I was 7 years old the first time I remember consciously thinking “I want to be a teacher”.
Mrs Duffy was my teacher and she was amazing. She had a calm, maternal approach to teaching and she made learning fun. Her favourite activity was asking us to write stories from the perspective of inanimate objects or animals with titles like: “My day as a toffee apple”.
I loved it.
You can argue it had no educational merit but I would argue very differently. It taught us empathy. Perspective. Our creative writing flourished that year.
She was also the first teacher I encountered who used a star chart as a reward system. I wanted to make star charts and give out sticky stars for good work. I wanted to inspire children.
I remember lining up my teddy bears (and my little sister if I could get away with it!) and having a school in our bedroom. I would sit at the front and “teach” them.
My mum was a teacher, although at this time she hadn’t returned to work so I didn’t see her as a teacher yet. One of my aunties was also a teacher, but she was busy having my cousins at the time, so again I didn’t really see her as a teacher. I think I could put together quite an argument in favour of there being a teaching gene. Out of my Mum’s siblings three of the five taught at some point in their career. My cousins who were born to those aunts and uncles, three out of five are teachers and one of the non-teachers married a teacher! Definitely a gene, some would say defective, I couldn’t possibly comment!
I’m joking of course. Teaching is a gift. I mean that whole heartedly. Not everyone can teach. Not everyone should teach.
As I grew up, I continued to work with children, helping with speaking exams, listening to readers at the local primary school and being a Brownie Leader among other things. I loved spending time with children, even though I was still fundamentally a child myself.
Then for around three years my head was turned.
My Mum had returned to teaching when I was in what is now Y5. Over the years I had seen how hard she worked. How tired she was. I had always loved singing and acting. I had been involved in school productions, choirs and orchestras throughout high school and now I was getting involved in Youth Theatre. For a few years I thought I would really like to work in theatre. Not necessarily on stage, but maybe in management or production.
A series of events broke that spell though and I eventually gave in and accepted my fate.
A teaching degree was always in my future.
I know I won’t be popular in saying this, and please remember it’s now history not under current conditions, but I found my teaching degree a doddle. Everything I learned I knew instinctively or because I had grown up around teachers. Some of it was frankly boring – did we need a three hour lecture on how to put up a display?
As our teaching practices grew in length and intensity I still loved every minute and always got great feedback from my host schools and mentors.
I loved spending time with the children and seeing those light bulb moments.
Looking back I was so young to be doing such an important job but that’s what we all do. As a secondary school teacher you may only be four or five years older than your students when you start teaching.
I graduated in the summer of 1999 and immediately started voluntary work experience at my auntie’s school for the last half term of the year to give me more experience – I told you, I LOVED it!
Then I started teaching…
Wow! What a shock!
I have been open about my first year as a teacher many times before so I won’t go into details, but let’s just say that it was not the job I imagined. Certainly not at first.
I had a very challenging class in an inner city, a ridiculously unsupportive Head and because I was in a portacabin at the top of the school it was just too easy to isolate myself. Thank goodness for my portacabin neighbour, Hazel. Hazel was an experienced teacher, but had been a middle school teacher, so she was on a steep learning curve in Y4 too. I was teaching Y5 despite focusing on EYFS and KS1 during my training, because I had applied for a Y2 job but they already had an internal candidate for that and I had impressed them so they offered me Y5.
It couldn’t be that different could it?
Well, it wasn’t easy.
Within 3 months I went from bouncing with excitement to clinically depressed.
I wasn’t prepared for the reality of the job. It wasn’t the children. It wasn’t teaching. It was the politics and the behind the scenes stuff that most people never see.
I should add that the sort of school environment I was in isn’t tolerated any more. With hindsight I should have reported the Head. Her behaviour was bullying, but I didn’t want to appear weak and look like I couldn’t cope. I had wanted to do this for too long to give up now.
As I say, that sort of behaviour isn’t tolerated any more, however, other pressures have increased over the last 20 years which make teaching more stressful than ever. We have also enticed people into teaching with financial incentives, who may not necessarily have considered teaching otherwise and while that might work short term, it is unlikely that they will stay in the profession for long without that passion for the job.
When I started teaching you couldn’t be sacked. Unless you physically hurt a child your job was safe. Now I’m not saying that ineffective, lazy teachers should have a job for life, of course they shouldn’t. However, I’ve never met a lazy teacher. I have met many exhausted teachers, but no lazy ones.
Now if the class you are teaching don’t achieve their expected grades your job might be on the line.
How is that fair?
Let’s translate this scenario into another profession.
If a dentist has a lot of patients with fillings do they lose their job?
No! Because it isn’t the dentist’s fault if they tell you to brush your teeth twice a day and not eat sweets and you ignore them is it? It isn’t their fault if you have naturally weak enamel. So why is it a teacher’s fault if their students don’t achieve? They can be doing everything right and the children ignore them. They can be the most inspirational teacher in the world but be in an area where many of their children don’t have any support at home and have large numbers of EAL (English as an Additional Language) or transient students. They can also of course not be doing their job properly, but that is one of a number of possibilities.
The level of testing in schools is reaching a critical level, we are teaching to test from day one now and that is not educating it is regurgitating if we’re not careful.
Children need time to explore. To learn independently. To discover their special spark, unearth the unique magic, that thing that makes them light up the same way teaching lights me up.
Teaching used to be a well respected and noble profession. Teachers were looked up to in society and paid accordingly.
Now they are judged and tested and scrutinised every step of the way and honestly it has to end.
As you all know I am no longer teaching. I had to leave for medical reasons, but honestly, having spent some time out of the system, I’m not sure I would want to return.
I will, however, always be a teacher in my heart. It is written through me like a stick of rock.
Seeing a child grasp a concept for the first time will always light me up inside in a way I can’t explain, and children’s laughter will always be my favourite sound.
Please, if you love teaching, if it is your calling, teach. Be the best teacher you know how to be. Stand up for the principles you believe in. Put the children first. Let’s make a change from the inside and make it that well respected, enjoyable, magical calling it always used to be.