My Teacher, Jeannette
by Geoffrey Court
... I was most definitely a teacher, Jeannette
was something else entirely.
Jeannette wasn’t of course ‘A Teacher’, in the formal sense. It’s important to point
this out, because the creative tension that gave life to The Circle Works arose from
some significant differences between the two of us; and perhaps the biggest of those
differences, at least in the early days, was that while I was most definitely a teacher,
Jeannette was something else entirely.
She was a qualified Playgroup Leader, and must have found that useful in her role as
a Midday Supervisor in a primary school. I can imagine her feeling at home in the
playground after lunch, a calming presence at a time in the school day when children
were free of the demands and expectations of the classroom, and when feelings
sometimes ran high, and friendships could be forged and broken. But it was in the
classroom itself that she said she had learned more.
The child's point of view
Years before anyone invented the term ‘Learning Support Assistant’, a farsighted
headteacher had appointed Jeannette as classroom companion to a child with a
moderate disability. She had stayed with this child, and therefore with his class,
throughout the whole of his primary school career, observing the styles and practices
of a range of teachers, and living with the children’s reactions. In other words, she
had spent six years soaking up classroom life, not from the teacher’s point of view,
but from the child’s. This perspective, rare at the time, was one of the challenges she
first brought to the Tower Hamlets Primary School Support Project.
The Project was based at the Urban Studies Centre, and it was Roger Tingle, Director
of the Centre and a great, subtle, skilful mentor to us both, who first introduced us
when I moved into the USC’s building in Morpeth Street, Bethnal Green, now converted
into flats but then known as Frank Coles House. I seem to remember that Jeannette
had a broom in her hand: she had taken a cleaning job at the USC, to pay for her
driving lessons. As I write now, I can feel her daring me to say she was ‘A Cleaner’.
She wasn’t, any more than she was ‘A Teacher’; but in the ensuing years, a day would sometimes come in the office when she would suddenly say, ‘This place is DISGUSTING’,
and I would take refuge while the vacuum cleaner roared and Jeannette blew through
the place like a whirlwind. I used to get my own back: if there was a speck on the
carpet, I would tut-tut with disapproval and make some disparaging comment about
the cleaner – before running for cover.
Loving a space
The real significance of cleaning to Jeannette was that it was a way of loving a space.
I have never known anyone else whose relationship with particular buildings – most of
all her own home – was so intense and personal. When the time came to vacate Frank
Coles House, a ramshackle vicarage surrounded by an overgrown garden, she was
heartbroken. I remember how, on that last day, she gently asked me to leave first so
that she could be alone in the house, and I can imagine her afterwards moving from
room to room, bidding quiet, tearful goodbyes to the spaces she had tended with
That was in the early nineties, lean times in our working life together. Politically, the
educational thinking we represented was being attacked with a ferocity not seen before
or since. Our project was penniless, and its presence under the shelter of what was by
then the Urban Learning Foundation could no longer be sustained. Small wonder that
one day after the end of the summer term, a volcanic argument erupted between us,
which ended with Jeannette storming out of the house and slamming the front door.
Half an hour later, the telephone rang: it was Jeannette. The row forgotten, she said,
‘Geoffrey, I’ve found the most amazing place. Can you come and look?’ That, of course,
was 2 Medway Buildings in Bow, where, in 1992, we were to make all sorts of new
beginnings. Thanks chiefly to another gently inspiring mentor, Jenifer Wates, our project
was to become part of Commonwork, and would adopt a new name: The Circle Works.
As we stood for the first time in that empty upstairs room, its fire as yet unlit, a
conversation took place that illustrates perfectly another difference between us.
Conscious that our work was in serious peril financially, I had an eye to the main
chance, and suggested straight away that this was a space we could hire out. In my
mind, I already had the room peopled with local groups having meetings. Jeannette,
as always, was slower, less impulsive, more attuned, wiser. ‘No’, she said, ‘we must
take our time, be with the building, and see what it wants us to do.’ That quiet
statement was the seed out of which grew an extraordinary hosted space, warmed
by its log fire, that was to see many, many magical and unforgettable moments of
connection and reflective communication.
The creative dissenter
Back in Frank Coles House, I had often been around in the office when Jeannette was
cleaning, and so it was that we began to talk. Before long, she told me movingly about
her repeated encounters, as a young mother, with a cold, unfeeling, hierarchical
hospital régime (very different from that of today) that seemed indifferent to the bond
between parent and child, and took no account of the trauma of separation on top of
sickness. This experience, even more than the classroom, shaped Jeannette as the
creative dissenter she was, enraged by institutional insensitivity and bureaucracy,
whose worst excesses she would capture in a single, much favoured and often used
expletive. In case you don’t know what that was, a headteacher once gave me this
useful clue: it begins with ‘b’, he said, and ends with ‘ollocks’.
