“Jeremy, it’s late. Put that away and come to bed.”
“I won’t be long Jen. I just want to rewrite this section.”
“Sometimes I wonder whether it’s worth all this. You’ve been working like this forever.”
“It has to be done if I’m ever going to get ahead. I can do a good job as an executive, it’s a chance to make a real difference, and it’s the only way I’m ever going to make decent money.”
“But you’re making a mess of yourself now!”
“That’s the way it works. It won’t last forever.”
The seriousness with which Jeremy faced the promotions exercise surpassed determination, to become almost an obsession. Undoubtedly his teaching suffered and the sense of humour which had always helped him to retain some perspective in the significant events of his life, had all but deserted Jeremy. Had it not been for some levity created by his students themselves, Mayhew might well have fallen into the abyss of self-indulgence which yawned before him.
It had been a very hot and very tiring day. At two-fifteen in the afternoon the children and their teacher sweltered in an airless classroom. There was an insistent knock at the door and Jeremy turned to find a man, small in stature, but formidable in presence, dressed in a charcoal grey suit. It was obvious to Mayhew that this was Chris Taylor’s father. His dark hair and eyes and diminutive appearance meant that he had to be Chris’ dad. She was dark too, and tiny. He must want to pick her up early, Jeremy thought.
As the teacher turned, the figure entered the room, thrust a hand forward in greeting, and in a voice strong enough to vibrate the oppressive atmosphere, introduced himself as Pat O’Leary, District Inspector!
From the students there was an instantaneous burst of giggling which Mayhew quelled with a glare. He knew there and then that his chances for success in the upcoming inspection had been dashed. Not only did he look an absolute mess, with his tie at half-mast, the two top buttons of his shirt undone and his shoulder-length hair matted with perspiration, but his kids had laughed at The Inspector! Shattered, Jeremy swallowed hard, mumbled some sort of welcome and, with his head spinning, exchanged pleasantries for a couple of minutes until, with as much vigour as he had entered, The Inspector departed.
Whirling to face the now silent class Jeremy demanded to know the meaning of their outburst.
“How dare you laugh like that at a visitor? What do you think you were up to?”
“Sir, we weren’t laughing at Mr O’Leary. We were laughing at you. You went all white all of a sudden. You looked like you’d seen a ghost.”
At that point, Jeremy’s lost perspective began to return and he was unable to suppress a grin. Jeremy endured the inquisition, and failed. Pat informed him that he was “a bright lad with potential, but a little young just yet”. Mayhew translated that into ” a bit of a smart-arse with an inflated ego and too immature just yet”. Even then Jeremy thought that O’Leary was probably right, and, years later, when considering the experience, Jeremy was sure that the inspector’s assessment had been accurate.
As it turned out the decision was probably a fortuitous one since O’Leary, who subsequently found Mayhew satisfactory for promotion two years later, informed Jeremy at the conclusion of his successful second inspection, that he had in fact been ineligible to apply for promotion in the first instance because of his insufficient years of service. Someone had got their sums wrong, but it hadn’t been Jeremy.
The second inspection was also a somewhat stressful affair. Jeremy had elected to preserve his marriage and sanity by trying to live as normal a life as possible, and in this he largely succeeded, but several members of staff were to be inspected simultaneously and the ordeal had drawn out for the four days leading up to Good Friday. Mayhew was confident. His classroom looked impressive. Every square centimetre of wall space was covered with something that could be passed off as students’ work, stuff was hanging from the ceiling, every “i” was dotted and every “t” crossed. Jeremy had jumped through all the prescribed hoops and, besides, O’Leary wasn’t going to knock him back a second time – was he?
Each of the candidates anticipated a result prior to Easter, allowing them to rejoice or lick their wounds during the long break, but no decision was forthcoming and they all agonised for the next eight days. You may wonder what effect all this had on their students. An over-stressed teacher would surely not be the most amicable person in the world.
Inspectors were, on the whole, an interesting lot. Few were admired and respected, most were eyed with suspicion, fawned upon whilst being privately despised, but there were many “characters” among them.
Justin Thyme was just such a character. Renowned for his penchant for demanding that teachers open each classroom window to a height of precisely fifteen centimetres, he was reputed to have foiled teachers in their quest for promotion because their stationery was not suitably organised in their desk drawers. Justin was enjoying the fading years of his career by making teachers’ lives miserable.
