A Day in the Life of a Teacher for Travellers

By Ann Whitwell, N. E. Area Support Team | Published in “Special Education in Wiltshire” Vol. 12 No. 1 January 1991.
A Note from John

One of the bad consequences of becoming Principal of the Cotswold Community in 1985 was that Ann, my wife, had to give up her job as a teacher in the “Poly”. For the following 10 years she was responsible for the education of travellers in North Wiltshire. She brought to this role all the knowledge and experience she gained at the Community plus her natural ability to get on with anyone, especially children.

Ann, Oliver (our grandson) and John outside ISP’s Central office in 2004.

The Teacher for Travellers Post.

In September, 1985 I accepted a temporary post as Teacher-in-Charge of a unit based on the Hay Lane Travellers’ Site in Wroughton. I had the distinct feeling that we were doing these children a disservice by educating them outside the usual school system. In April 1986 I was accepted for the permanent post ‘Teacher for Travellers, N. E. Wiltshire’ together with my ideas for change. The unit was closed in July 1987 and I encouraged the families to support the local schools.

I go to different schools in this area according to need. Three years ago a small private site was developed and the children represent at least a third of the intake of a very small rural primary school. I support some of the children of a housed traveller family in one of the Swindon comprehensives, give home tuition to roadside travellers and generally encourage, support and advise where needed. I like to feel that I am sowing the seeds towards a positive approach to education and helping to break down the barriers and prejudices that exist in both cultures.

A Typical Morning

7.55 a.m.
Leave home.

8.20 a.m.
I arrive at a large council run site which is three and a half miles from the schools. The children here use the transport provided by the education authority. The first run leaves at 8.30 a.m. with the Comprehensive and Junior school pupils. The transit is of indeterminate age but the bonus is the regular driver whom we all hold in high regard. Sarah, Freddie, Mandy and Emily arrive for the Comp. Albert comes over to me for a chat and expresses admiration for my car. ‘Very clean for a Y reg.’ Shane and Lee come rushing over. We sit in my car chatting until it is time to go. I have to dissuade Shane from running back home with a note he’s just discovered about a school trip to Winchester. We discuss the pros and cons, the distance and direction – he doubts if he will be allowed to go but I think I may be able to persuade his parents providing I go along too. (I went to Wales along the motorway last week with elder sister Sarah.) Younger brother Lee is feeling very left out and says Shane will not be allowed to go without him! I have to reassure him that his turn will come.

Wayne gives me back my library book that he took home last night. He is seven and reading well. Little Rosalie, his sister with the very loud voice, shouldn’t really be on this trip as she’s an infant but it saves her Mum walking a long way twice. Zilla is back from a funeral. Emily is worried, she has recently returned after two months travelling and whilst she was away her Dad threw out some of her uniform. I find a games shirt in my boot and write an apologetic letter to the games mistress as we feel it’s not quite the correct style. She thinks she might be going away again and wants me to look after her things until she returns. I say I’ll be on the site after school so she can give them to me then.

We take the first run in and then return for the Infant and Junior stragglers. A large black dog gets on the van – I order it off as I know it has bitten someone in the past. On the way back I have heard Rosalee read – we do this every morning. I have to stop her awarding herself too many smiley faces.

It’s the Infant’s swimming day. Ellen-Marie is excited. It’s her second time and she can only go in the water if I’m there too. Frankie’s Mum is going to Oxford for the day and wants me to promise faithfully that I will watch him swim, in case anything happens to him. I think I follow the logic!

Here comes Michael, keenest of all – never misses a day now and we had such a do at the start but perhaps that was more to do with the family letting go. Mum blows a kiss but he’s not looking – I am, so I blow one to her. She giggles! A little girl looks daggers at me – I know why and promise my lap going home.

8.50 a.m.
We must leave, we have a bus full, with a few Juniors too.

9.05 a.m.
Everyone’s in school. I feel as if I’ve done a day’s work already! I retrieve my car and dash round to the Health Centre. I’m going to buy some salve for Shane because he’s had a sore for some days now and this morning it’s virtually filling the area between his lip and nose. Dash back, instruct him on how to use it and tell him to keep it in his pocket.

Withdraw two second year Juniors together. Mattie will be off soon for the summer travels. He will have had two terms at school this year. Eddie’s life pattern is less predictable. He has just returned after two months away and I think it’s just for a few days. Mattie is progressing with his reading and his literacy will be encouraged within his literate family. Eddie is more of a challenge – I coaxed him to school some three years ago initially – he comes and goes and sadly the reading hasn’t progressed in line with the enormous amount of interest and application he has. We’ve ‘done’ all the introductory books, lots of small stories. I’ve made personal books using photographs. Time for something different? I know, he’s mad on dogs – I’ll try the Shorty books. This looks promising. Why haven’t I thought of this before? I must find some more somewhere. Mattie’s been doing number work, now we’ll swap and I’ll hear him read.

Time for a quick break then a seven minute drive to the Comprehensive in town where for the past three years I’ve been supporting various members of a housed traveller family. It’s Darren this morning in the first year. I’m determined he’ll read for pleasure, like an elder brother, by the time I’ve finished with him. I’ve a great book today about a bantam cock. I’ll read it to him, then we’ll discuss fowl. He’s going to read one of the Ginn Giant books, then do one of my boot-shaped workcards. Whilst we’re in the middle of all this I notice his ill-fitting shirt (giant-sized) – I know I’ve a good one in my car and go and get it for him – he changes in the cupboard – that’s much better. He’s caught his jumper sleeve at home this morning and there are two big holes in it. I’ve a needle and thread kept here in the drawer so I repair them whilst he reads to me. Now he won’t stand out in the dinner queue!

