Saying goodbye…how one student changed me as a teacher

imageI’ll be honest, I’m writing this with tears in my eyes and often falling. I’m torn between feeling the need to write, and wondering if it is somehow inappropriate. I hope you’ll bear with me.

This morning a former student of mine named Elliott died from cancer. He was just 19. I taught him for four years and first met him when he was in Year 8 and I was starting my NQT year. He was in the bottom set. All boys. A sink group some say. They were difficult. Obviously I was new so would say that anyway, but there were some real characters known across the school. Elliott wasn’t one of those. He wasn’t a ‘naughty boy’. He faced massive challenges. His mum had suddenly died the year before. No dad either. He suffered from Neurofibromatosis and as a result was only partially sighted, had difficulties with writing and comprehension, and wasn’t always too steady on his feet. But…he always had a go. I don’t believe I ever heard him complain. He took life as it was, and just got on. Didn’t ask for special treatment or expect it.

Elliott changed me as a teacher, and probably didn’t ever realise quite how much. It was November of my NQT year and I was really struggling with this class. One day I remember blurting out something like ‘why won’t you all just give me a chance, I’m trying to help’ and his response will stay with me forever: ‘what’s the point of us getting to know you Miss, you’ll only leave us like everyone else does’. It cut me to the core. The sense of abandonment that a lot of the kids had. Either physical abandonment of people leaving (including a high turnover of staff I guess!) or perhaps apathetic abandonment – of teachers assuming these kids would never amount to anything anyway and so not pushing them or trying their best. It changed me. Made me realise I wanted to work where I was really needed. Wanted to give kids a chance. Wanted to not give up on them.

By February I had the class onside. They realised I wasn’t going anywhere. We had fun. We shared. I learned lots about their experiences too. We had good discussions. They weren’t angels but we made progress and they did well. They respected me and we had each other’s backs – they knew I would support them, and equally they supported me. I remember one time when a new lad joined the class who was quite violent. We got off to a bad start when he took offence at me asking him to not damage another child’s book and when he stormed out of the room he pushed me into the filing cabinets. The reaction of the rest of the boys was protectiveness of me, and Elliott stood there saying ‘you better apologise to Miss, she’s our Miss, and you’ll have to answer to us otherwise’! This from a lad with tumours growing in his fragile body bless him! (Obviously I did talk to them about threatening language but you get what I mean!)

One lad changed my attitude to teaching and my way of dealing with situations. I look for reasons more, try to find solutions (not excuses), I don’t give up straight away on what looks hopeless. He wasn’t a naughty lad, but he had an influence on them. The toughest kids respected him. And seeing the comments on the news and Facebook in memory of him today shows that he made a difference to a lot of people. One comment really tugged at me where Elliott had said he wished he had had a talent. Heartbreaking. He did. His talent was being Elliott, a brave young man who didn’t complain and just had a go despite everything. Can’t ask for a better talent than that. Thank you.

“The greatest battle is not physical but psychological. The demons telling us to give up when we push ourselves to the limit can never be silenced for good. They must always be answered by the quiet, the steady dignity that simply refuses to give in. Courage. We all suffer. Keep going.” (Graeme Fife)

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