Small Steps: Teaching During Section 28 and Beyond

Janine Norris, Lesbian, teaching

A Random Thoughts Post by Janine Norris

Don’t get me wrong, the insults still come thick and fast. Most recently I have mainly been ‘a short-haired, lesbian bitch!’ My general response to this is something along the lines of ‘You can’t insult me with fact and I’m not always a bitch’.

I began teaching, like a real grown-up, in 1993 in a school just outside Great Yarmouth. I have to say, it was a complete shock to my system. How had this happened? Me, in charge of classes of thirty children? However, here I was, a teacher! An actual teacher! I was twenty-three.

My first position was maternity cover for two terms. I had been employed through sheer desperation on the school’s behalf. I had had a few interviews but been completely unsuccessful and this invitation to interview came on the day of my graduation. It was a standing joke throughout the eleven years I stayed at this school that I was ‘the best of a bad lot’. The morning interviewee was so bad that they had to choose me.

It was the start of an epic adventure; my release to freedom; not having to answer to anyone else except myself.

It was here I met my first girlfriend. Thirteen years older than me, an experienced teacher with an amazing sense of humour and a nice car. I mean, I wasn’t into material things but she had everything I aspired to achieve during my career. She was bright, great with the kids and an amazing teacher.

“Once the kids started doing as they were asked and stopped throwing chairs and tables, I would be bored and I knew it was time for a new challenge.”

It was 1995 when we got together. Section 28 of the Local Government Act had been introduced to England, Scotland and Wales in 1988 as an amendment (section 2A) to the Local Government Act, 1986. On the 24th May 1988, the amendment stated that a local authority “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.”

Although I didn’t realise it at the time, this added a tremendous pressure to our relationship as we felt we had to hide everything we were during school hours. We had a handful of friends and very close colleagues who knew we were a couple but that was it. The act was repealed in England on 18th November 2003. We separated after 9 and a half years together in the spring of 2004.


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Through my Teacher Training years in Lincoln, I struggled with the academic side of things. I was lucky enough to get a place at college because of my music qualifications. I had struggled to pass A levels, took 3 years to do so, but at the time primary schools needed music teachers.

When I arrived at college, I realised that the standard of musician in my class was far superior to myself. I wasn’t an academic, I wasn’t a virtuoso musician, I scraped through graded exams and academic exams by the skin of my teeth. Sitting still to revise, write essays or practice instruments wasn’t my thing.

However, none of this really mattered due to the turn my primary teaching career took quite early on. For some reason, I always got on really well with the ‘naughty boys’. (There appeared to be no naughty girls back then.) So I ended up with classes of these challenging students and was encouraged by my first headteacher to establish an in-school inclusion class to accommodate the more emotional needs of the students. Nothing I learnt or studied in college or on any teaching practices prepared me for this. I just seemed to have a knack of engaging the group in things where they enjoyed being at school.

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I became a victim of my own ‘success’ and moved through various jobs in various settings. ‘Success’ meant once the kids started doing as they were asked and stopped throwing chairs and tables, I would be bored and I knew it was time for a new challenge.

I moved across Key Stages (lower and higher) and found that I really enjoyed teaching teenagers. They set the challenge a lot higher for me to work on their behaviour management strategies; every day was exhausting. Also, there were now ‘naughty girls’.

This was something I was not expecting. Girls were so much more difficult than boys. Boys would punch each other, throw a table and get over it. Girls held a grudge. For a long time. Even longer than a long time. I went through some traumatic times during this new challenge. I was bullied by students (and staff actually, but that’s another story), mainly the girls, but sometimes boys. One boy in particular enjoyed telling me at the end of a tough day, ‘I hope you die in a ditch on your moped on the way home tonight.’ Charmer.

The girls were more dangerous, though. I wasn’t open about my sexuality amongst the students, but they obviously knew I was gay. Doc Martens, short hair, riding a moped – it’s obvious, I guess. There was a group of girls who would insinuate inappropriate behaviour, subtle, but it was there. I heard them discussing me one day where they decided I would ‘probably like the Britney Spears video where she’s dressed as a school girl.’ Honestly, I’m gay, this doesn’t make me a paedophile. I hear this a lot, through misunderstanding and fear of not understanding, boys and girls making assumptions about homosexuality that are completely untrue and unfounded.

