Mrs Mac: 100 terms but not quite out

Helen Mackenzie is retiring as a PE teacher at RGS after 18 years, although remains in her post as deputy housemistress in girls’ boarding. She looks back on her 100 terms in the teaching profession and also reflects on her time as a pupil, having left RGS in 1986 to study psychophysiology and English

Q: What did you do before you came to RGS?

A: Head of girls’ PE and head of year at Prudhoe Community High School, Northumberland

Q: What have your roles been at RGS?

A: I started in September 2006 as director of sport over RGS, Ripon College (now Outwood) and 19 primary schools. I went part time as a PE teacher in 2013 when the government put an end to school sports partnerships. Just recently I started working in the girls’ boarding house and am now deputy housemistress.

Q: Can you outline a typical day?

A: Wake and shower at 6.45am, prepare the boarding house for registration after my first cup of tea. Roll call, breakfast, room checks, administering medication, chasing late students, leave the boarding house, attend form period, badminton, swimming, gymnastics, break duty, double football, lunchtime club, basketball, dance, aerobics, back to the boarding house. Might bump into lovely hubby if he is on supply, just to remind him what I look like, roll call, house admin, tea, supervised prep, activity, roll call, administering of medication, bedtime routine, collecting in phones, checking everyone is where they should be, prepare the register for the next day, end of duty is 11.30pm, too tired to read, zzz. Wake and shower at 6.45am…

Q: What do you plan to do next?

A: I will be continuing in the boarding house and will carry on my work with Back to Basics – a food charity I set up in 2019. I intend to get fit (well fitter than I am now!) and enjoy spending time with my husband, John (not sure he will enjoy it that much!) I also plan to volunteer in my teacher daughter Laura’s primary school, Kirkby Malzeard, to get my PE fix. I also love reading and never have time, so reading and crossword puzzles will also fill my day!

Q: What has been the best part of your job?

A: There have been far too many to mention. It was incredible to qualify for the national school’s netball competition in 2015 – literally eight girls who simply loved netball. At the finals in Chester, I was checking the scoreboards (they had spelt our school as Ripon Grammer, much to my horror) I overheard someone say: “Ripon Grammar are the dark horses of this competition,” and I nearly burst with pride. In the end – having drawn with Millfield, a school with more PE staff than we have actual staff, we made the 3rd/4th play-off, coming fourth in the country and the highest-placed state school throughout the whole competition. This was my daughter Amy’s year group and she was spotted by an England talent selector and started on the national pathway – happy times. But I have never been an elitist – far more important that all girls (and boys come to that) enjoy being physically active and continue to do so long after they leave school. I hope I have promoted this throughout my career, never caring AT ALL whether students are good at physical education or not. All that has ever mattered is that they try. PE gets this right a lot of the time by having ‘personal bests’ so you’re only competing against yourself and striving to be the best you can be. Once, when I was demonstrating a long fly over the vaulting horse, a boy said to me: “I never thought anybody as old as you would be that good at gym…” A backhanded compliment, but when he then had a go himself, he said: “Did you see me miss? I flew!” I was buzzing for the rest of the day.

Q: And the worst bit?

A: I was diagnosed with cancer in 2009. It was touch and go for a while but when I pulled through the worst of the treatment and returned to school, a little boy said: “Oh miss, your eyes have turned back on!” Out of the mouths of babes. This was the worst time of my life, and his comment helped my mental health no end. There haven’t really been any ‘worst bits’ in my actual teaching (I hope). I did once try to take the minibus through the drive-through at McDonald’s, which was a big mistake. My husband, the legendary Johnny Mac, came up to school at midnight when we got back to fix my handiwork…this is the first time I have admitted this. The kids onboard were sworn to secrecy!

Q: What will you miss most about RGS?

A: Fortunately, I will still be around as will be continuing my boarding role, but RGS is in my blood. I came here as a student, my children came here, I’ve worked here. If you cut me through the middle, Ripon Grammar School will be stamped through me like a stick of rock. I will miss the very essence of the place, the beauty of the grounds, the buildings, the fabulous pool, which is my favourite place, and, above all else, I will miss the kids. What amazing people they all are – I adore them and have loved working with them.

Q: What are you most proud of?