Pat O’Leary had invited Mayhew to join him in a small discussion group which was to be led by Dr Edward DeBono, the creator of an original approach to the teaching of thinking skills and a personality of outstanding reputation world wide. There were about seven of them in the group, and the discussion was to be video-taped for later showing to other teacher groups.
DeBono challenged each participant to reconsider many ideas about the ways in which people think and learn, and his words generated much lively discussion, with six of the seven participants most actively involved. Their seventh colleague, however, had nodded off shortly after the camera had started to roll. Grey hair tousled, arms folded across his chest, he was not quite snoring.
The debate continued vigorously around him until, in the midst of a brief period of silence, as all pondered a vexing point raised by the speaker, the grey-haired figure suddenly roused itself and, in a most self-important manner, proposed his answer to the question which we had dealt with some ten minutes before.
The ensuing silence was crushing as each member of the group tried to think of some way of easing their collective embarrassment. Justin Thyme was one of the education system’s senior management staff, and he had just made fools of them all! Shades of day one at the Hunter Region Teachers’ College. How could it be, Jeremy wondered, that these incompetents could remain operative and destructive within the system?
In the mid-seventies, with mixed feelings, Mayhew left Western. He’d had more than enough of Frank Gordon, and he was in need of a change of scene, but Jeremy had been fortunate to have worked with some outstanding teachers and he had gained great satisfaction and increased insight into human nature through working with these alleged “disadvantaged kids”.
There had been some remarkable characters among them and memories of these special kids were later to sustain Jeremy through some very trying times.
Schultzy was a “little bastard” who had endured two consecutive years in Mayhew’s class. Given to stealing anything which wasn’t bolted to the ground, and with an unfortunate tendency to thump anyone who stood in his way, he had some difficulty in learning and in getting along with people. He presented an enormous challenge, but the work was worth it when, in August of the second year, Jeremy was able to see Schultz play the leading role, albeit as a villain, in a melodrama which his class presented at a regional cultural festival.
Schultzy went on to high school and his behaviour reverted, but when Jenni Mayhew, in the course of her business, met him some years later, he was happily married and raising a family of his own.
Jeremy considered himself fortunate, also, to have been able to follow the progress of some of these kids over the years. Cheryl had been an outstanding student. Her family had moved to Maitland when she finished primary school and her academic success continued. Cheryl and her dad dropped in at the Mayhews’ one day, on the way to a pop concert in Sydney, to say hello and to tell them of her continued success. Jeremy felt more than a little pride on that occasion.
Gary had been in the same class as Cheryl, and was an equally gifted student. He appeared one day some twelve years later at the door of Mayhew’s office, introduced by the clerical aide as Detective Constable Seaton. Taller than Jeremy, and a good deal heavier too, Gary was investigating the most recent break-and-enter which Mayhew’s school had suffered. Over a cup of coffee they exchanged recent histories, and when he left, Jeremy had the distinct impression that Gary was pleased that they had met again. Mayhew himself was pleased indeed.
He later had the pleasure, too, of having as a colleague, a young woman who had been a student in his last class at Western. Johanna had been an excellent student and, as an adult, she proved to be a gifted and highly successful teacher. These, perhaps, are the true rewards of teaching. They do compensate, at least in part, for the scandalously poor salary and the less than ideal working conditions.
- THE ROT SETS IN …
From Western, Mayhew transferred to Meadows Avenue Public School, only ten minutes travel from home. Although he was to remain for only two years, this was to be an important period in his professional life. It was here that he encountered Bill Sutherland, and learnt what would prove to be three important lessons.
Bill was arguably the wisest principal with whom Jeremy would ever work. His was a wisdom born of experience and insight. He understood human nature remarkably well, but more than this he had a true understanding of himself.
They had arrived at Meadows together, the old hand and the young. It was Bill’s first school as principal. He had never been one for playing the promotions game according to their rules and thus had achieved high status rather late in life. Generous and considerate, he taught Jeremy much which Mayhew could not acknowledge until well after the lessons.
Bill had played Rugby League, representing N.S.W. Country, and his visage bore the marks of his travels. With a flattened nose, greying red hair and freckled complexion he was the most unlikely-looking principal you could imagine. This, he explained, was the sole reason for his habit of always wearing a tie. He reasoned that without it, and given his appearance, people would probably think that he was in the office to repair the phone.
