In January, it will be thirty years since I started teaching at Thomas Tallis. I had had an unhappy time at my first school, under a head unsympathetic to my request to return part time after the birth of my first daughter. But walking through the gates on the day of my interview, I have never looked back. This is the place where I immediately felt I belonged, and it has remained a home from home ever since.
I have thrived in the English faculty, where under many different leaders I have been given autonomy as well as guidance and support. I have seen so many great teachers and great people come and go – Siobhan McCauley, Soren Hawes, Maureen Housden, Di Broughton, and the wonderful Cameron Sayers, who died so suddenly a couple of years ago – and working with such committed individuals has been a joy. Together with their clear-sighted intelligence, compassion and humanity, their sharp and often mischievous humour has seen us through some dark times.
I joined the sixth form team in 1999 after taking my first tutor group through from year 8 to year 11. (I campaigned hard as a part time teacher to be allowed to have a tutor group – imagine that state of affairs now). Under the exceptional leadership of Cath Barton, who had taken over from Tallis legend Stuart Turpie, the sixth form was a wonderful team to be a part of. Under Cath, the sixth from grew in size, and now there are over 700 students, coming from all over southeast London and beyond, from a vast range of diverse backgrounds, benefiting from an outstanding sixth from experience, as we benefit from their energy, wisdom and style.
I began to get involved in progression as soon as I joined the sixth from team, supporting the small number of students who were making applications to Oxford and Cambridge. Working with the great Brian Jones was a delight: if there’s one key attribute a teacher needs that I struggle with it’s patience, and I would give anything to be able to maintain the calm, gentle composure he showed. When Brian left, I took over the role of UCAS coordinator, in those days dealing with about 60 applicants a year. This year we have well over 300 applicants. This is certainly one of my favourite parts of the job - seeing students leave the school excited for futures that offer them so many choices and opportunities.
My eldest daughter joined the sixth form in 2010 and went on to study history at Oxford and is now a primary school teacher in Southwark. My middle daughter teaches maths at Greycoats and my youngest is finishing an apprenticeship at Invicta Deptford, and although I have never tried to influence their career choices, I’m sure their decision to join the profession is due in large part to the enthusiasm which they saw in me for teaching and life at Tallis.
There have been times of great upheaval and huge stress, and soon after the move to the new school I saw many of my close friends and colleagues forced out, but Tallis remains Tallis and resists any attempts to circumscribe or change it. That Tallis ethos and spirit is a powerful and enduring thing. I’ll finish with perhaps one of my favourite anecdotes. When my youngest daughter was in year 9, I remember talking about the upcoming Community Day. Her response – “that’s so Tallis. At my school we’d have Conformity Day.”
Community and non-conformity – that’s so Tallis.
-- Oonagh McGowan