One of my claims to fame is that it took me six attempts to pass my driving test. Really- S.I.X. It’s not something I am ashamed of (although you know my thoughts on shame by now); in fact it is something that I have found very useful when illustrating the results that are possible through sheer perseverance. When relaying this story to my eldest son, I often follow it up with, “And isn’t Mam a brilliant driver now, as a result?!”, to which I receive in return an eye-roll. He does it for dramatic effect…I honestly am a good driver!
I first started driving lessons whilst studying for A-levels. I had a benign instructor named Geoff. He was neither here nor there as regards his teaching style, but I do fear that he wasn’t apt at spotting his clients’ readiness to undertake the trials of a driving test since I failed 4 attempts under his instruction. (Ok, that last statement looks like I am denying my own lack of driveability, but honestly, shouldn’t he have told me I was crap beforehand?!) Anyway, in the intervening years between this last attempt with Geoff and finally throwing away my L plates for good, I was away at university. In short, there was no necessity for me to be able to drive anywhere, after all that’s what the free Student Railcard was for.
When I eventually did graduate, I went through a couple of wilderness years in which I worked in admin jobs, moved in with boyfriend, got itchy feet and split up with the aforesaid boyfriend, and enjoyed a resurgence of youth by spending a summer working in an American summer camp in deepest Wisconsin. The year was by now 2004. By the time I had got back from gadding about the Midwest States in early autumn, I was beginning to come down from the shock of losing my sister, Mary, who had died earlier that spring. Not knowing anyone in the city my boyfriend and I had decided to start a new life in, I found myself living in the basement of a terraced house shared with three strangers. The rent was dirt cheap, there were mushrooms the size of my hand growing out of the shower, but I had all that I needed within walking distance and no need to own a pair of wheels.
But happiest of happy endings, by Christmas and after a few months of drunken snogs with the ex, I declared I wanted to marry him, which came as a surprise to us both on the last train back from Doncaster on a Friday night in December. Pretty soon we were back living together, and were making plans to cash in on the mortgage deals that building societies were handing out like Smarties to anyone with a current account in the mid 2000s. In short, we were growing up, and once again I decided to brace myself for mirror-signal-manoeuvre, and get myself on the road.
Never one to pay top dollar unless strictly necessary, I poo-pooed national driving schools (and their brilliant reputation and pass rates), and went for a local instructor. It just so happened that my soon-to-be Mr Dubz also took up lessons at the same time, and it made sense that we had lessons with the same instructor, Steve, consecutively. Steve was no benign Geoff of old; Steve was different. He had a loud laugh and a loud ‘inside’ voice, and was prone to lectures. He would frequently ask me to pull over so that he could draw diagrams of how to do a 3-point-turn/parallel park/reverse round a corner. His propensity to lecture meant that if he told you something once, he could not compute that it wouldn’t necessarily equate to an instant result. And his main piece of advice (which we still quote today in our house) was, “Make PROGRESS!“. “Make PROGRESS!“, he’d bellow when negotiating a mini roundabout. “Make PROGRESS!“, he holler when departing a junction. “Make PROGRESS!“, he’d implore as I navigated a hill-start. To this day, we still haven’t come to a definitive conclusion as to what making “PROGRESS!” meant to Steve, but I imagine he meant something like…drive. Either way, it was not what we would call in teaching, ‘formative feedback’. Steve didn’t last long, and I soon found myself in the hands of the lovely Mohammed, at the trustworthy BSM. So much for avoiding paying top dollar. But miracle of miracles, Mo had me on the road sans L-plates within a few weeks.
When I used to have to consider ‘progress’ in the classroom, it so often meant pulling up a spreadsheet or a trusty database that would prove that I was an effective practitioner, the young people in my care were all flourishing, and that I was therefore worthy of climbing up the next rung on the payscale. What I have come to realise in my new incarnation as a 1:1 tutor is that ‘progress’ is not a number on a spreadsheet that proves my worth, but it is a young person telling me that thing we tried the other week when we looked at that poem really helped them in class. Or that that scene we discussed a few sessions back came up in a test, and they felt it had gone really well as a result. When I left full time teaching 9 months ago, I felt inadequate as I pushed through my commute each day, drawing up the strength to stand in front of a class and hide my grief underneath. I felt a sense of failure, leaving my form class and two exam groups mid-year. I felt like a cop-out stepping away from a full-time job in favour of what? I had no promise of an income on the other side of Christmas. But mostly I felt liberated. I was taking a step towards a change that I hoped would somehow alter the pain I was progressively unable to cover up.
So it was such a privilege and a genuine sense of joy to hear from both my tutees and former pupils on GCSE exam results day recently. I was on holiday with the family in France, but with BBC News streaming in live reports of pupils opening their results, I could wait no longer and took a sneak at the results lists that had been sent round my old teaching WhatsApp group. Not only did many of my former pupils achieve great things, but some bucked any predicted trend that had streamed them into ‘ability’ groups for the entirety of their high school career. It would be lazy to suggest that it was I who was the contributing factor in their success, because I didn’t sit hour on hour of exams, churning out analysis of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Maya Angelou. They did; and they deserve the praise.
But the progress came for me when I heard from one particular pupil who had been on my mind since I left the classroom. She messaged me to tell me her results and thank me for my help. For the first time in all the years I had known her, she sounded genuinely happy and relieved. And in turn I felt happy and relieved. At last, after 9 months away from the grind, I truly believed that I had made the right decision to make a change when I did. I even had a flutter of wanting to get back in the classroom again myself.
And that for me is progress.