‘He breaks the silence after I give the class a telling off: “You’re on fire today, aren’t you?”'

The Secret Teacher: In the context of happiness and the quality of relationships, youngsters like Jack are a godsend

Jack may be small for his age but the sheer force of personality he brings to everything he says and does means he never fails to get noticed first. I was once giving the class a very serious and overdue telling off and paused for a moment of serious reflection. He ensured that didn’t happen by filling my meaningful silence with, “You’re on fire today, aren’t you?”

Plenty of teachers would report Jack for that and ensure that he got punished. For what? Being disrespectful when it genuinely sounded like a compliment? He most definitely didn’t interrupt me, as I had created the gap and gifted him – or indeed anyone else – an opportunity to speak. I am not rigid about my students putting their hands up before they speak, as I don’t deal with raucous groups and avoid tasks and activities which amount to the whole class just sitting listening.

My main reason for not being remotely annoyed at Jack is that his remark made Aoibheann’s face light up with the biggest, and perhaps the only, smile I had seen all year. Like the rest of us, she just couldn’t help it. Aoibheann is by far the quietest girl I have ever taught and she has yet to volunteer and answer in class. She is highly diligent so will always answer when asked, but never audibly. She reddens so much that I know she would prefer I leave her be, so I only ask her sparingly and hope that she understands that sometimes I must. I will be eternally grateful to Jack for raising that smile, as in doing so he achieved something way beyond my range of ability.

Yesterday marked the International Day of Happiness and research consistently ranks the quality of our relationships as critical for happiness. Schooldays involve sharing a space with the same others day in, day out for a whole academic year. We will never be friends with everyone we encounter there, but through the sheer volume of time spent in each other’s company, we most definitely have relationships with a very large number. It is easy for us, as the adults responsible for keeping order and ensuring that the material gets covered, to lose sight of the need to allow time for nurturing positive relationships among the youngsters in our charge. All the successful grades in the world won’t fill their happiness quota the way connection with their peers can. Connection with teachers goes a very long way too.


Ryan is in my first-year cohort and if he finishes secondary he will be the first of his family to do so. I don’t know much about his primary schooling but he doesn’t seem to have spent much time with a pencil in his hand. From the little he tells me, I suspect he was forever being given jobs to keep him on the move – and out of the way. How he observes the others betrays his curiosity about learning, but I am reluctant to push my luck in case I scare him off.

He never brings a schoolbag so I am not sure he has one, but he values the book, copy and pen that I have on the corner of my desk ready for him to use. He is always the first to arrive and usually has sweets or chocolate to offer me. I don’t like any of the ones he chooses, but I have yet to refuse to take one. It matters to him that I take one in exactly the same way as it matters to me that he plays along in my class and does not spend the time disrupting everyone else.

Sarah told me that being separated from those who had deliberately excluded her in primary school had only exacerbated her anxiety

Sarah may be both well adjusted and well integrated now but her anxiety was evident when she started secondary. She needed the fresh start and had been assured that those from her primary school who had excluded her would be placed in a different class group. But this meant being apart from the only people she knew, which brought different and unexpected challenges. To her parents’ dismay, what had been expected to be a really happy time and a whole new beginning marked instead a significant period of school refusal. It was only recently that Sarah, now in transition year, told me that being separated from those who had deliberately excluded her in primary school had only exacerbated her anxiety.

She had swapped a familiar challenge, one she had become accustomed to living with, for a host of additional worries. Starting secondary was in itself one big thing she had to contend with, and by requesting that she be separated from those girls, she had added new worries around what other people would think about her being the only one from that primary school in a different class. The fear that the other girls would blacken her name in their class added to her woes, as did the fact that she was not in that group herself to make her own impression and counter any bad-mouthing.

As I watch them huddled together working towards a transition year performance, those hard times in primary school seem long forgotten. Perhaps Sarah’s presence is all the more treasured by the others as a way of showing they are sorry without having to say so. I can’t help wondering if she holds any grudge or if her parents find it difficult to welcome those foes-turned-friends as fully as they do Sarah’s other friends.

In the context of happiness and the quality of relationships, youngsters like Jack are a godsend. They take the pressure off teachers and reassure us that we don’t need to be on fire every day. Nurturing the spark in them is what it’s all about.