(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.