He was there one day when Jeremy was accosted by a very irate parent in the hallway just outside the staffroom door. She was yelling and Mayhew was trying vainly to answer her attack, achieving nothing and feeling foolish. Bill sat in the office and waited until he could be sure that Jeremy was not going to manage by himself and then he intervened, quietly and calmly steering the woman towards his office door and leaving the teacher standing nonplussed in the corridor.
Later, when they were alone, Bill told Jeremy where he had gone wrong. “Always let them yell and scream until they’ve let off steam, then make your point when things are quiet.” Lesson one.
The deputy principal, Chester Brien, was nearing retirement and, in Jeremy’s view was doing little more than turning up each day and collecting his cheque at the end of each fortnight, leaving it to Bill and to Jeremy to ensure that Chester’s duties were actually carried out.
The younger man was complaining of this to his boss one day. Bill’s reply was difficult to accept at the time, although the wisdom of his words was to become very real later on. “Chester would have been an excellent teacher in his younger days, and he’d have done his job well, but this system knocks you about and you can become very disillusioned. We have to accept that Chester has done his best and allow him a bit of leeway now.” Lesson two, and prophetic words which would come back to haunt Jeremy many times.
Cathy had decided to resign. She could make more money selling Amway. Although morning assembly at the school was held at nine o’clock, Cathy would roll in at any time after nine, often collecting her class from a colleague who had been supervising two groups for ten minutes, and proceed to fill in the day. Mayhew asked Bill why he did nothing about this. “I always try to look at what I might achieve before I do anything. With Cathy, I can have a piece of her for being late every day and achieve nothing except to make the situation worse. She has nothing to lose but we do. I only fight the battles which I have some chance of winning. You have to learn to cut your losses.” Lesson three.
Jeremy had been tested professionally and found suitable, in fact more than suitable. The word passed that here was a bright young chap on his way up – and so he was. Unfortunately, although it had been determined that Jeremy was eminently capable of handling the job which constituted the first rung on the executive ladder, the ladder was extremely long and very crowded. Three years had passed and the young man remained unpromoted.
The frustration was becoming unbearable. This motivated Jeremy to follow a course of action which would forever remain the only aspect of Mayhew’s life as a teacher of which he was truly ashamed.
Jeremy was in his second year at his third school, Greenway Primary, another south-western Sydney appointment. Since there had been few deaths and resignations amongst those who clung to the ladder above him, Mayhew’s application for appointment to an executive position had again proved fruitless at the end of the previous year, a period which in itself had been unremarkable except for some apparently innocuous but significant occurrences. These included an hilarious but disturbing school assembly and one memorable staff meeting.
Greenway’s Deputy Principal, Clyde Meadows, was in his mid-fifties and, although experienced, was less than capable of fulfilling his role. He was responsible for student behaviour, or, more precisely, for responding to unsatisfactory student behaviour. His methods were ineffectual, as evidenced by the negative conduct continually displayed by a small number of students. The fact that they were able to verbally abuse Meadows himself, with apparent impunity, reflected poorly upon the deputy and created problems for classroom teachers who needed support in managing the more extreme students.
That Meadows was incompetent was apparent to all – students, staff and parents. That nothing was ever done to address the problem was a disgrace.
His ineptitude was never more clearly displayed than at the “very important assembly”. The District Inspector of Schools was visiting, and asked if he could attend the school’s weekly assembly. Clyde was anxious to make a positive impression upon the Inspector, and he had duly warned all students to wear their school uniforms, and had reminded them to be “on their best behaviour”.
Greenway’s weekly assemblies took place on Thursdays. Nearly seven hundred children, resplendent in their yellow and brown uniforms, squeezed into the school hall. In apparent response to Clyde’s request for “full school uniform”, almost all of the the girls had worn their yellow and brown checked tunics, while most of the boys were dressed in yellow shirts and brown shorts. All in all, a very good turn-out.
Clyde stood upon the stage, a raised platform bordered by broad steps, which gave an excellent view of the multitude. Classes filed in, accompanied by their teachers and some visiting parents, and duly stood on the polished wooden floor, awaiting the playing and singing of the National Anthem. As usual, there was the soft buzz of muted conversation and some small movement. The school principal, accompanied by the District Inspector, entered the hall and took their places on the stage. Clyde waited for some moments, anticipating the usual hush as the audience realised that assembly was about to begin.
