Miss Thomas: 'Think of another word.'
Bradley: 'He's a cock!'
Miss Thomas: 'Think of another word.'
Bradley: 'But, miss, he's a prick!'
Miss Thomas: 'Now think of a word completely unrelated to a man's genital organs?'
Bradley: 'He's a twat!'
Every time I speak to my friend and colleague, I'm reminded of this priceless verbal exchange. For me, it neatly sums up her unique wit and excess of personality. A slim, diminutive woman with short, spikey red hair and thick round glasses, Katie Thomas is a wonderful teacher. She's intelligent, caring, and always well prepared, as well as great fun - something the kids recognise and greatly appreciate. They love her. On one occasion, for Children in Need, she dressed up as Camilla Batmanghelidj; on another, in her capacity as Head of Drama, she played the part of Rizzo in a school production of Grease. Unlike our Head of PE, who dresses up in a contrived effort to conceal his immanent banality and impress Ofsted inspectors to boot, she dresses up and exudes fun and frivolity because she just so happens to be fun and frivolous. She is natural and, as a consequence, the kids trust and respect her playful approach to their lessons.
All this said, and as the opening exchange indicates, she does, of course, just like the rest of us, have problems with some of our pupils; yet being a bright, effervescent , glass-half-full-rather-than-half-empty type of character, she knows how to diffuse potentially explosive, stressful situations by depriving them of seriousness. When - in my classroom, which just so happens to be opposite her's - a pupil protested against her break-time detention by opening the window and lighting her habitual mid-morning cigarette, Katie, who had walked in to support me, refused to engage in recriminations and proceeded, instead, to talk to her about the dangers of smoking. It was quite amusing and, unbeknownst to the pupil, deeply ironic. The girl eventually abandoned her protest, extinguished her half-completed fag and sat her detention without further recourse to melodrama.
Recently, though, Katie has lost her spark. Like an aging boxer engaged in one last fight, despite being a shadow of his former self, she's trapped in the headlights of familiarity, unable to contemplate an alternative career as a result of weariness, exhaustion and abject disconsolation. Her gusto and wit have evaporated, tragically replaced by surliness and anger; her unrelenting drive has been substituted for torpor and a lack of ambition.
Yesterday we sat down for a heart to heart over a cup of coffee. 'I've had enough,' she said. 'I can't take anymore. I've been observed four times this week and, after receiving an inadequate for one of my lessons, Brenda's told me they're going to carry out more snap inspections.' I sat in stony silence. I know Katie's been under the cosh lately but had no idea how much. I've just been so busy myself.
'Can they do that?' I said. 'Surely the union will help.'
'No!' she replied. 'They can't do anything. Our new appraisal policy, agreed by our union representatives last year, says that they can observe us as much as they like. I've been observed on six occasions since September.' I, too, have been observed on several occasions. Luckily, though, I've escaped with 'goods' and the odd 'requires improvement'.
'Why are they doing it?' I asked. 'You're an excellent teacher and last year received the best GCSE results in the school. How did you do in the recent internal review?' This was conducted by external inspectors on behalf of the Academy.
'I did well,' she said. 'They didn't grade my lessons but clearly liked what they saw.'
'So what's the problem? Why are they harassing you?' I held her hand. She went on to tell me about her suspicions. Before half-term she had been in to see Jackie, our Head. She complained about the deterioration of behaviour and courageously, or perhaps stupidly, blamed Jackie. It was her fault, she said, and went on to request her cooperation and support.
'No wonder!' I exclaimed. 'You've committed a thought crime.' Mind you, I considered, so have I, on several occasions. Why have they attacked Katie, by far the school's best, and, in statistical terms, most successful teacher, but not me? She began to sob uncontrollably.