Friday, March 19, 2010

Steph Ball 1970-2010

One of my responsibilities at school is that of Professional Mentor to student teachers. That sounds very grand: it isn’t at all but it is one of the best jobs in education as I get to spend time with enthusiastic young people, fresh from college with all the latest subject knowledge at their fingertips. This is how I first came into contact with Steph (“Don’t call me Stephanie”) when she arrived in 2002 as a trainee teacher in the Geography Dept. It was very clear early on that Steph wasn’t quite fitting the stereotype of the Student teacher and that had a lot to do with the fact that she had done a number of things before she came to teaching: she had a very individual approach to her teaching and certainly had an unerring ability to size up teenagers. “Little bugger” was one of her favourites and I remember her returning from one particular lesson quite fraught.

“What’s up Steph?”
“I’ll tell you. I’ve just been paddling in the shallow end of the gene pool.”

You always knew where you stood with Steph.

I didn’t realise at first that Steph was a former student of the school, and when I did mention it I asked whether I had ever taught her.

“Yeah. You were all right you were.” Well, around here that is about as big an accolade as it is possible to give without getting all cissy and in the last week I have heard a lot of such terms applied to Steph in subdued tones by our students:

“She was sound she was.”
“Yeah, she was alright.”
“She was sorted.”

And so she was.

It was clear that one of the things she brought to her teaching, apart from an idiosyncratic approach to administration, was the ability to relate to teenagers and a real gift of humour. Our Headteacher referred last week to her irreverent sense of humour and she certainly had the knack of telling a tale. Not jokes as such, but she had the skill of the story teller: with a little dramatic exaggeration Steph could turn an amusing classroom incident into something that could have you weeping with laughter. Observational humour was her strength.

I have something of a reputation for being a little blunt in the classroom with some of our students. In comparison to Steph I am a rank amateur and this was the advantage of her being a local girl.

“Oy! Just you remember. I know your mother!” and very, very scary down a crowded corridor: “Don’t you forget – I know where your Dad drinks.” I used to have this mental image of some poor bloke going out for a quiet drink and the pub doors bursting open like in a scene from a western and there was Steph the sheriff, like a galleon in full sail come to berate him about his kid’s poor behaviour in Geography.

Steph’s bark was, of course, worse than her bite and beneath her studied cynicism was a very kind a caring teacher and a loyal and supportive colleague. It is evidenced by how many of her students past and present are here today that Steph had an impact for good on those she taught. When we look back on our own school days, who were the teachers we most liked, admired and respected regardless of whether we liked their subject? They were the ones who went the extra mile, who showed that they were decent human being and who showed that they genuinely cared about their students. Steph is in that league of teachers and there is a generation of local young people who have much to thank her for: that she kept them on a tight rein when it came to behaviour management; that she told it as she saw it, quite bluntly in some cases; that she could laugh and joke and keep a happy classroom; that she inspired some very reluctant learners and fostered a real interest in Geography that some took on to university; that she instilled values of fairness and justice and wouldn’t put up with bullying or victimisation while she was standing at the front; that she was unfailingly kind and generous to those she taught – particularly those who were fortunate enough to be in her form group.

And as a colleague? Some of you know that Steph lived just around the corner, about 200m from school but she was unfailingly one of the last to arrive in the morning – often all flustered.

“I tell you! The traffic this morning!”

Steph’s strategy for parking was then very smart: she’d park in the visitor’s spot and if the caretakers caught her, she’d park in the disabled spot. When they got wise to this and threatened to clamp her, she just changed cars and started all over again. After a couple of cycles of this she simply demanded a dedicated parking space.

Steph’s magic food box: there was nothing a hungry teacher might need that Steph couldn’t supply from her mysterious box. I think the rest of us were slow to recognise the potential for challenge here although I suspect the request “Got any caviar Steph?” would have been met by a rummage and a proffered tin. In a previous life I think she may have run a corner shop.

She would probably have appreciated having that box in hospital as she complained that for some strange reason everything came with mashed potatoes: sausage and mash – fair enough, but curry and mash? Pizza and mash? As if!

We learnt quickly never to make eye contact with Steph during staff meetings. Talk about wearing your heart on your sleeve. Well Steph wore her feelings on her face and carefully sat out of the sightline of the Senior Staff! She would also try to put her mates off their stride if they were attempting to deliver a notice and then beam at them with that fabulous smile that said “Go on, try to remember your words now.”

When it came to the sponsored walk she unfailingly got the last and most popular checkpoint and set up with sun-lounger, parasol, cool box and so on. More than one tired, blistered and thirsty child staggered past and was foolish enough to make some comment. “Yeah well, that’s why I’m here and you’re there. That’s life that is. Think on.” She and I were often paired together at Sports Day too – on the High Jump. I was a very good high-jumper in my youth but somehow in the retelling of the story down the years it became Steph who had been a junior Yorkshire High Jump Champion in her youth. It was a little known fact (I’m not even sure that the Yorkshire athletics authority knew) and she feigned modesty about it. She was gentle with the girls but had a unique line in inspirational coaching for the lads on the High Jump. “Get on with it you big girl.” She and I would then have to make a great pretence at conferring as proper track officials do, but that was only because invariably she had set her end of the pole at one height and I had set mine at another. “Just checking you were concentrating.” We were both challenged by the metric system.

We will miss Steph for many things, particularly her vocabulary. No more will we be off for a mooch or be bezzin’ abart; no more being radged or watching out for the nut-job.

I’ve been involved in a number of funerals and on each occasion people have said that their beloved had touched many lives. In my opinion that’s never been as true as it is here today. We can get another Geography teacher but there’ll be a Steph shaped piece missing from our staffroom jigsaw for a long time to come.