The teaching life

Once – when I was about fourteen – a teacher told a class she thought I would become one too.

I was mortified.

For me education was only the means to more exciting ends. Going to school was uncool, and voluntarily being there when there was so much other stuff you could do was worse.

At university I failed to recognise my privileges and coasted.

I put most of my effort into working in pubs as a barman, chef, and then a supervisor.

The responsibility astonishes me now – at twenty there I was in charge of a nightclub with nearly five hundred drunken people in it.

For a while I loved it.

It felt dirty and alive and real.

I liked pretending I hated setting my alarm for three to take beer deliveries. I liked having lots of keys, cashing up and being trusted to do the bank run, carrying thousands of pounds in a Gola holdall slung faux-casually over my shoulder so Bad Guys would think I was going to football practice.

I liked the sense I was someone on whom others relied – a link in a chain.

Some of my fondest memories are from this time – walking home in spring as dawn broke over the streets, legs aching, stinking of beer, jeans streaked white by line cleaner, watching early morning commuters in their suits and ties, living in a sense while we were in the same space we were as far as each other as it was possible to be.

I liked that what I did was offbeat and strange to most people.

I thought this is what I would do – I would learn the craft of running bars and then one day I would have my own.

But the scene went bad.

More fights. Drugs. People I knew beaten up.

I heard a story about a landlord I liked pushing a harmless homeless man down a flight of stairs.

It felt scary. Not me. And I noticed people around me were moving on – that it wasn’t the same place anymore and never would be again.

For the only time in my life I changed career.

I decided I’d be a writer but needed something that brought in money while I wrote the novel that would make me famous.

Long holidays to write in; tuition free teacher training; a grant of nearly £7000 to train; a qualification for free.

That’s why I became a teacher.

Far from noble. Not a calling. A sort of pragmatic cynicism and luck.

And I count myself lucky.

Twenty years on and I can’t imagine myself doing anything else.

It’s hard to understand if you aren’t in it.

My wife can’t keep up. I can’t keep up.

Some days I’m coiled on the couch ranting about how hard it is and how nobody gets it, and the next I’m exploding into the house, sweeping my kids into my arms and declaring I hope I’ll never retire.

Things change lesson by lesson – minute by minute.

A class comes in rowdy from break, and I’m tense and annoyed as I work at order when I feel I shouldn’t have to. Then Jennifer asks something nuanced about Question 2 – something that shows she’s listened – and my bad mood is a cobweb broken in a breeze. Then it’s the best job in the world until the last lesson when there’s three without pens even though they know the system.

It’s so up and down because it matters.

Children learning things is a mark of a civilization. Being part of it is a privilege.

The job – every hour of every day – is to wrestle disparate minds and exterior intrusions to a focus that means kids leave our rooms knowing more than they did when they came in – important and beautiful stuff they would not know were it not for us.

It’s stressful because it’s important – because when it goes right it feels sacred and when it goes wrong it feels like defeat, and that this defeat often isn’t our fault makes no difference to how dreadful it feels.

We’re right to be angry now. About falling funding and wages, about hunger, poor sleep and cramped cold houses with mould on the walls.

We’re right to be angry about parents so consumed by The Rent they can’t listen to their child read or not there for homework because they’re out doing a second job they hate.

We’re angry because we care about children but – just as importantly – because these things mean we can’t do our job as well.

We’re angry because our aims matter.

Sometimes we’re so angry and sad we think it’d be better to throw it all up and get out.

When wages drop again, and we’re insulted by an offer that shows our government doesn’t care as much as we do – that it might not even understand.

When the powers above us make staggeringly damaging decisions and we see the impact but there’s not a thing we can do about it.

When it’s cold at home and school and nobody can afford to put the heating on. When it seems everyone except us is working online for more money, drinking coffee and posting comments on the internet about how lazy we all are and then we see there are politicians joining in.

When we’ve been teaching twenty years and there’s a buzzy new initiative that’s bound to wash out, and suddenly we look round and realise with a jolt we’re one of the only ones old enough to know it.

It’s little wonder more of us are leaving and fewer people want our jobs.

But I don’t think I will go anywhere.

I’m too far in.

Doing anything else would feel like exile.

I don’t want to be anywhere else. I haven’t since first I stepped into a classroom as a teacher and realised it’s a craft.

If you work hard at it, you get better.

You develop expertise in something that matters – an ability to look at something interesting and without even realising what you’re doing to distil, prioritise and sequence. To look at a vast swathe of material and see the links, what you’ll foreshadow and link back to, what you’ll spend more time on, what you’ll pick up later and how you’ll make sure the embers haven’t died by the time you get to them again.

Eventually no class will scare you.

Some you’ll think “this is going to be hard work and will take a bit of time to sort” but you’ll know you can – you’ll know what to do. You’ll see the problem in the same way mechanics see tricky repairs – something to tut at to begin with, but then you’ll make a start and when it’s done, you’ll feel satisfaction – pride in a job well done.

It’ll change you – you’ll develop a professional eye that has you nodding in approval at a well-crafted explanation on Match of the Day and silently internally tutting at poor instruction at a swimming lesson. It’s an annoying habit but as a price of expertise you won’t wish it away.

