Thursday, 6 December 2012

Mrs Hill of Woodside School

Mrs Joan Hill was the music teacher at Woodside First and Middle Schools. I decided this year to nominate her for the Classic FM Lifetime Achievement Award for Music Teaching. I am extremely disappointed that she did not win. However, I thought I would publish here the statement (slightly extended) I submitted in support of the application.

This is an unorthodox application in support of a remarkable and inspiring music teacher. I cannot provide DVDs or CDs as evidence of her achievements; not can I detail pass rates in examinations. Instead, I am able to describe a lifetime of commitment, dedication and professionalism that transformed the sometimes difficult lives of children who still love and cherish her.

I first met Joan Hill in 1977 when I joined Woodside First School in Bradford. My family had just moved from a shop we managed at Dudley Hill, and joining a new school with just over a month before the end of term and the start of the long summer holidays was difficult. I cannot remember much about my first day except joining the rest of my class in mid-afternoon to sit around a piano to sing. Two teachers were present, one of whom I soon learned was ‘Mrs Hill’. Her first words to me were ‘Don’t worry; I’m not as scary as I look.’
Me with Mrs Hill, 2007

Mrs Hill continued to teach me music as I progressed through Woodside Middle School until I left in 1983 to start a new chapter of my life at Buttershaw Upper School. And as I reflect on my time at Woodside, I am again astonished by Mrs Hill’s sheer hard work at the school: She was the sole music teacher for two schools, playing piano for assemblies and concerts, organising and conducting choirs and orchestras, and was the driving force behind the annual musicals and pantomimes. In other words, she demonstrated an extraordinary capacity for dividing her time not only between tasks, but also the interests and needs of children of different ages and backgrounds, all competing for her attention. Her energy was, and remains in retirement, seemingly unlimited, and her enthusiasm was infectious among the children and her colleagues.

Woodside was a working class council estate in Bradford, a tough area in which to grow up (I remember waking up one morning to find armed police going through all our backyards preparing for an early raid on one of the blocks of flats close to my house). I am sure, given the problems we faced there, it was an even tougher place to be a teacher. Mrs Hill never commanded respect; she didn’t need to. The pupils loved her without question, and if she ever was annoyed, one look or a raised eyebrow was enough to make the toughest child cower. Without her dedication many of these children would never have been encouraged to participate in musical activities (and in lessons, everyone was expected to do something, whether it was shake a tambourine, bang a drum or play the xylophone). Nor would they have had the opportunity to experience live music or theatre (Mrs Hill and her equally dedicated colleagues organised regular trips to the Alhambra to see a musical). She made it clear to us that music is natural. It is not dependent on wealth or even ability; and that we all had a sense of melody and rhythm. Her patience and relentless encouragement meant that we all experienced music and we could all be musical. Above all, Mrs Hill gave us her time, and for a teacher with a growing family there is nothing more precious than time.

Woodside Middle School had a tremendous impact on the lives of its pupils precisely because all the teachers were so generous with their time, and I know I would not be where are I am today without the support of Mrs Margaret Tones – ‘above and beyond the call of duty,’ as she once wrote on a project I completed on “Wars and Revolutions in the 20th Century” (with index and bibliography of course!) - who encouraged and inspired my love of history. Every day after school there was an activity into which we could all throw ourselves – sport, music, and science clubs. Mr Parker, the science teacher, even taught us to sail at Doe Park. The teachers also organised the annual residential school trips to Devon or North Wales for one week which for many children may have been the only time they had the opportunity to venture outside Bradford. It was only in August 2012 at the funeral of Trevor Hill, Mrs Hill’s husband that I discovered from my ex-teachers just how much time and hard work was involved in planning these trips. Moreover, we were different from many schools at the time because there was no separation between the arts and sports, no difficult choices to make about priorities (it also helped that our Games teacher, Mr Barstow, was also an enthusiastic performer). The captain of the football team may also have sung in the choir or dressed in drag for our final performance as a class – our version of the pantomime Aladdin in 1983. Whatever you wanted to do – be an extra in a play, help with building or changing the scenery, or try your hand at playing the recorder – your participation was both welcome and encouraged. Ability was never a barrier: enthusiasm, interest and curiosity were always more important. I know this from personal experience: A passionate performer I managed to work my way up from “Workhouse Boy” extra in Oliver! in 1980 to the lead in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in 1983, even though I was far from being the best singer in the school, as Mrs Hill’s end of term reports testify (in her customary diplomatic way).
Me as Joseph, 1983
Mrs Hill was also responsible for Hill’s Angels, a small group of musicians who, even after we left Woodside school, continued to rehearse at her home every Friday for concerts at her beloved Church and other local venues. She and her family always welcomed us into their home and Church, and I am honoured that I can say the same thirty years later.

For over forty years at Woodside Mrs Hill taught generation after generation of the same family, and she continues to inspire love and fond memories. For many, she is Woodside School, the first teacher they remember when recalling their time there. Everyone who grew up on the estate in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s have their own memories of parts they played in musicals, songs they sang around her piano (what was the song, Husky Dusky, about anyway?), or instruments played in class or in the orchestra.

She has now been retired for several years, and Woodside Middle School is closed (she actually came out of retirement to help Woodside in its last years when teachers were leaving and there was no possibility of replacement). Yet at 76 years old and recently widowed after 50 years of marriage, Mrs Hill continues to be as active as ever and still sings in her choir. If anyone deserves recognition for their lifetime contribution to music teaching, it is Mrs Joan Hill. Our lives are better for knowing her.

1 comment:

  1. I think we were invited back to see that version of Joseph ... Mrs Hill's Son and I were both in her first production of Joseph .. such happy times they were!