Tom Avery is a primary school teacher in North London, an award-winning writer of children’s fiction books, a dad of three and probably one of the jolliest uncles around. I will say that listening to him talk about all these roles made me so hopeful about this whole ‘village that raises a child’ thing. You want your child’s teacher to be like this, to see the best in them and spur them on. Read on - and look out for the Spiderman reference!
GRASP: You're a primary school teacher. How are you different as "Mr Avery the teacher", as opposed to when you've got your dad or uncle hat on?
Tom: That’s a great question - I’m really different! We all put on different hats for the different roles we do - and the more hats you wear, the more clear those roles are.
As a parent, teacher, uncle, and as I also write children’s books, your relationship with the child changes, and it changes you.
As a parent you have a critical role in everything: setting the pace, setting the boundaries - and coaching and training as well - you set the whole package. Whereas, as a teacher you are one step removed from that: doing the coaching and training but not setting the culture for that child and what life looks like - what’s expected of them or for them… Although, sometimes you find you are! Sometimes you have a bigger part to play and that varies from child to child.
And then as an uncle, you get to just be daft and fun and do the best bits. Of course you’re supporting the parent in what they’ve set up, but for the most part you get to be fun, so that’s good!
How do I change? I think I'm much sterner as a teacher. We’ve got a lot to get through in the classroom and that requires a level of no-nonsense, we’ve-got-to-crack-on sort of thing, whereas as a parent I'm definitely much more spontaneous.
GRASP: You've taught in a range of schools in London and other cities. What's something about the kids you see that makes you hopeful for the future?
Tom: Hopeful for the future! Kids are just super, super adaptable and resilient. They’re just amazing in a way that adults aren’t - we’re so set in our ways.
So the pandemic, for instance, worried a lot of people about children’s responses and how children were going to get through it. There’s no denying there’s been an impact and even a crisis of mental health with children. But at the same time, the vast majority of children have bounced along and gotten through it and have gotten back to school like that.
One day it’s ‘We’re not at home anymore’ - ‘oh okay!’. ‘We’re not in bubbles anymore’ - ‘oh ok!’. ‘We’re in assemblies again’ - ‘oh ok!’.
Kids are just super resilient. Does that give me hope for the future..? Because I suppose we were resilient as kids. But these kids today, coming out of the other side, they’ve got a bit of grit in them. They’ve seen all sorts of things.
As well as that, I’d say - George Floyd, his murder, the battle for equality, I’d say kids get it at their level where most adults don’t. And this generation, as they come through and become leaders, we really will see a change - in terms of racism and discrimination, and inequality and inequity - in a way that I think we dream about and think we’re touching, but we in our generation can’t get there because of our inherent biases and what we’ve grown up with and seen over and over again.
GRASP: A great thing about city schools is that they throw kids from all kinds of backgrounds together. How do you try to reach out to kids where they're at, if they're often from different walks of life?
Tom: I think kids are kids, first of all. I think that’s number one and keeping that in sight is really important. And the other thing is remembering that whatever background you see, you don’t really see it all. Someone could have, on the surface, a very ‘affluent’ background, or whatever, but be going through something that you don’t see. Or you might see kids from apparently ‘deprived’ backgrounds but they’re doing great, they’re well looked after and family life is good regardless of money coming in.
I think one thing that guides me all the time is the idea of ‘holding children in mind’. It sounds similar to what I said previously but it’s really important to let children know they are being held in mind. So for a child that looks like they're really vulnerable, to just go slightly out of your way - it doesn’t have to take a lot of time - to give more pats on the shoulder, words of encouragement or smiles… all the everyday feedback, and regularly letting them know that they’re thought of and cared for. Often, for some kids that will be verbalised again and again - for others it’s much more subtle.
GRASP: You are also an author of children's books! What advice can you give to a grown up who is looking to relate to kids better?
Tom: Spend time with kids! That’s definitely number 1! I spent a year when I wasn't teaching, and I was just writing, and my writing was not as good - just as a result of not being in contact with kids. So if you have time, volunteer at a school, become a TA, or a teacher, or a sports coach or lunchtime supervisor… we used to say dinner lady but it’s lunchtime supervisor!
And again, just remember they’re kids! They just think differently - their ways and their patterns aren’t set.
GRASP: The last two years have been pretty traumatic for kids in terms of their school life. What reassurance would you give to them about the future?
Tom: I guess the biggest thing - and I say this to all the children I work with, all the time - is, it’s not the outside ‘things’ - not me as the teacher or the school, nor the parents - that dictate the future. They play a massive part but they’re not ultimately it. You know, at the end of the day it’s the choices you make. And, everyday, every moment there’s choices to be made. And that’s a big responsibility! But, with great responsibility comes great power… or is it the other way round?!.. But either way, those choices are a huge opportunity. Even when something really messed up happens, the hope is that the next moment, there are new choices to be made.
I work with Year 6, so kids that are going on to secondary school, and that’s what I'm always trying to drill into them. They have the choices to make next, about what happens when they start secondary. It doesn’t matter what primary was like, it doesn’t matter what they think people think of them, it matters what they do next, their actions define that next stage.
They say it takes a village to raise a child. All the big and small inputs different grown ups have in a child’s life - from grandparents to playgroup leaders to the lady at the checkout - shape how kids grow up to see the world. Who makes up this village is different from family to family, and even child to child. What the people in this ‘village’ offer and model to the kids in their lives is more diverse still. This series shines a light on the different kinds of people that make up the villages around us!