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Three years ago I was fortunate enough to join the school I work at now. It’s Alternative Provision and it’s amazing. The ethos of the whole environment is ‘transparency’. I found myself becoming brave enough to join in conversations with adults and students and refer to my ‘partner’. Shortly after I joined, I began to drop the ‘girlfriend’ word. I expected a huge, negative response. This didn’t happen. It became part of everyday conversation for the students to refer to my girlfriend, mostly in the context of ‘are you as annoying as this at home? Your girlfriend must get well fed up of you.’

“We have created an ethos within our establishment now, not purposely, by evolving, where the kids are of the opinion that ‘we don’t care whether you’re gay, trans, whatever, stop banging on about it’.”

Don’t get me wrong, the insults still come thick and fast. Most recently I have mainly been ‘a short-haired, lesbian bitch!’ My general response to this is something along the lines of ‘you can’t insult me with fact and I’m not always a bitch.’ These insults are no worse than being called a ‘fat cow’ or ‘a bald see you next Tuesday’. The kids want to get personal so they go for the things they think will upset you the most.

We have created an ethos within our establishment now, not purposely, by evolving, where the kids are of the opinion that ‘we don’t care whether you’re gay, trans, whatever, stop banging on about it’. We have explained the oppression and the history and the factors surrounding Section 28 and they understand that, but in their minds, because they see it every day and recognise that everyone is the same, it’s time to move on. Fair enough.

Obviously, they have yet to see the evils of transphobia, homophobia, etc., in the wider world, but I’m hoping that each of these individuals will stand up and be counted if they are ever unfortunate enough to witness an incident of this type of abuse.

Big journeys begin with small steps.

Janine was born in Leeds in 1970 to working-class parents, the middle of 3 children. She graduated from Teacher Training College in Lincoln in 1993 and has taught in Norfolk and Suffolk ever since. janinenorris70@wordpress.com

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Chronically Fabulous: The Critical Role of D&D in an Isolated World

By Josie Quinn: “In a year of isolation and fear, Dungeons & Dragons has not only kept me connected with the outside world, but given all of us the much needed chance to escape our current reality, even if only for a few hours.”

Giving Shame the Finger!

Louise Clare Dalton. “Let’s talk about shame baby, let’s talk about it and me, let’s talk about all the good things and the … oh wait. Hon, let’s not kid ourselves, there isn’t much ‘good’ to speak of when it comes to the shame surrounding sexuality and queerness.

Random Thoughts: Unexpected Guests

Janine Norris, Lesbian, Mental Health

By Janine Norris

We picked up Marjorie and she wriggled and fell. Straight on the floor. On her back. She squeaked, struggled to get up and eventually disappeared into a box. We were shocked. She was obviously badly hurt and we didn’t know what to do.

Rather like Bilbo Baggins at the beginning of The Hobbit (but not on such a grand scale), the start of Lockdown brought about some unexpected guests. The ‘guests’ were the school Guinea Pigs, Mary and Marjorie.

Nobody else working in the school could take them home for Lockdown, so I immediately jumped at the chance. It’s common knowledge that my girlfriend and I much prefer the company of animals than people, so our home was the perfect choice.

Marjorie

I had to dismantle the ‘run’ that the students had made for the girls for it to fit in the back of the car. I struggled with the hutch, carrying it by myself and, finding super human strength from somewhere (generally stubbornness and determination), I managed to get everything in the car. The pigs travelled in style in a cat carrier in the passenger-side footwell.

On arrival home, I carefully unloaded the precious cargo and struggled down the side path to the back garden. Could I have asked my girlfriend for help? Yes, but she wasn’t expecting visitors!

Once I had settled the girls in their hutch with bedding, fresh vegetables and salad, I called my girlfriend, Mel, who was still working at her desk in the house.

She came into the garden, a little unsure of what was in store – she hates surprises. I explained that nobody else could take the guinea pigs home, so I had offered to look after them. I rattled on and on about how I would look after them and she wouldn’t have to do anything so that I took responsibility. After all, on this occasion, I hadn’t consulted her on the matter. We usually make important decisions together, but this was an emergency. Nobody was allowed back on the school site after today and the pigs needed a home.

I introduced Mel to ‘Hairy’ Mary and Marjorie. She asked if she could hold one. I handed her Mary. A huge grin appeared on her face and she said, ‘I feel like I’m eight years old again and I’ve been chosen to look after the school guinea pigs for the summer holidays.’

And that is where my story begins.

Life in Lockdown for Mel and I threatened to be rather difficult. Mel has worked from home, alone, for the last twenty years. She is a Business Management Consultant working mainly with land-based businesses, mainly farms and farmers, so when she isn’t working at home, she’s out and about, in the middle of nowhere, advising farmers on how best to move forward with their businesses.


