It is often a long road when you’re learning

TEACHER Driving instructor Julie Woollacott pictured on Hayling Island seafront. Picture: Allan Hutchings (131316-542)
TEACHER Driving instructor Julie Woollacott pictured on Hayling Island seafront. Picture: Allan Hutchings (131316-542)
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Imagine being cooped in a hatchback car for most of the day.

At any moment you might have to grab the steering wheel – and you are not even in the driving seat.

It’s a task that requires nerves of steel and the patience of a saint.

Every day driving instructors are out on our roads – Southsea seafront in particular – teaching people of all ages and backgrounds how to get to grips with changing gears, steering, three-point turns and the dreaded parallel park.

It’s not a job for the faint-hearted, as I found out when I met the bubbly Julie Woollacott.

The 57-year-old, from Hayling Island, is one of many driving instructors who has ended up in the vocation in a roundabout way.

Julie worked for 30 years in the high-powered corporate world of IBM. But, after taking early retirement in 2010, she decided she wanted to teach.

Being a car lover, an advanced driver, and wanting to work when she wanted, stacked up to make driving instruction the perfect job.

But it’s been a long road for Julie.

‘My nerves have got a lot better,’ she says.

‘You have to respond very quickly to situations and keep your car safe so it’s not damaged.

‘You have to be proactive in using your pedals at junctions and leaning across and using the steering wheel where appropriate.

‘I intervene quite a lot!

‘You need to be a calm person. You need to maintain a calm voice even though you may not feel it!’

Julie trained for nine months with the AA to become an Approved Driving Instructor with the Driving Standards Agency.

She learned her craft on the busy and confusing roads of Southampton, teaching examiners who posed as beginners.

Julie, who passed her driving test at the age of 17 first time, says passing her driving instructor test was one of the biggest achievements of her life.

‘I was really thrilled,’ she says.

‘I have done some difficult things in IBM, but this was really very challenging indeed.’

Julie’s typical day involves two-hour lessons across the Portsmouth area and eating and drinking on the go. A flask is a must for her.

She says Portsmouth’s roads – the metaphorical equivalent of her classroom – can be incredibly difficult to navigate for beginners.

‘The road traffic systems are very different to when I learned,’ she says.

‘The Farlington straight is a very complicated, busy stretch of road and learners have to deal with that, and you have the Cosham and Hilsea roundabouts.

‘Learners today – there’s so much more expected of them.’

Teaching people with English as their first language is difficult enough.

But many of Julie’s pupils speak only basic English, with clients hailing from Brazil, Cameroon, Turkey, Bangladesh and Jordan.

‘It’s very challenging to teach someone when you don’t always know they have understood your instructions,’ says Julie, who relaxes by working out up to five times a week.

‘The steps are more minute in making progress because you have to make sure you are safe all the time.’

Some pupils can take just eight lessons to pass their test, normally supplemented by lessons from their parents.

At the other end of the scale, some of Julie’s pupils are still learning two years on. The average number of hours needed is 40.

During that learning period there are often some hair-raising moments.

Julie, who works for The Professional Driving School, explains: ‘I’ve got a pupil who took a corner too fast.

‘I grabbed the steering wheel. She fought me for the steering wheel.

‘When people are frightened, their hands clamp on to the steering wheel.

‘As I leaned across, my seat belt locked, so in pulling the steering wheel round, we hit the curb.

‘I have got punctureless tyres, but my front left was completely wrecked. It was not a nice experience for either of us.’

Another heart-leaping moment near Southsea Common was particularly memorable.

Julie says: ‘Suddenly we are driving along and we see across the front of the bonnet a tail and some ears just in front of my car.

‘My pupil is screaming her head off. This dog had run off the Common. How we did not plough it over is a miracle.

‘It’s never a dull moment!’

But one of Julie’s biggest bugbears is impatient drivers.

She says: ‘People forget what it’s like to be a learner and get very frustrated at times.

‘They peep their horns which intimidates your pupil.

‘I see people take risks at junctions by driving right round you at a junction.

‘I see people taking extraordinary risks.

“I see really dangerous driving because people are not very tolerant.

‘They have forgotten what it’s like for someone to learn. My message would be patient. Just give an extra few seconds – that’s all it will take.’

All the hard work of both pupil and instructor builds up to the big day at the test centre on Portsdown Hill.

‘You do get apprehensive for them,’ says Julie

‘You have worked hard to groom them for this big day.

‘It’s up to the pupil whether you go with them or not.

‘I like going personally because I like seeing how they undertake their test. I learn from it.

‘I am not allowed to say a word or move my head to give any indication of the traffic. I mustn’t give any clues.’

If pupils do pass, Julie says she feels elated.

‘It’s such a significant thing in life to pass your driving test,’ she says.

‘To help someone succeed, I am really pleased to help them.

‘I normally take a photograph and send them it afterwards as a memento. On the way home I will stop and take a picture of them.’

The truth is that driving instructor and pupil go on one of life’s most extraordinary journeys together.

And it’s quite sad to say goodbye, says Julie.

She says she has met some ‘lovely people’ in the job.

‘To spend that time with young people, it’s a pleasure actually,’ she says.

‘My most pleasant experience was my first pupil who was late.

‘He was not even at home actually.

‘It was a really hot day – I felt apprehensive and nervous.

‘I had to wait about 40 minutes for the pupil, but you do when you are just starting.

‘His mum came out of the house with a Cornetto and a little bowl of chopped up watermelon.

‘I thought it was a lovely start – a gesture of kindness. It was quite unexpected.

‘She did not know it was my first lesson.’