Some classes will fly– most likely the ones you’ve taught over years. With these there will be moments when one child says something and then another adds on, and another says something else and then you’ll read the work of a quiet child and be just blown away. If you’re hardworking and lucky there might be a moment that you see a set of results that you know is a proper reflection of what you and your students have done together and it’ll take your breath away.

In an otherwise unremarkable week you’ll get an email from a name that makes you smile, telling you that you’re the reason they are where they are doing what they are doing and – although you’ll know it isn’t really true – you’ll still burn with pride.

In those moments there won’t be anything else you’d rather be doing or anywhere else you’d rather be.

You’ll see all humanity at its best and worst.

You might be there the first time am eleven-year-old refugee says something in an English classroom after months of sometimes tearful silence. You might watch a girl who finds peer relationships hard being swept into an embrace by her form tutor as she wins the 800m on Sports Day and see her face break into a smile so real and rare you’ll swear it actually flashed in the June sun.

You might be eating your lunch one nameless Tuesday when a boy you’ve come to care about very much tells you it’s really happening – that he’s here to say goodbye because his foster family is adopting him, and he’s moving school because he wants to be at one that knows him only as child with a proper family.

After he’s gone on his happy way you might find yourself crying into your lunchbox knowing you’ll never be quite the same again – that this is a moment you’ll turn over and over in your mind as long as you live.

It’s all life and that means sometimes it will be hard.

It might fall to you to interrupt a child’s lunch and take them to reception where you know terrible news waits. It might fall to you to break it to a form group that one of their number won’t be coming back this year or any year.

You’ll make friends and sometimes that’ll be a joy – sharing their happy news; promotions, engagements, births and new houses.

But there will be sadness too.

A colleague you’ve worked with years might – with no fuss over a hot drink on break duty- tell you they’re stopping the IVF now, or that the test results were even worse than they feared, or that it turns out the person they planned to grow old with doesn’t feel the same about them and they don’t know how to even begin telling the kids.

It won’t all be serious either – there’ll times like the one a child gets stuck in a manhole cover after bouncing on it to see it wobble, and you’ll worry that he’ll be embarrassed about it and then find out – in a delighted tea sputtering hiccup of pure joy- that he actually took selfies of the fire-brigade rescuing him and posted them all over the social media he’s not supposed to have. There might be a time an implausibly tiny Y7’s implausibly huge dog follows her to school, and you get to watch besuited SLT chasing it around the playground while reception desperately Calls Home.

The ups, the down, the easy, the hard – it’s life and you’ll see it all.

There’s no denying teaching is hard now.

Made harder by tough circumstances and those who should know better.

Made hard by worrying attendance rates that can only widen the disadvantage gap, by terrifying increases in adolescent mental illness, by a fraying instrumentalist social contract around the purpose of school, all made harder to deal with by declining funding and services that can make deciding what to do paralysing.

And in the midst of it all this feeling there’s fewer of us to do more work – that we’re too little butter over too much bread.

There’s lots of reasons why many of us want out and it feels few want in, but I hope we’ll get through this bit and the next bit is better because when it’s good it’s good and even when it isn’t, it’s still important.

I hope look back at this able to see it as a bad period because it’s got better and things are saner, and we’ve had space to get perspective.

Society needs schools and it needs us to be happy to teach in them.

Is it a happy life? For me? Sometimes? Mainly? It’s impossible to say. I don’t think it’s even the right way to frame things.

Nobody really gets to happiness by aiming directly at it anyway.

People need meaning and purpose. These aren’t sufficient but they are necessary. Teaching offers good odds at them and what we do has never been more important than now.

For me it’s been good enough– so far, sometimes despite it all, for all the peaks and troughs my hand’s been a winner.

I wouldn’t trade it in.

I’m still glad I’m here – in the teaching life.

Even in the worst times I’ve been glad.

Although I know I’m lucky to be able to say it, that this might only be true for me, I’m glad I’m doing it even now.

I’m pleased I’ve been teaching this long, hopeful there’s even more to come – I’m glad I’m getting a little better at something that matters each year.

I’m proud to be part of it. It’s a proper life. A life that matters.

Perhaps if I’d become a pub landlord I’d feel the same. Perhaps I wouldn’t.

I can only know what I know. It’s been twenty years and this scene hasn’t gone bad.


5 thoughts on “The teaching life

  1. Carolyn Cooper says:

    Brilliant, Ben, teaching really is a beautiful job at times and we never forget those special moments and neither will the students. A very worthwhile profession indeed.


    • Helen says:

      I cried when I read this ,as I too have experienced these emotional highs and lows. We forget , due to the lack or respect we receive at times, that what we do does matter and that we are always learning, refining because we care. Teachers care A fantastic piece Ben. 👏


  2. Anna says:

    It’s not only true for you. Rarely have I read a blog that puts my exact thoughts onto a page! It is hard now and that can be hard to bear, but ultimately, I know I love the job I do and wouldn’t want to do anything else.


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