The Secret Teacher: ‘Little wonder people have a go at us over our summer break’

I often wonder how my pupils will have changed over the holidays

“My students alone give me a couple of hundred reasons to look forward to going back to school,” says The Secret Teacher. Image: iStock

“My students alone give me a couple of hundred reasons to look forward to going back to school,” says The Secret Teacher. Image: iStock


Little wonder that people have a go at teachers when so many of us openly lament the passing of our long summer break.

My students alone give me a couple of hundred reasons to look forward to going back to school. Colm, from my second year group, is just one of them.

The last time I saw him he was walking down the main street with rucksacks strapped front and back, and carrying what looked like musical equipment in both hands.

He had definitely seen me too; he was staring studiously ahead the way we all do when we are concentrating hard on ‘unseeing’ the person we have just seen. He and I both knew that two hours earlier he should have been in my class for his summer exam.

Shuffling along beside him was a man in his 50s also carrying equipment, but with this strategically distributed to leave one hand free for a cigarette.

Our paths hardly crossed, but this man was clearly both hungover and ranting loudly.

Colm’s pace quickened. I fervently hoped that the man he was trying to distance himself from was his dad – who else could it have been at 11am on a school day?

I haven’t seen Colm since, but I have seen that man regularly, most recently yesterday at noon sitting outside a pub.

This summer, I have often wondered how Colm is spending his holidays, and how they will have changed him.

Laura did her Leaving Cert in June. Six months previously, she made a disclosure to me which I had a duty to report to our school principal. Together, we prepared a report for the appropriate agency and the case is now out of our hands. It’s not the first time a student has confided in me, but what Laura has been living through is more serious and more disturbing than anything any student has ever revealed to me before.

Other than to thank me for having helped her, Laura and I have never again discussed the matter, so I have not been privy to how events have unfolded.

Until May, I had daily school contact with Laura and I could easily tell the good days from the bad. She will have moved on from our school, and therefore my classroom, next year, but there is absolutely no chance she will have moved on emotionally from the situation she described to me.

Far from it, as the circumstances Laura described will impact on her and her relationships throughout her adult life. When Laura confided in me, the conversation lasted for some time.

Very early on, I warned her that I could not keep what she was telling me to myself, that I had a professional and legal obligation to report it on child protection grounds, and she said she was entirely aware of that.

I do not know if she has even seen my detailed written record of that conversation, but I sincerely hope that it accurately reflects what she told me and that she doesn’t regret ever taking the decision to reveal those realities. I may never see Laura again, but she too has been very much on my mind this summer.

There is no guarantee Colm will come back to school either, of course. When he was in first year, his mother told me he would never be any good at my subject as she hadn’t been any good at it either.

Never does a tap of work

She went to great lengths to point out what a lovely lad he is, and that he’ll never give me a moment’s bother even if he never does a tap of work either. I only agreed on two counts because he does work, tries very hard, in fact, and I feel he’s really very willing to learn.

He chooses to sit a couple of rows from the front rather than hiding in the back row. He never does homework, but since mum told me she wouldn’t expect him to, I wonder how conducive to doing homework his home life is.

After our encounter at the first year parent-teacher meeting, I felt the Colm in my classroom would be very easy to reach and ‘bring on’ if I could only tweak mum’s mindset, even just a little.

I have not been able to even try – she didn’t come to see me at all during the second year parent-teacher meeting, even though I saw her queuing to speak to his other teachers, and I have left two voicemails since then asking her to contact me at school, but without any response.

Colm is a great kid and does have lots of potential – how aware is he of this, and will his potential ever be realised? Having never met dad in a school context, I cannot be sure that this is who Colm was with during that last week of May. Perhaps I’ll never know.

The Colms and the Lauras are inevitably out of my sight during the long summer break, but they are far from out of my mind.

For plenty of students, school is where they most easily find someone who presents just the right balance of being well enough known to them to be trustworthy, and yet removed enough from a complex personal situation to be objective.

We very often have the privilege of pupils taking us into their confidence and, once shared, their stories are not forgotten.

Our concern for how things work out far exceeds our right to know, but at least during the school year we can see for ourselves how a student is doing. During the long summer break we can only wonder, and can only hope that they don’t need us when we are not there.