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As schools closed suddenly, there I was, sitting in the opposite corner of the lounge at a desk of my own, having no idea how I was going to cope. I’m not a desk worker. I’m a fidget. Similarities with some of my students with ADHD are prevalent in my personality. Mel is calm, professional and totally focused on her work. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, it was better than either of us ever imagined: We no longer had to make excuses for not going out, we enjoyed each other’s company approximately 99% of the time, we learnt new things about each other, and we became interested in each other’s work. I was astounded at how knowledgeable Mel was when it came to advising farmers via Zoom, and she finally got to see me teaching and interacting with the students I had talked so much about.

However, what actually made Lockdown more memorable was the presence of Mary and Marjorie. We had no real idea of a guinea pig’s needs, so Mel researched everything we needed to know. We took advice from people we knew who had had (or still had) guinea pigs, and the girls began to thrive.

We also began to thrive. Our mornings began with a dog walk by the river, then coffee sitting in the garden watching the pigs explore their new items (boxes, tunnels, food, etc.) we had placed in their run each day. It was a peaceful time.

On the third Thursday of Lockdown we went into the garden to put the pigs to bed for the night. We picked up Marjorie and she wriggled and fell. Straight on the floor. On her back. She squeaked, struggled to get up and eventually disappeared into a box. We were shocked. She was obviously badly hurt and we didn’t know what to do.

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The next morning, we put the girls in their run, and Marjorie was moving but dragging her back legs behind her. This, for us, was a heart-breaking sight. We booked an appointment at the vet. When we arrived, we had to wait in the carpark for the vet to come out and take Marjorie inside. He returned with painkillers and suggested we wait a week to see what happened.

We decided to put them both to bed as normal and see how she was the next morning. Needless to say, we went to bed that evening sobbing. We had grown so fond of the girls and the guilt we felt was immense.

Our ‘Unexpected Guests’ have become a huge part of our lives and our daily routine, along with the dogs and the horses, and they have certainly had a huge effect on my mental health throughout the Pandemic.

By Sunday, it looked as though Marjorie was deteriorating. She couldn’t keep herself clean, so we were bathing her with cotton wool and warm water. She was still eating and moving about, but we were concerned about her quality of life.

On Monday morning, I opened the hutch door and she had clearly not moved all night. She was dirty and sorrowful looking. I made the decision to phone the vet and book her in to be put to sleep that afternoon.

The tears Mel and I cried over that little girl were huge.

In my usual fashion, at lunchtime, I left my desk and popped into the garden for some fresh air and outdoor stimulation. Something told me to look at the pigs. As I looked in the run, Marjorie was running around, playing, her back legs dragging behind her, but she looked much brighter. I cancelled her vet appointment. She lived to fight another day.

Mary

There were a couple more close calls, but she still seemed happy in herself and was eating. Eventually, we booked in to see the ‘Exotic Animal Vet’ (who knew guinea pigs were Exotic Animals?). She took her away, examined her and returned, saying she definitely had feeling in her legs and toes (as she had moved her legs when she pinched her toes). She couldn’t feel any broken bones, so really wanted us to give her a bit more time. She explained that if she was no better within the next month, we were to go back and she would reassess her quality of life. This vet actually said, ‘Don’t give up on her just yet.’

We took her home and began doing very small exercises with her back legs each morning and evening. Over the next couple of weeks, she began ‘paddling’ one of her back legs, and a few days later, did the same with the other.

Approximately a month after seeing that vet, Marjorie was 95% back to normal!

For me, this was a miracle. The resilience shown by this tiny creature was out of this world. Needless to say, the girls are very special to us. They are going to stay with us for the rest of their lives, and they continue to give us so much pleasure and happiness.

Marjorie has doubled in weight and is definitely the pig in charge; Mary doesn’t mind, as long as there’s food around.

Our ‘Unexpected Guests’ have become a huge part of our lives and our daily routine, along with the dogs and the horses, and they have certainly had a huge effect on my mental health throughout the Pandemic.

The power of guinea pigs is incredible. However, don’t agree to have them as pets until you’ve researched thoroughly. Their intelligence, curiosity and dietary needs are far more complex than people realise.

We will have Guinea Pigs for ever.

Janine was born in Leeds in 1970 to working-class parents, the middle of 3 children. She graduated from Teacher Training College in Lincoln in 1993 and has taught in Norfolk and Suffolk ever since. janinenorris70@wordpress.com

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