Showing astonishing courage, Sir Mo Farah has revealed the devastating reality of his circumstances as a child.
The four-time Olympic champion, and one of Britain’s most celebrated athletes, has spoken out about being trafficked into the country and treated like a servant by the family he initially lived with.
However, it was after he developed a close bond with his PE teacher, Alan Watkinson, that Farah was able to speak candidly about his situation.
Mr Watkinson provided Farah with a lifeline – he contacted social services and saw that Farah was fostered by another Somali family, which allowed for the future gold medallist’s circumstances to improve.
Farah’s story is an extreme example of how vital teachers are in ensuring their students’ wellbeing, and just how much their kindness, support and attentiveness can have such a huge impact on children’s lives.
A recent study found 40% of Brits claim to have been inspired by at least one standout teacher at school, with another 45% adding they were grateful for their teachers’ help, and still reflect on their encouragement to this day.
Here, three women share just how much a teacher changed their lives, too.
If it wasn’t for Mr. Giberdi, I don’t think I’d be alive today
Nicole Ratcliffe, 40, is a baby sleep coach based in Manchester. After being targeted by a horrendous spate of bullying, Nicole thanks her D&T teacher, Mr Giberdi, for a small act of kindness that she believes saved her life.
I found the transition to secondary school extremely difficult. I never had any problems at primary school, I was confident and I had friends. But when I started in Year 7, I was targeted by vicious bullies.
I don’t know what it was about me that made me their pray. I did have really curly hair, and my dad took me to have a haircut before school started so it was a big, frizzy bob – but it was the 90s, we all had terrible hair! Part of me thinks it’s because I would always stand up for myself and answer back – it meant they knew they could always get a reaction from me.
The barrage of bullying was endless. I got cruel, nasty comments every day, endless jokes and teasing remarks about my hair, my looks. One incident that really stuck with me was when we all had to give a speech in front of the whole year about what we are passionate about. I remember standing on stage, talking about animal rights, and just looking back at 200 people sniggering at me. It was awful.
The bullying got worse when it turned physical. I accidentally hit one of the bullies with my school bag during the last lesson of the day. I could hear the girls in the class whispering about beating me up when we were outside. I couldn’t hide anywhere when the bell went – I was frogmarched across the car park into a ring of my classmates and really brutally beaten up – all because I’d knocked someone by mistake.
My family took me up to the school when they found out what had happened. They spoke to the head of year at the time, and she simply replied: ‘It’s just kids being kids.’ All my teachers knew about it, and it was just clear they weren’t going to do anything.
Things felt hopeless. I was only 12, but I would constantly think, ‘I could just end this’. I would look at the kitchen cabinets where all the pills were and just think about it.
When I started in Year 8, I braced myself for another year of bullying – but we had a new teacher for Design and Technology (D&T), Mr. Giberdi. He was only a supply teacher, but he was the first person that really noticed that there was a problem, and chose to actually act instead of ignoring it.
At the end of one of our first lessons we had with him, Mr Giberdi asked me to stay behind after class. He was the only one to actually ask me how I was and how I was feeling. I told him things were really awful, that I was struggling to get through the day and explained the bullying situation. He took the time to listen to me, and then asked what was it he could do. He then asked if there was anyone I did get on with, where I mumbled something about a girl in my maths class that was always kind to me.
After that conversation, he worked really hard and put the wheels in motion to get me moved forms. He went above my head of year and worked with the headteacher to put me in a new form. It was so good to know that he was looking out for me and had my back, at a time where it felt no-one else did. From then on in, he always kept an eye on me and made sure I was alright.
Mr Giberdi’s attempts to get me to move class worked – I was put into another form and it gave me a chance to form a new friendship group. My friend from maths class and two other girls became my friends for life. We’re still in contact now – they even came to my wedding! Being moved from the bullies stopped me from feeling alone: it sounds silly, but it completely changed my life.
We only had Mr Giberdi for one term, but I have never forgot the kindness he showed me when no-one else did. He could have ignored it like everyone else, but he chose to fight for me. It’s his kindness that has fed into every aspect of my life: I always try and consider what another person is going through and think what is the most considerate thing I could do in that situation.
It may have been a small thing, but you never forget teachers like Mr Giberdi, that have such a huge impact on your life. Without him, I wouldn’t be here today.
Miss Mitton made me feel recognised and accepted for who I am
Diane Sealey, 59, is Director of tech PR firm Fibre PR and lives in Croydon. She firmly credits her life to the time and effort her primary school teacher, Miss Mitton, put into her as a child.
I grew up in a really rural area, on a farm. My parents were farmers and weren’t academic, with both of them choosing to leave school at 14. They weren’t unintelligent at all, but they valued having a strong work ethic more than school work.
My mum and dad had three other children besides me and were often out working, so there wasn’t always things to do and I was often very bored at home. I remember reading the few books I had in my bedroom over and over again. So when I finally went to primary school, it was like this amazing new world had opened up to me.