Having a special visitor had created more then the usual amount of excitement amongst the students, and the buzz continued for longer than was normal. Clyde interevened. He tapped the microphone to check that it was working, and his voice penetrated the hall. The buzz died almost immediately, but one or two students were still restless. Clyde was pleased that his authority had been so quickly recognised. It didn’t often happen like this. The Inspector could not help but be impressed. Those boys were still unsteady though.
Perhaps buoyed by the unaccustomed reverence paid to him by his audience, Clyde spoke again: “That boy in the yellow shirt – stop fiddling and face the front!”
The next few seconds seemed to pass as if in slow motion. A teacher put her hand to her mouth and quietly stole out of the building. Another turned away and faced the wall. Two others, standing side-by-side, faced each other and struggled to stifle laughs. Several parents mumbled something and a number of senior girls giggled softly. More than three hundred yellow-shirted boys each stood wondering if Mr Meadows had been talking to him.
Gradually the buzz reappeared and embarrassed teachers moved among their students with whispered instructions restoring calm. Clyde appeared confused by the reaction to his last instruction, but barked a demand for silence and moved on, seemingly unaware of the fact that he had made a complete fool of himself.
The Principal, known to all as The Owl, flushed red and avoided eye contact with the Inspector. The Inspector himself was a very experienced palyer within the system, and nothing much surprised him, but he clearly had some difficulty preventing himself from breaking into laughter.
The Owl became the centre of his own controversy later that year, but the incident was one which brought home to Mayhew some important truths which would influence his management of teachers throughout the rest of his career. Had Jeremy applied these truths to managing himself as well, the later events which were to almost destroy his life, might never have occurred.
During a staff meeting The Owl had berated the entire staff in the strongest terms for their lack of dedication and professionalism, evidenced, he said, by their failure to spend an entire Saturday at the school fete. His tirade was drawn to an abrupt halt by the youngest member of staff who politely informed the man that she “worked to live”, and that she didn’t “live to work” – from the mouths of babes! A strange fellow, the Owl, and a true product of the system. He wasn’t missed when he retired at the year’s end to be replaced by the Gramophone.
The Gramophone, a suitable alias for the school’s new principal, was several years away from retirement. Greenway had looked to be just the place to spend the twilight of his career. The demographics appeared right – no Housing Comission families, reasonable “middle-class” community – and the physical environment was pleasant.
However, he reckoned without Clyde Meadows. A gradually-retiring principal really needed the support of a strong, efficient and effective deputy if he was to avoid the hard work of running a school. Gramophone had envisaged for himself, a few years of morning and afternoon teas with significant community members or departmental officials, a little administrative work, and some public relations activities. Clyde would simply not do.
Gramophone struck upon a cunning solution. Rather than deal with the Meadows problem, he side-stepped the issue by enlisting the unpaid services of four senior teachers, one of whom was Mayhew.
Anne King, an accomplished and committed teacher, Bruce Avery, an extremely unconventional and talented educator who was later to die tragically from a heart attack in his early forties, and Jim Miller, destined to leave the public system and become a brilliantly successful principal in the Catholic system, joined Mayhew in what the principal chose to call his “extended executive”. Each of these teachers was waiting on the ladder for a promotion. Each had gained placement on the first promotions list, and each of the other three was experiencing the same frustrations as Mayhew.
By disguising the “extended-executive” as a staff development exercise, Gramophone actually created for himself, four junior executive members whose tasks were to counter the ineptitude of Clyde Meadows and make life easier for the principal. Gramophone, thus released from mundane educational concerns, was able to spend much time and energy in the writing and giving of interminable speeches, the consumption of tea and scones, and the fostering of community relationships with schools in a foreign land. He organised exchange visits and even gave up his time to visit the “sister city” himself.
Jeremy learned later that, following Gramophone’s official retirement, the former Greenway principal was able to establish and manage a successful business conducting tours to that same foreign city.
But we digress.
The year had begun well. Jeremy and Anne King were operating most effectively in a co-operative teaching situation with their twin sixth grade classes. Anne was possessed of great insight into the needs of students, and her organisational abilites provided the ideal foil to Mayhew’s creative drive. The kids were great, the teaching programme was working particularly well, and they anticipated a most enjoyable year together. Jeremy was managing to accommodate the frustration of waiting for a promotions position to become available. His conscription into a quasi-executive role, in the company of his outstanding young colleagues, provided a just sufficient outlet for his expertise in working with troubled students.
