At the turn of the millennium, when a top hat and cigar were still part of the school logo and the Nokia 3310 first hit the streets, an application form dropped on the desk of the then headteacher. In it, a shy young mum who was attending a parent/tutor course at school, nervously put herself forward as a learning support assistant for three hours a week. She was successful and thus began Deb Welling’s legendary career at Iambard Brunel Junior School.
Around a year later and Deb’s impact on school was such that she was appointed as a full time Behaviour Support Assistant. “I get great satisfaction from helping children learn and experience new things,” she wrote in her application, “and being able to comfort them if they are upset or worried.” It soon became obvious that Deb was becoming a key member of staff as in August 2002, her job became permanent.
In September 2006, I joined Brunel and immediately realised that Deb was a crucial element in the pastoral success of the school. Over the next few years, Deb was promoted to Family Link and Behaviour Adviser, then Assistant Inclusion Manager and finally Manager of the Inclusion Base. With each step, she took on more responsibilities and made a positive difference to more and more children including, by now, running parenting workshops in school. By now, the wider school community recognised her talents. She was seconded back by my predecessor to offer behaviour support to a school she had taken over; she was encouraged by the local authority to be one of the first participants when the National Programme for Specialist Leaders of Behaviour and Attendance came to Portsmouth; independent chairs of social care review meetings asked her to stay behind because they wanted to compliment Deb on her input to the meeting. If that were not enough, she joined the governing body and took part in the strategic leadership of the school.
During all this time, Deb spent her days talking to children, reassuring parents, keeping an eye on staff whilst offering cups of tea and drying tears when it all went wrong. As a single mother herself, she knew the challenges of parenting. Her natural empathy and refusal to judge or criticize meant parents knew they had someone in school they could talk to. Children too knew Ms Welling would help. Not being a teacher or teaching assistant allowed her to inherit a hinterland in-between: big sister? Friendly aunt? Who knows? But we did know that everything she did was about seeing children succeed.
Deb was such an essential person: full of life, full of anecdotes; the first to greet you in the morning and the last one standing at the party in the evening. Her Sidney James laugh filled the world with joy even at the most inopportune moments. Her endless enthusiasm, energy and positivity was wonderful to behold…which made it all the more upsetting when that energy began to fade.
It was around 2014 that Deb began to fall ill. Like all dedicated school workers, she ignored it and pressed on: the “it’s only a flesh wound” attitude you usually find in teachers. However it became obvious that there was something else going on. In 2015, after what seemed to be endless tests and visits to surgeries, Deb was diagnosed with cancer. The news shocked the school and the family but Deb was her usual positive self even joking that her specialist said she was such an unusual case, she would get her own chapter in his next book.
Deb was always a fighter and even when going through chemotherapy a year later, she was talking about when she would come back to work. Eventually she did but the treatment had robbed her of that energy and vitality that made her who she was and it became obvious that Deb could no longer cope with the physical demands of her job at school. I hated myself for having to have that meeting when I told her that I needed to end her contract. Being the person she was, Deb made a point of thanking me for everything I had done and for being so supportive of her at all times.
Deb formally left the school in March 2017 but she continued to visit and keep in contact. However her health continued to deteriorate and in June, she moved to the Rowans. Despite her fighting to the end, Deb died at 4am on Friday 30 June 2017. She was 54 years old.
There are countless people in this city who are successful and happy because they had support from Deb at one time or another. One only has to spend a few minutes in the company of her three adult sons to see for yourself her personal success as a parent. But Deb’s influence is greater than that:
At least two teachers told me last week that they could not have gotten through their first year at Brunel without Deb’s help. Like them, without Deb, I would not have got through my first few years at Brunel: I have lost count of the number of times I sat in the old “yellow room”, leaning against the filing cabinet with my feet up on the chairs thinking out loud about what to do knowing that Deb would listen and come back with something astonishing.
Yet Brunel, her boys and her family are now always going to be without Deb. That is a sentence I still cannot quite believe – I found myself stopping typing and staring at the screen as if it were in Russian not English. Brunel without Deb?
Well actually, no. Never. Deb’s influence and impact are part of the DNA of this school. Whenever we have a child who needs some help, a parent who needs some support, a member of staff who needs a hug or someone else who could do with a cup of tea and a bit of a chat, we’ll be honouring Deb’s memory, continuing her legacy and trying to make as much of a difference as she did.
Thank you Deb for everything you did and for influencing everything we do. We miss you and we love you.