I have been a teacher for 27 years, a Headteacher for 12 years and, at the age of 51, this much I know about Jo Cox’s murder and the worth of public service.
At 5.10 pm last Thursday I was sipping a coffee in the University of York’s Sports Village watching Northern Ireland play football in the European Championships. At the same time, just five hundred yards away, the producers of BBC’s Question Time were deciding to cancel that evening’s episode.
I had a place reserved in the Question Time audience and, with Nicky Morgan on the panel, I felt particularly clever in having crafted a question which combined immigration with our country’s teacher shortage: “Why are so many of our teachers leaving to teach abroad when we have a teacher shortage at home?”
It was a question I was destined not to ask. When the cancellation email pinged into my ’phone it was no surprise and my instinct was to hurry home to my family.
Since Jo Cox’s murder the time has seemed out of joint. I said to my colleagues at yesterday’s staff briefing that should any of our students want to talk about what happened in Birstall the day before, they should explore our school values of Respect, Honesty and Kindness. I asked them to explain why we choose to live by those values at our school and why the world would be a better a place if we all chose to be respectful, honest and kind to each other.
And so this morning, after a difficult week at work, I reflected upon my 28 year career in public service. And I began to count the times I have been assaulted or threatened…
- I was once hit when I was refereeing a football match by an Asian student. He had sworn at me for a decision which went against him, I asked him to leave the pitch and he thumped me in the mouth. I was wrongly accused of being racially motivated, taken to a tribunal and the case was dismissed.
- I was falsely accused by a parent of lunging to strike her son during a meeting with them both; a ridiculous claim considering there was another colleague in the room. After a full investigation, a month later the Governing Body concluded that I had no case to answer.
- I was attacked by a student in my office and saved from being battered by his dad, who fought him instead as I was bundled out of the room by another colleague. That same student turned up late one afternoon when no-one else was around to threaten me. I had to have the police escort me to my car and then serve a Harassment Order on the lad.
- A parent once threatened to break three of my fingers. I have no idea why he was so specific! Luckily he was caught on CCTV and we banned him from coming onto our school premises again.
- At one readmission meeting the excluded student stared down the table at me and said, “It may not be tomorrow, it may not be next week, it may not be next month, but I’ll have you Mr Tomsett, cos you piss me off”. He was Godfatheresque in his sense of calculated menace. His dad said I ought to avoid his son from now on because, “He’ll launch you, Mr Tomsett. He will, for sure, he’ll launch you!” I still have this cartoon image of me airborne, flying horizontal…
- More recently, a parent began swearing at me profusely. When I said I would have to end the meeting and asked him to leave the building, he squared up to me, eye-ball to eye-ball, and laughed with scorn in my face.
I have not published this list to elicit pity. More than anything, I think it surprised me. I don’t consider my job a dangerous one, but the list prompted me to ask the question, Why do people think they can treat teachers, and others who work in state sector jobs, in such an aggressive, disparaging manner?
I think the answer lies in people’s general attitude towards public service workers.
We are all too often openly criticised, by politicians, by inspectors and the media. Teachers have had bad press for decades. And in the same way that Jonathan Freedland identifies the negative, thoughtless stereotyping of politicians as the root cause of the murder of Jo Cox, over the years the portrayal of teachers as feckless, pinko-leftie, holiday-long, pension-rich layabouts, by people who should know better, has helped create the current teacher shortage and the tiny minority of parents and students who assume that they can treat us with contempt.
The parallel between attitudes towards teachers and politicians goes further: it’s maybe worth reflecting that Frances Lawrence, the widow of head teacher Philip Lawrence who was stabbed to death outside his school in 1995, might know, more than any of us, something of what Brendan Cox feels this morning.
Teaching is a selfless profession. Indeed, those of us who work in the state sector – in hospitals, in GP surgeries, in prisons, in council offices, in social services, in policing, in waste disposal depots, in schools, in libraries, in fire-stricken buildings, on battlefields, and, pertinently, in the House of Commons – think about what we can do for others every minute of every working day. We do good work. We are the glue that holds communities together.
Since 2010 there are far fewer of us in the state sector and, consequently, we are all doing more. Our general intention is to make the world a slightly better place for us having been here. Our profit is improving the lives of others. I have never regretted my choice of profession for a moment. I am fiercely proud to be a teacher.
So, maybe it is the time for the narrative to change about the diminishing public sector. Perhaps it is time to celebrate public servants like teachers, nurses, firefighters and politicians. Perhaps, even, it is time to question whether the relentless drive to privatise our public services is a good thing.
And, above all else, perhaps the dreadful events on the streets of a Yorkshire town last Thursday will help the British public realise the worth of all of us who serve them.