When we first met, Jeannette was thirty-two, and Dylan and Kathy were growing up.
Her mind was turning to the future: should she be a teacher, or a social worker? What
emerged, of course, was another possibility – becoming a counsellor. Sometimes, a
person embarks on a course of education, not because they are ignorant, but because
a formal qualification will legitimise their natural gifts in the eyes of the world. This is
a caricature, and Jeannette would have been the first to acknowledge how much she
learned from her years of training in the Person Centred Approach; but there is no
doubt that she was a natural counsellor – that is to say, a born listener. I remember
vividly the day when she was given her final assessment at Metanoia, her training
institute. Roger came into the office and asked, ‘Did you pass?’ It was the only time
I ever saw Jeannette respond in the way she did then. She looked up, smiled in a
deeply satisfied way, and said quietly, ‘Oh yes, Roger, I definitely passed’. No more on
the subject was ever said.
Jeannette loved and admired our supervisor of many years, Tony Merry, an inter-
nationally respected expert in person centred ways of working. Tony himself died of
cancer in the summer of 2004, and almost the first thing Jeannette said to me when
her own diagnosis was confirmed was, ‘It looks as though I’m going to be joining Tony.’
Her feelings were clearly reciprocated, and in his Invitation to Person Centred
Psychology, Tony devoted an entire chapter to Jeannette’s work with children, quoting
her own words at length. This is a brief extract:
‘When I first knew Marie, she was totally powerless. I don’t think she could have
been more powerless, because she was prejudged. Her name came first, and as
soon as her name was seen, that was it: she never came into the picture. But now
the change is quite unbelievable. People actually see Marie. They see that she is
a wonderful, rich person who gets very angry sometimes.’ (Weaver, 1991).
What lessons can we learn from this story? First, Jeannette’s way of working with
Marie was concerned with acknowledging the whole person of Marie, not just the
angry part. Jeannette wanted to see Marie and to encounter her, as she said, ‘as a
rich person who gets very angry sometimes’, not simply as a disruptive or difficult
child. … Second, Jeannette’s concern was with listening to the child and, through
this, to try and understand the world from the child’s point of view. … Third, it is
probable that Jeannette was a very real person to Marie; someone who did not
label her or judge her, but was willing to be with her and to accept her.
‘A very real person’, who ‘was willing to be with her and accept her’. Tony’s words, with
their echo of that seminal moment at Medway Buildings, come close to explaining why,
out of all the wonderful guides and mentors I have known in the past sixty years, none
has taught me more than Jeannette.
We had begun life, she and I, in families that always sounded pretty much alike, and
geographically we had grown up less than thirty miles apart. But while my path had
taken me into the male, competitive, academic world of a boys’ grammar school – a
world that, as she put it, ‘took me up into my head’ – she had remained grounded in
a far more integrated way of being, where head, heart and soul worked as one.
I had been taught early on that ‘doing things’ to the world was what mattered, and
that if I did the right things, I would earn prestige; but that meant little to Jeannette,
from whom I learned otherwise.
Productive work must always begin with listening
It wasn’t a one-off lesson: over many years, and in countless different ways, she
brought me back again and again to the understanding that productive work must
always begin with listening, and that the best action has its origins in stillness.
Without that quality of attention, human activity was meaningless, and meaningless
behaviour was what Jeannette hated most. Her test of a piece of work was to ask a
deceptively simple question: ‘Did anything really happen?’ She meant, ‘Was there
truth in the encounter? Were people wholly present? Did anything change? Or were
we all playing yet another meaningless game, and ticking a few more boxes?’
So to me at least, Jeannette was a teacher, after all. She was a teacher of the best
kind, the kind who don’t just fill you up with information, but help you to become a
more complete and rounded human being. I wanted her to know this, and as her life
was drawing to its close, I wondered what my last message to her should be. Sitting
at her bedside, I told her, ‘I’ve decided what I’m going to write on my card at your
She half opened her eyes and raised a questioning eyebrow.
‘It’s: Because I knew you, I am different.’
After a pause, Jeannette summoned the strength to murmur: ‘What is it again?’
‘Because I knew you, I am different’.
(Faintly) ‘Because I knew you… ?’
‘… I am different’.
Jeannette gave the slightest nod of contentment, and drifted off to sleep; and as our
twenty one year conversation entered its final days, I knew that things would never
be the same again.
in Mile End Park
Medway Buildings, Bow
garden in the basement
of The Vicarage, Bow