My local rep is holding a NUT meeting and teachers from my school say we must go along, as action will be announced. For months there have been rumblings of discontent. People are disillusioned with pay and working conditions and want change. I squeeze into the back of the gloomy room. There are no spare seats and people are jammed together. The large man on the stage thumps his fist on the table and rallies us to take strike action. All NUT members must come out. Ra, ra they chant. I find it rather threatening and don’t join in.
When I started my PGCE teacher training in 1970, we were told that all teachers joined the National Union of Teachers, which supports us in difficult times and makes sure we get a fair deal. I’d signed up and paid my dues unaware that I had a choice. Now, in the news there are loud rumblings of strike action from teachers and many other unions.
On strike day our school must stay open as some teachers do not belong to unions and others have joined other professional bodies. Students are told they have a day off, and the staffroom becomes busy organising placards and banners ready for the march.
I do not want to go. If I go on strike I’d lose my pay for the day, but that is not the reason. Deep inside I can’t do it. I don’t want to follow the gang and march on Parliament. Surely change can be effected without this thumping, shouting and marching? I tell the union rep that I am not joining the others and will be coming into school. He seems very cross.
Then things get nasty. When I go into the staffroom, friends turn away.
And it gets bad. As I’m taking a class, a teacher comes by and thumps on my classroom window and shouts ‘Scab’.
The class looks stunned and turns to me for a reaction. I’m shocked, weak and ashamed. Voiceless in this angry protest. No-one to hear my meekest views.
Then things get really bad.
More teachers bang on the window. This time I was a ‘dirty blackleg’.
The union rep comes into my room at the end of school.
‘Jenny, you can’t belong to the NUT if you don’t join in the protest. I suggest you join the rest of us.’
He is not pleased when I say no.
On strike day I come to school as usual. The NUT members will be marching in Trafalgar Square, banners and placards waving about their rights and more pay. And I worry deeply about my future, not belonging to something or joining in with all my colleagues,and not standing up with the rest.
Len comes into my room. I’m busy dragging the wet tea towels and dishcloths out of the spin dryer.
‘Len, you’re not supposed to be in school. Students stay at home today.’
Len looks sheepish.
‘Shall I make us a cup of tea, miss?’
Len busies himself putting the kettle on the gas stove. The atmosphere is sad. Len’s sad, and I’m sad. Neither of us has any support on this school day. Len gathers an armful of cloths and hangs them on the bars of my gas dryer. Len and I have somethings in common. He doesn’t belong to the school groups and I wonder if there is anyone at home to welcome Len.
He often stays behind and helps me clear up at the end of the day and never takes his cooking home. What will happen to Len when he leaves school at sixteen, barely able to read and write? Len and I are alone, offering each other wordless support.
Len stirs three large spoonfuls of sugar into his tea and we sit and drink together. No words. Just thoughts. If this continues, Len will use up my sugar stores.
On TV that night I see the fighting and punching as teachers and police come face to face on the marches.
Next day in the staffroom, they are all too excited to notice me.
‘Did you see me knock off the policeman’s helmet?’
It’s Elizabeth who only last week invited me round for tea in her lovely family home. I feel my relationship with her and other staff members is damaged forever.
The next time the union calls a strike, I don’t go into school. I agree to go out on strike, but deep in my heart I’m angry. I’m only doing it to stop the bullying and the insults. My pay is docked and I spend the day wandering around Hampstead Heath, breathing in the city air. It is time to leave the union, and maybe time for me to leave London and have a complete change.
That Friday in the Times Educational Supplement there’s an advert in the back section for a job in Jamaica. Teaching home economics in Kingston on a two year contract with living expenses and accommodation included. It would give me the chance to save some money for a deposit if ever I return to buy my own place.
I’ve taught a lot of children from Jamaican parents in my previous school and if the island is as charming as some of my students, it will be fun.
I ring up the telephone number in the advert and ask them to send me an application. Sunshine island with salt fish and ackee, welcome me!