It was then that the workings of the system created a most peculiar situation which was to prove advantageous, in one sense, for Mayhew.
It seems that the assistant principal of the infants department at a nearby school had taken maternity leave. It is common practice in schools to replace an absent executive with an experienced non-executive person but, since all others members of staff at that school were very young and inexperienced teachers, it was decided that a replacement for the absent assistant principal would be recruited from another school.Greenway’s infants department was blessed with the services of a very capable young lady who was reputed to have a bright future in the system. It was decided that Mrs Kimberley would leave Greenway temporarily and take up the relieving position.
This meant that Mrs Kimberley’s executive position at Greenway would need to be filled. Jeremy, having satisfied an Inspector of his teaching abilities, was eligible to apply. He knew that this was a way in which he could display his executive abilities before the Inspector who would, later that year, assess him for placement on the second promotions list. This strategy had been chosen since it was the only way in which young people could climb the seniority ladder without having to wait for years for an executive job to become vacant. If he were successful in gaining placement on the second promotions list, Jeremy could leap-frog all of those above him on the first list, and perhaps obtain a job for which first list teachers were qualified. The process was somewhat akin to becoming qualified as a king in order to get a job as a prince.
There were some astonished faces when it was revealed that Jeremy had applied for the vacant position as the acting infants executive member. It was not unheard of for male teachers to work in infants schools, but it was rare. The younger classes were generally considered to be the domain of female teachers alone. The Gramophone, though, was excited by the prospect of having something “revolutionary” happening under his leadership, and happily supported Mayhew’s application.
It didn’t take long for Jeremy to realise that, while he wasn’t completely out of his depth, his feet were barely touching bottom when it came to working with seven year olds. The challenges which these kids presented were very different from those provided by disaffected twelve year olds. However, Jeremy was lucky. His small team of teachers was characterised by ability, enthusiasm and experience and they took a shine to Jeremy. Perhaps he appeared as a helpless male in a female world, or perhaps he had the respect of these colleagues who could assess his ability and understand his motivation.
Despite his lack of experience in teaching such young people, he was a good manager who took account of the strengths of his team members, provided support and encouragement and in a very real sense, promoted a spirit of co-operation.
Mayhew was inspected for promotion during the period of his leadership. There were undoubtedly “holes” in his teaching which were big enough to drive a truck through, but his team’s support was sufficient to minimise any adverse effects upon his performance for the Inspector. Jeremy knew, when he was finally told of his success, that the young women who had supported him so strongly, were more than entitled to share in that success.
As had happened following his first successful inspection for promotion, Mayhew found that he was totally drained of energy by the stresses created by the inspection. When Mrs Kimberley returned to reclaim her students several weeks later, she was just in time to recue them from Jeremy’s exhausted hands.
Jeremy returned to his twelve-year-olds, and his feeling of exhaustion paled into insignificance when compared to the dismay which then overwhelmed him.
During his stint as infants’ executive, his own class had been supervised by a casual teacher. This person was totally unsuited to the task. Anne had been unable to continue with the team situation which she and Jeremy had established. She did not have the energy to manage sixty-five students alone, and so it was necessary for her to take her own class, close her classroom door and get on with the job of teaching while, through the wall, she could hear the chaos which was going on under the supervision of the casual teacher. Anne’s notifications to the Gramophone fell on deaf ears. Either the principal could, or would, find no fault with the casual teacher, or he couldn’t be bothered finding a suitable replacement for her.
The sense of independence and the feeling of self-confidence which these students had begun to develop earlier in the year had been shattered. Even those students who had demonstated the most positive attitudes, struggled to maintain their self-esteem, having lived with constant, barking criticism during these months.
Jeremy experienced emotions ranging from fierce anger to deep sorrow, but his strongest feeling was one of shame. He knew that it was his decision to seek to accelerate his promotion which had brought this about. Had he not sought the relieving executive position in the infants’ department, these students would not have had their final year of primary school utterly destroyed. Worse still, he didn’t believe that he had the energy to repair the damage.
For Mayhew, what might have been a year of triumph ended as a year of self-recrimination and regret. The enormous effort which had impacted upon his family, again, seemed almost wasted. This was a turning point in Jeremy’s career, and in his life.