I want to #talkupteaching. I have just shy of 100 days left in my job before sticks are upped and we take our leap of faith (cunningly disguised as a 19 hour flight, but I’m preferring to think of it as a metaphor) to Shanghai. I will be bringing a whole chapter of my career to an end and so, inspired by #talkupteaching and more specifically this utterly gorgeous blog by Natalie Scott, I decided to have a look back on what I’ve learned and why this crazy job is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.
I read John Tomsett’s brilliant book over the Easter holiday and my only regret was that I hadn’t read it before starting as HoD. One of its main messages is creating a culture of love – John spoke eloquently about this at Northern Rocks 2015 and his words went directly to the core of my philosophy as a teacher. I love my students dearly. I’ve been lucky enough to actually like a lot of them as well, but no matter what, I have loved them all and it’s been the backbone of what’s been successful about my career so far. I remember very well what it feels like to be unloved at school, and have been determined from day one that no child in my classroom will ever feel that way. The effort can be immense but it pales in size compared to the payoffs – those lightbulb moments when a student finds a new skill, or a new side to themselves, or a comment from a parent at the end of a tiring term, right down to the moment I looked up after telling my Y11 class I would be leaving at the end of the year and realised some of them were crying. This was perhaps the most humbling moment of my career – I have rarely known kindness like it and as they stayed behind to say nice things about me, I very Britishly stumbled over myself and muttered a rubbish sentence or two of thanks. As I say goodbye to them at their prom, I have made a mental note to swallow my Yorkshire awkwardness and let them know that they have made my life a better place to be, and that I will miss them.
I had a career before I was a teacher. Well, actually I didn’t. I had jobs. They were fine; they kept me busy and I worked hard at them and I did ok, insofar as one can do ok in call centres and customer service. In dark moments as a teacher, I wonder why I left. I worked with some good people, had some good times, worked far, far fewer hours and had far, far less stress. I never worked on weekends or after 4:30pm, and I had a gym on site and decent chicken sandwiches for lunch. So why leave?
Well, I was bored.
I was so bored. Teacher colleagues – you know that feeling when you’re so bored you give serious thought to the idea of setting fire to your own leg just so you’ve got something to do? No – of course you don’t – you’re teachers. I once spent 25 minutes during a quiet afternoon at the call centre twisting my headphone cord into a pair of comedy glasses. Seriously, 25 minutes. And while they looked hilarious (I don’t care what my team leader said), even I must admit, it wasn’t the most productive use of my time. When the idea of teaching made its way in to my mind, my mum (a teacher for 30 years at this point) said she couldn’t promise anything about the job except this: ‘you’ll never feel bored’. She was so right. Is it all fun? No. Do I love every minute of every aspect of my job? No. Have I sometimes been to meetings that were less than eye-wateringly thrilling? Yes. But I’ve never felt boredom like I knew in those days before teaching came along and for that I will be eternally grateful.
The biggest difference now is that instead of having a job, I have a career. Chris Rock says that someone is ‘blessed’ to have a career, and I agree. Rock says ‘when you have a career, there ain’t enough time in the day. You look at your watch and time just flies and you go, ‘Damn, I gotta come in early tomorrow and work on my project.’ cause there ain’t enough time. When you got a job…there’s too much time.’ It’s so true. Teaching is my project now. I blogged about being a terrible teacher here and it has taken a lot of mental rearrangement (which is still ongoing, by the way) to appreciate that I may never simply ‘be’ a good teacher – I just have to keep trying to improve all the time. It’s weird being on a journey that has no end, but of course now that I have a career, I have a purpose, and now I have a purpose, the length of the journey doesn’t matter because the views along the way are so wonderful. I hope I never get tired of them.
I think humans need to struggle. I don’t mean struggle in a truly desperate way, and of course this is all coming from a middle-class boy who went to private school and never (as any picture of me from 1989-2014 will rotundly show) had to go without food. On Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I am (to say the least) comfortable, and grateful for it too. I don’t think anyone should ever have to struggle for the basics in life, food, water, shelter, wifi, decent chicken sandwiches, that kind of thing, but there is something inescapably appealing about a challenge and the conquering thereof. Teaching provides challenge on every single level it could, and while there are short-term downsides to this (I’m tired, I work a lot, blah blah) I would not swap it for an ‘easy’ life. This, of course, is largely because I HAVE an easy life. I have a job I like, I work with kids I like, I have a family I love, I go on nice holidays and eat nice food with nice friends in a nice place. Then I get 12 weeks’ holiday a year where they pay me not to come to work. I am not complaining, believe me. But it’s nice to face the odd challenge and get stuck into beating it. Teaching gives you short-term challenges that you can conquer on a daily basis, and longer term challenges that require some serious attention. It also gives you the chance to fail, a lot – and I don’t know about you, but if I get the chance to fail a lot… I fail. A lot. That’s why it feels so lovely when you succeed, I suppose.
I got an email recently from a student I’d taught for 12 weeks on my PGCE back in 2009 in London. She has stayed in touch intermittently every year since 2009, and she wanted to let me know she was dropping out of university and changing her track in life, and what did I think of that decision? Honestly, I could have wept. Here was one of the brightest, funniest, most capable and engaging students I’ve ever met asking for my opinion 7 years after I taught her for a term. There is no part of me that wasn’t touched that she thought to get in touch to let me know how she was doing, let alone that she asked for advice. I know why pride is one of the deadly sins – but I think a little bit of earned pride once in a while can be good for you. After replying to her email, I had a look at my ‘emails from students’ folder and realised again how lucky I’ve been to work with some wonderful students who have kept in touch to let me know how they are doing. And yes, I felt proud of myself. In the five years between leaving university and beginning teaching I was never out of work for more than a couple of weeks but I never felt proud of myself for something I had achieved because of my work. Now I’m a teacher and I get to feel it every day.
I’ve worked with and met some incredibly inspiring people in my time so far; some of them are now my friends and I feel very lucky to know them. I don’t know whether you can really judge someone by their choice of friends, but if you can, I think I’m doing alright. Ours is a put-upon profession, no doubt. Some of the things I read about what’s expected from teachers would be hilarious if it wasn’t so terrifying, and while I haven’t always agreed with every criticism of every education initiative that’s arrived in my short career (which has been quite a lot, given the short time-scale) and I haven’t always seen eye-to-eye with every colleague, I haven’t yet worked with someone who wasn’t a dedicated, hard-working, caring professional who would do anything for their students. But this is 2016, so it’s not just in real-life that I’ve met wonderful colleagues; Twitter has been a constant source of inspiration too, leading me to improve and adapt my practice, and led me to real-life Twitter #EngChat moments such as Northern Rocks last year. All these wonderful teachers put me to shame, and they inspire me to be better.
It’d be stupid to try and fully blog about every part of this job that I love, but if we’re looking for reasons to #talkupteaching then these are just a few of mine. Thanks for reading!