On Becoming a Teacher

In Confident Mind, The Confident Teacher by Alex Quigley20 Comments

(Image via Ian Boyd on Flickr.com)

If you want to find a story about teachers leaving the profession, you don’t have to look very hard. A simple Google search reveals the Guardian bemoaning the failure of recruitment and the loss of 11% of teachers, Sky news exclaims that ‘More Teachers are Quitting than Ever!‘, a new teacher explains why they quit so quickly and Debra Kidd writing cogently about why she left teaching. Clearly, we have our problems and we could do more to take care of our most precious resource: our teachers.

Despite the undoubted issues, I simply cannot write about leaving teaching. In my early days, in the distant past of well over a decade ago, I had thought about quitting for a time, but I had stuck it out. It was no doubt the best professional decision I had made. Teaching changed my life for the better and it still fulfills me now. I have an urge to read the positive stories about why people became teachers and to hear the purpose that drives them on, beyond the silly bureaucracy, the workload issues and the endless politicking.

For what it is worth, here’s my positive story.

Becoming a teacher.

I never wanted to be a teacher. You see, my eldest sister was already a teacher and I wanted to be different and stand apart from what my siblings were doing. And yet, I couldn’t shake the urge. I loved reading and I loved my time at school. My teachers were the principal actors in some of the best years of my young life and helped open my eyes to the opportunity of university.

Becoming a teacher appeared to bring together a sense of someone I could be that would prove useful and even meaningful to some. Plus, it was my third year at university – the idea or doing a master’s degree didn’t appeal – so I had to think of something quick. I undertook my ‘Goldilocks’ work experience to rubber stamp my decision whether I was going to train to teach. That is to say, I visited a primary school, a secondary school and a special school.

First, I went along to primary school (my sister’s primary school to be exact). Beyond my bent back on the minuscule chairs, I loved the unbounded curiosity of the children. Some of the staid attitudes that were familiar to me from my university learning were flung off for an urgent sense of wonder and energy. With an aching back, I was truly exhausted after a mere five days, unlike anything I had experienced in my previous few years. It was equal parts tiring, exciting, enjoyable and fulfilling. I expect it loses some lustre when it is the every week routine, but still.

Like the Goldilocks story, the chairs proved too small.

Second, I went to a special school, kindly arranged by a beloved family friend who was Deputy head teacher. Nothing had prepared me for that week. I went there expecting the typical classroom experience, but within an hour I was helping shear sheep on the school farm. I found myself applying cream to the nether regions of lambs with bad cases of worms…with gloves, very robust gloves!

Just as quickly, I found myself reading to a boy of 16 with profound learning disabilities. We went onto read a simple book about a young man who left home to live on his own. He finished reading the short book  with a cheer of unguarded joy that completely surprised me. My towering wall of uptight, English reserve crumbled. Nothing, at school or university, had prepared me for that reading experience and I remember it with an uncommon clarity to this day.

I knew quite quickly that I was simply not prepared emotionally to work in such a setting – I was too immature and lacking in life experience. The metaphorical chair was too big. Still, my sense of awe at the work teachers do each day in special school settings has never left me.

Finally, I went back to secondary school. I remember sitting in an A level class as a teacher taught William Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’. It felt familiar and I struggled not to jump into discussion and debate. Yes, I didn’t have any marking or reports to write or OFSTED inspections to worry about, but there was something natural and fulfilling about talking and reading with people about great stories and literature.

No lives were saved and Coolio didn’t play menacingly in the background. No students stood on desks quoting Whitman, and yet ideas were debated and human truths were shared. It was inspiring for me in a muted but very real fashion.

Sitting in the chair in the secondary school English classroom felt just right.

No romance, but just right

If I was to locate the moment I knew I wanted to teach it would be when that young man finished reading the book in a fit of excitement at my special school experience. I don’t believe in revelations and it is too easy to romanticize teaching, but sometimes it catches your heart and it leaves an indelible impression. Teaching isn’t bloody ‘Sliding Doors’ I hear you exclaim, but that is the truth of what I remember.

I’ve never regretted my decision to become a teacher. I am no Pollyanna, blind to the stresses, strains and frustrations of the job, but I still take every chance to recommend it to people. Beyond all the stories that bemoan the profession and talk of leaving a sinking ship, I want to hear more stories of hope and of becoming, of happy teachers and student success.

Comments

  1. Good to hear the positives about teaching…it is hard, demanding and seemingly impossible at times, but like you, I wouldn’t do any other job…..

