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Portfolio Education Interview

Top of the class

Paris Gourtsoyannis Staff Reporter

The UK Teacher of the Year offers a window onto the challenges facing teachers at a fraught time for the profession

In the lobby of St Elizabeth’s Primary School in Hamilton, there are shelves, set just low enough for the pupils to appreciate the trophies and medals from competitions and sports events that any other school would proudly display. One bauble on the shelf however won’t be found anywhere else in the country; it reads ‘Teacher of the Year 2011’, and when its winner walks into the school’s meeting room after classes have ended for the day, she’s carrying a bunch of flowers thrust at her by a parent at the school gates. “Personally, I’m very overwhelmed,” says Christine Emmett. “Very overwhelmed and very uncomfortable with it, really, because I feel that it’s for everybody. OK, I’ll carry the award, but as I say to everyone, I’ve got a massive army behind [me]. I’m not superwoman,” she says, not for the last time. “Te school is fantastic – and South Lanarkshire Council as well, they’ve been fantastic. Tey’re a great authority to work for; they give us plenty of opportunities and give me plenty of leeway. I get away with murder, I most certainly do.” Emmett was nominated by a boy in one of the P5 and P6 classes that she teaches, and she collected the gong at an awards ceremony in London at the end of October. “Before I knew it, I was on the stage beside Vivienne Westwood – that was wonderful,” Emmett says. Te students themselves have good reason to be excited at Emmett’s award: today, they’ve had a party funded by the community to celebrate. “Crisps and juice, and a walk around the school – you’d think you’d given them a million dollars!” It will be a few years yet before any of

Emmett’s current pupils prove the adage that great teachers inspire the next generation to teach, but she is proof enough of that received wisdom herself. “I grew up in Glasgow and loved my Primary 1 teacher, I still often think

UK Teacher of the Year Christine Emmett right meets Prime Minister David Cameron at Downing Street

about her. I later moved onto a housing scheme at Castlemilk, and in Primary 7 had a teacher called Mrs O’Donnell, and by chance after teacher training I had a placement in a local Hamilton primary school and teaching next to me was Mrs O’Donnell. It was lovely for both of us. Sadly, she’s passed on, but both those teachers were fantastic because they just loved me and supported me. I wanted to be like them. So I worked hard to do that.” Emmett repeatedly returns to the idea of

“At the end of the day, whether you can add up two and two is not as important as whether you’re happy, are you fed, do you want to come to school”

pastoral care as a priority in the classroom, even before educational attainment. “Your teacher values you, respects you and loves you, just loves you. Tey want the best for you. Tey know your strengths and weaknesses, and understand that everyone does things differently, but they try and find the person’s strengths and weaknesses and do the best with them.” Te standard and importance of pastoral care

in parochial schools is what Emmett credits for their relative success and desirability to parents, and particularly Catholic schools like St Elizabeth’s. “Te ethos of a Catholic school is special, but you can’t quantify it. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate can’t even quantify it. How can you quantify it? I think it’s just faith-based pastoral care for everyone, no matter where they come from. Tere’s a very caring and pastoral approach to everything. Our school certainly puts that message over whether it’s work, play, pastorally, counselling. “We’ve got a lot of children that need a lot of support. At the end of the day, whether you can add up two and two is not as important as whether you’re happy, are you fed, do you want to come to school. It’s a loving caring environment and I think if you’ve got love and care and respect, if you can provide a bit of

safety and security for that child, if you show the child that you care for them – that’s what’s important.” Having taught for 27 years, Emmett doesn’t hesitate in agreeing that her job now is vastly different from the profession she trained for – and more challenging. “I think teaching is more difficult now because it’s much less prescriptive. Nothing was wrong with a prescriptive

28 November 2011 45

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