Back to the village swimming pool in time to see Ellen getting off the bus. I get changed and Ellen goes for the privacy of a cubicle too. All the traveller children love swimming – I don’t. She won’t go away from the side by herself yet she really loves it in the water. It’s a pity she didn’t start school earlier as a top infant. By the time I’m dry Fankie has arrived and is ready to get in. He doesn’t want me in the water, so I can grin encouragement. The Infants are a little puzzled about me; I don’t seem to fit neatly into any of their categories for adults.

The Afternoon

12.05 p.m.
A banana for lunch and perhaps a Marathon bar later. I’m going to the site to check if Mary’s left and find out when Clara’s coming back to school. Yes, Mary’s gone, probably Oxford way, so I’ll phone Lynn Chilton and let her know.

Mandy’s Mum sees me, stops in her pick-up and asks me to call in. She wants me to explain Mandy’s Comprehensive School report. Mandy thinks she’s not done very well because of lots of ‘below averages’. It’s a large book-type report. I’m able to be reassuring as out of eleven subjects she’s done well in six. The teachers have written some good things about her although her absences are ‘cause for concern’. I explain how she’d do even better if she was at school more. It’s often being ill for three days and there being no point in returning for the last two. I leave a letter with Frankie’s Mum with the school information on it because they may be going soon.

1.05 p.m.
I’ve arrived at another village where there are children from an outlying transit camp. Two New Age Travellers don’t need me but the Irish brother and sister do. They are regular visitors to the area, I’ve known them for four years but this is the first time I’ve met them in school. This is their third week in school. I’ve brought some puzzles, dogs for Bridget who’s ten, and a number puzzle for nine-year old Miley. Bridget has worked so hard she received a ‘work of the week’ award in assembly. She read to me and does some writing I’ve prepared. Miley does some number work too. It’s not easy for him at school – he has problems relating to the other children and they to him. Although I am familiar to them I don’t have the sort of rapport that I have with the children I escort to school. Every so often Miley utters what sound like oaths but I can’t really make head nor tail of it. We’re in the Medical Room and they both like to use the tap to fill a glass for lots of drinks. There’s a box of tissues that are popular too. Miley’s drawn a trailer on card so we make lift-up doors, windows and wheels and write his words behind them. They choose a book each to take home – they always bring them back. I talk to both class teachers before I leave.

I drive back to the other village, park and cross the road to the Infant’s. The transit is waiting. The welfare assistant shepherds them all on clutching bags and books. Rosalee has swum five metres and has a piece of paper with 40p on it. She interrupts frequently all the way home to ascertain what the amount actually is. It’s for her badge, she’s so proud. Millie sits on my knee and Rosalee looks ‘daggers’. I always read a book going home – we have ‘The Hunters Dog’ by Brian Wildsmith. We ooh and aah over the puppies and bandaged ducks. We’re soon back, various Mums and Dads are waiting. Millie gives me a fist full of pictures she’s drawn at school. “Bye, see you all tomorrow.”

We go back for the Juniors – they seem to take an age coming out. Tempers can and do flare so I arrange where they all sit for compatibility. Lee sits on my knee – what a softee; his brother has been chosen to play football for the school. Will I watch him play tomorrow in a match? Yes, I think I can.

Dora has forgotten something and rushes back, Mattie says he’ll go and look for her, Wayne yells out of the window. We begin to look and sound like a rabble, tempers are becoming frayed. We’re all here, so off we go. The arguments die down – the book looks interesting. Lee is anxious that I read it – not easy with him obscuring my vision. As we near home they worry that I won’t finish it – we usually do. They have been known to sit tight until I have finished it if it’s a particularly gripping story. Three voices ask to borrow it for the night – I let Dora take it. Off they get – bye to the driver – I check the bus, one pencil case, one coat, I call the owners back.

Ride back, retrieve my car and drive back to the site, it’s on my way home. I’ll wait for Emily. I don’t travel back with the older children. I call in at Shane’s and explain to his Mum about the trip. He’s ever so quiet – he’s always expecting the worst, but she agrees to the trip so long as I go too. His four year old sister perkily reminds me I’m taking her to school on Wednesday afternoon (it’s her introductory visit).

Here comes Emily, I open my boot and she deposits two bags and a tie. We say goodbye.

Nearer home I call into a private site with a letter for a family to sign. They wanted me to write a letter for them to the school in support of a ‘statement’ for their daughter. ‘You can write anything you like, Ann, we’ll sign it.’ What trust! I turn into their plot. Lots of children here. They make up one third of the small country school. I read the letter out and it’s duly signed. Mrs Smith thinks we should all be very firm with her daughter and tell her she’s got to read. The boys take me to see the chickens, they’re laying. Henny wants to know if I really am going to take Ben to see my chickens. I say we hope to arrange a visit soon. I drive off carefully avoiding chickens and children.

5.15 p.m.
I arrive home. I plan to do some workcards this evening but I may fall asleep!