  2. Resonates. Currently having a bit of a crisis of confidence. My husband is utterly supportive and his mantra is “what about those kids you come home with stories about? They light you up.” I’ll take that.

    1. Author

      Yes – it is rarely that kids that drain our confidence! Having that core purpose makes our lot different to working for a bank or sales or whatever else. The difficult trick is having more of those experiences with the kids and fewer of the draining experiences. Always important to get to the half-term and reflect, re-find those moments and restore your self-confidence.

  3. You sound just like the me I once was. I’m just about to quit teaching after 20 years. I am an English teacher, (I love love love teaching/discussing/reading Blake, btw), I am sad to leave, but I can’t take any more!

  4. You forgot to mention the removal of pay scales, burgundy book / STPCD in academies, cheating, removal of older and more expensive teachers, academisation, extended working days, having to work in your holidays, ludicrous marking policies. I remember when Ofsted were the worst of a teacher’s worries.

  5. Have recently felt like leaving the profession, but to be completely honest, I can’t imagine myself doing anything else.
    Love this post. Thanks. 🙂

  6. Almost a year ago I was persuaded to use twitter and having access to articles like this was key to their argument. Both my daughters are now teachers and like you it ‘is just right’ for them. I spent over 30 years coaching teachers and I now recommend to all teachers to use twitter to be able to discover positive feedback (and lots of resources) like yours. Sadly I know nothing of your background (or you) so I am unable to provide an analysis of why you are suited to teaching (one of my strengths) but perhaps you can relate to this simple feelosophical line of mine -“Teaching can be the best job in the world, but ‘You must be the change you want to see in the world’ and keep focused on what really matters in life.”

    1. Author

      I think sticking to your core purpose and having that sense of agency that you can do it is so crucial. I went and wrote a book about it in effect when I tackled ‘The Confident Teacher’. Our sense of self-confidence is carried forward by our sense of purpose. It sounds all too touchy-feely and un-English, but it is pragmatic and real and true.

  7. I too have recently considered a career elsewhere but I simply cannot imagine doing anything else that fulfills my spirit like teaching does. I try to have ‘a moment’ everyday amongst the politicking ridiculousness that surrounds the job to remember the core purpose of teaching. Its that core purpose that fuels me to continue – the rest is just ‘stuff’, some necessary and important but most just ‘stuff’. Teaching children is THE best job in the world and we need to shout it from the roof tops!

    1. Author

      Completely agree with you Emma. I really like how you are being quite conscious in thinking about the specific moments. You don’t have to be some naïve type to think positively – you can see it as a practical approach to staying sane!

  8. I really love this. Thanks for sharing. Remembering your ‘why’ is so important. We all face challenging times, full of change (only some for the better), but I still believe we have the best job in the world.

  9. Thanks, Alex – and I agree we need more positive accounts about what brought people into teaching, and what keeps them there, without being dismissive of the pressures and challenges.

    I also read this today by Summer Turner (@ragazza_inglese), in case you missed it: https://ragazzainglese.wordpress.com/2016/05/31/dont-tell-me-theres-no-joy/

    I started my teaching career, as I think you know, in 1980. All I’d ever wanted to do was teach, and to teach English, and I was taken aback by how hard I found my first few months. I was in a good comprehensive in the north west, but I found teaching exhausting initially – I felt I was putting so much more into it than I was getting out of it, and I felt drained. When the pupils misbehaved I found it hard not to take it personally, and I felt quite isolated within my classroom. This was before Ofsted, before the National Curriculum, league tables, key stage tests. We were teaching CSE and O level, children in state schools were still being caned, and there was no coursework and very little discussion between teachers about what they were teaching and how they were assessing their pupils.

    When it got to Christmas I realised I needed to face the fact that it might be teaching wasn’t the right job for me (and vice versa) and decided that if I felt the same by Easter I would resign and look for another job. But then by Easter I felt a little better, by the summer better still, and when I started my second year (having passed my ‘probationary year’) I felt much more comfortable within my own teaching skin. (The right Goldilocks chair?) I still had a huge amount to learn, and I continued to learn for the next 29 years, doing seven jobs across six schools, the last ten as a head.

    Thirty years in the profession felt like enough for me, and I’m doing different things now (though still education-related), but I don’t regret sticking with it. I think I had an amazing career.

    My advice to any teacher struggling would be:

    1. Set yourself a time limit and if you feel no better at the end of that time, make a change then, but
    2. Try a change of school before you try a change of profession. I know so many for whom this has been a positive step.

    Thanks again for the post.

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