It was Miss Mitton, the headteacher at my primary school, that made me acknowledge my love for learning. I knew she was a special person to me from when I was about six years old. On the way to my school with my older sister, I slipped and fell off my bike, grazing and cutting my leg. I burst into tears and my sister, who was four years older, shouted at me for crying. She was quite brutal and was a product of being from a headstrong, farming family.
It was Miss Mitton who attended to me when I got to school, sitting me on her knee and comforting me. I think she could see straight away that I was quite a sensitive soul for someone who had been raised in an rural family who didn’t tend to be very sentimental. I think she could see school was a safe place for me, and she helped it remain this way.
She knew I loved reading. She used to take me to the small school library so I could finally read some new books. By the time I was eight, I had read all the books there too, so she bought me some more for me to read.
When you’re part of a busy family, you’re sometimes overlooked, so it was particularly special for me to feel recognised and accepted for who I was, and that I could excel.
Miss Mitton always encouraged me to ask why something was and instilled into me a thirst for learning, which has never left me. Even as I approach 60, I’m thinking about training to get a pilot’s licence as a new skill to master.
As much as Miss Mitton did for me at school, I think it’s the work she did for me behind the scenes, and getting my parents to see my potential, that went a long way. I remember her waiting at the school gates, speaking to parents. She went up to my mum and said it would be great to nurture my talents in music and to buy me a violin. It was those little things that were obvious to her that would have never occurred to my parents.
Without Miss Mitton, I genuinely believe I would have left school at 16, got a job at an office and done some sort of admin. I’d have married a local boy and just stayed local. But thanks to my teacher looking out for me, I passed my 11+, and got to go to grammar school. I was the first person in my family to go to university, and it opened new doors for me.
If I’m honest, I think Miss Mitton is responsible for the way I raised my own daughter. Miss Mitton always taught me to always be inquiring and questioning, and I wanted my daughter to have the same mindset. It made me a very conscious parent and I think it gave my daughter the self-esteem I never had.
Miss Mitton absolutely changed the direction of my life. She was just the most remarkable woman.
If it wasn’t for Mr Alexander, my pregnancy would have seen me quit school
Clare Friel, 37, works as a co-founder of television production company, La Vida Media, and is based in Ipswich. She credits her media studies teacher, Mr Alexander, for keeping her motivated after she found out she was pregnant during her A-Levels.
When I first started in secondary school, I was a bit of a geek – I was really studious and tried really hard to do well in school. However, there was an unexpected hiccup between Year 12 and 13.
It was the summer, and I’d just got back from my holiday. I had a brief fling and I realised I hadn’t had a period – and started to worry. A trip to the family planning clinic confirmed my worst fears; I was pregnant. I remember the woman at the clinic scolding me, asking me: ‘Well, what did you expect?’
It was a surprise to most people for me to be the girl who got pregnant. I wasn’t a girl who always had a boyfriend. Being just 17 at the time, nobody congratulated me on the news. I got the reception almost as if someone had died, and that my life was over.
Thankfully, both my parents, and my school, were really supportive. I decided I wanted to keep the baby – it sounds silly, I had such a connection with it already, even though it was nothing more than a clump of cells at that point.
I knew finishing my A Levels was going to be hard enough, never mind factoring in a baby, but there was one teacher in particular who was there for me throughout the entire time – my media studies teacher, Mr Alexander.
He was always one of my favourite teachers and made media studies fun, it didn’t seem like a lesson or that I was in school. Mr Alexander taught in a way that it was fine to have a different opinion to everyone else, and that gave me a lot of confidence.
When he heard I was expecting, he made so much time for me. He acted like a mentor, and constantly checked I was engaged with the source material. He could see when I was struggling or tired, and would allow me to adjust my work schedule when I wasn’t feeling right, or was finding pregnancy tough.
It sounds weird but one of the most important things he did with me is just make me feel normal. He didn’t treat my pregnancy as an issue, he didn’t patronise me or wrap me in cotton wool. Even when you’re older when you’re pregnant, people treat you differently. It was the fact that he treated me the same, he just understood I had different wants and needs.
If Mr. Alexander hadn’t been there, I would have disengaged from school. It wasn’t just the pregnancy that made things tough, there was the mental health aspect as well. My friends were 18 and going clubbing, everyone was out and I felt really isolated. I also got some bullying from kids, calling me a slag because I was having a baby. I really stood out at school, with my baby bump stretching through my school uniform, and there were times were things got really tough. But having Mr Alexander’s support there kept me on the straight and narrow. He was the one that kept me focused.
Sitting the exams were absolutely horrible. I gave birth to my daughter in May, six weeks before my A-levels started. I didn’t do too well in my other subjects, but thanks to Mr Alexander’s support, I got an A in media studies. He was absolutely chuffed for me. Having him there saw me go on to have a successful career in TV and media, and launch my own media company. I was so thankful for everything he did, I invited him to my daughter’s christening.
I’m still in contact with Mr Alexander – he’s now the head of Sixth Form at the school I used go to. I’ve gone back to give students career talks and I’ve kept him posted about my work and what I’m doing now.
Mr. Alexander’s support is what got me through one of the most difficult times of my life. I genuinely would not have passed without him.
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