A: Here’s the bit where we’re meant to say how proud we are of our children – but I truly am. Laura and Amy have both grown into beautiful, caring, independent women. Both have faced adversity and overcome it. Both have helped me enormously over the recent loss of my lovely mum, Sylvia Grice MBE. Both are John’s and my pride and joy.

For things I have achieved, I was honoured to carry the Olympic torch in 2012 and very excited to have been awarded the British Citizen Award for services to the community in 2021. I also beat cancer which is the toughest match I ever played. Helen 1 – Cancer 0. In September I swam 90 miles (three miles a day – sometimes had to do six miles if I was on boarding duty and couldn’t get to the pool the previous day) for The Stroke Association and raised almost £1,000. A student videoed my last length – when I showed it to my mum she said: “You only breathe to the left. Every time you breathe your right arm enters slightly wider than your central line so your stroke is less efficient. If you breathed bilaterally this wouldn’t happen.” Ever the brilliant swimming analyst and stroke technician, right up to the end. She died a month to the day later. Rest in peace Mum x

Q: What are the main changes you have seen during your time at RGS?

A: People like me (ie old!) became teachers for life – Miss Gilfillan, Dr Grime, Mr Fell to name a few. I don’t think that happens now. But teachers can’t sustain the current level of workload for the rest of their lives. One of our daughters is a primary school teacher. I can see that she is tailor made for primary teaching – she’s sporty, arty, musical, eloquent, capable – but she has no life. She literally plans, marks, attends meetings and teaches. Our profession is losing brilliant teachers who all love their job and love the kids they teach but just can’t sustain working at such a high intensity indefinitely. If I were prime minister, I would halve teachers’ workloads and double their pay. Vote for me!

Q: What are your main interests outside RGS?

A: I set up Ripon City Netball Club ten years ago and am the head coach. I also run Ripon Swimming Academy for primary aged children right through to adults. I started a charity in 2019 which helps families who struggle to make ends meet and takes up a lot of my time but is very rewarding. I love to read and complete sudoku and crossword puzzles – I once had a clue accepted by the Daily Telegraph for their cryptic crossword! #selfconfessedgeek

Q: Can you tell us something about yourself that might surprise people?

A: I am a grade 8 pianist, can complete a 3x3 and 4x4 Rubik’s Cube and LOVE getting knots out of jewellery. I also instantly know how many letters are in words and can speak backwards…I am wasted as a PE teacher!

Helen left RGS in 1986 after studying English, French, economics, biology at A-level and gained a first-class degree from I M Marsh College of Physical Education. She looks back on her time as a student ar RGS

Q: What extra-curricular activities were you involved in at RGS and how valuable were they?

A: Netball, hockey, cross country, tennis, athletics, swimming (obviously) and gymnastics. I literally did something every lunchtime and every night after school. I also swam 24 hours a week firstly for Harrogate District Swimming Club, then York City Baths Club and finally Leeds Central, which is now City of Leeds. I swam every morning before school, in the water at 5am, and every evening, sometimes leaving Leeds at 10pm for the journey home, then galas every weekend. I still love the smell of chlorine and Deep Heat to this day!

Q: What do you wish you’d known back then?

A: Life is short – it’s people that matter.

Q: What was your dream when you were at school?

A: I always wanted to teach PE. Dream achieved!

Q: What is the one piece of advice you’d give students interested in following a similar career path?

A: Believe in yourself and always be the best version of yourself that you can be.

‘Good, better best,

Never let it rest,

Until your good is better,

And better is your best.’

Q: Who was your favourite teacher and why?

A: Mrs Swainston – we are still in touch today. The words beautiful inside and out are often bandied about but Anne Swainston truly is. All the dads used to book appointments with her at parents’ evenings as she looked like Farrah Fawcett! I adored her – still do.

Q: Who or what inspired you when you were at school?

A: I loved Miss Holland. She was our deputy head and our PE teacher. I once passed her office and she was polishing her shoes for assembly. “Always be a lady, Helen,” she said and winked at me. When I gained my first-class honours degree, I rang her before I rang my parents. When she died, former classmate Nicky Woolfenden (Nee Richardson) and I held our own minute’s silence at the half mast RGS flag. A wonderful woman.