupil I had taught over 18 years earlier who was, by now, a faded memory, but she still remembered me, big time.

The email said simply, "I am assuming that you are the same Mrs. Sihera who used to teach English at Wanstead High School around 1984/1985. Your picture on the website looks exactly as how I remembered you. I do not know if youll remember me. My name is Donna........ (I think I was the only Black child in your class at the time). I was in your English class for a year, and you took us to see the play: The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole. ....You left Wanstead before I sat my O levels and I never got the opportunity to thank you for all that you did for me while you were there. You helped build my self-confidence; making me truly proud to be Black. Most importantly, I realised that being different did not equal being bad.

Each time I talk about my school days with my family and friends your name is always at the forefront of the conversation. It was only this past Christmas a close friend asked why I didnt try to find you on the Internet and, believe me, I never imagined that it would be so easy. Well, I understand if you do not remember me, as I cannot imagine the number of children you must have taught over the years, but I will always remember you. Thank you, very much for all that you have done and all that you are yet to do."

Needless to say I was very moved and shocked by this email and just cried buckets to realise the effect I had on someone so many years ago. I might have forgotten this routine point in my life, but she hadn't: a classic case of the power of individual perception. Being keen to prove myself in 1985 on the first rung of the management ladder as an assistant year head, focusing on one pupil would not have been a major priority for me then. I went about my business in the knowledge that I was treating every child 'fairly', but to her it was something quite different. I loomed large because there were no other Black successful role models, let alone managers, in her powerful White environment. Without being aware of it, my presence gave her the confidence to believe she too could make it, at a time when she felt her difference was perceived to be negative.

She went on to describe all her achievements since then, which she confidently attributed to my influence, but I wouldnt be so bold as to take any credit. Teaching is a long way back in my memory, even though I enjoyed it tremendously. Yet the most amazing thing for me is that, nearly 20 years on, when I momentarily stopped appreciating myself, others still remembered my value.

About the Author: ELAINE SIHERA (Ms CYPRAH is a British writer, media contributor columnist. The first Black graduate of the OU and a post-graduate of Cambridge University, Elaine is a consultant for Diversity Management, Personal Empowerment and Relationships. An intelligent, confident expert. Elaine is the author of: 10 Easy Steps to Growing Older Disgracefully; 10 Easy Steps to Finding Your Ideal Soulmate!; Money, Sex & Compromise and Managing the Diversity Maze, among others (all available on Also the founder of the British Diversity Awards and the Windrush Achievement Awards.

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