What does it take?
“So to be absolutely clear: teachers have to be bright but empathetic, patient but enthusiastic, practical but creative, imaginative but organised, confident but not complacent, inspirational but grounded. In what precise proportions, no-one has the faintest idea. Neither is there any consensus over where these qualities should be developed.”
This comes from Gerard Kelly, the editor of the Times Educational Supplement, back in November 2010. And to be absolutely clear: he’s right.
You know the old saying, “Those who can’t, teach”? Forget it. Teachers must be capable of doing everything. So if you’re contemplating a career in teaching, you need to read this.
Having just come out the other side of my teacher training, I felt that I should write something informative about my experiences in teaching so that you alumni and soon-to-be graduates who are considering it as a career can be more prepared for the choice you are about to make.
I’ve always wanted to teach. I just had a certain drive to inspire others and to feel like I could contribute in some way to the ‘good’ in society. But just teaching any old how won’t make you feel like you’re inspiring or doing any good. You have to actively search for it, and take the good with the bad. An awful lot of bad. Scrolling down that list of qualities that Gerard Kelly thinks are essential for good teachers to have, I would consider myself to have all of them, but once you start teaching, be prepared for any weaknesses to come crawling out of the woodwork larger than life.
You have to start to look for the good in everyone. By the end of my teacher training, I had learned to separate my liking for the kids from my dislike of any bad behaviour. Other teachers at the school would often tell me about how they loved their naughty kids because they were real “characters”. The teachers had such faith in their authority that they had no need to feel threatened by bad behaviour and they got to deal with misdeeds quickly and efficiently, without upsetting their relationship with the child. My advice to trainees is: learn to do this as quickly as you can if you want to make life easier and less painful for yourself. Learn to love every single child you teach: find out what is special about them. Kids know if you don’t like them and this can make life harder for you.
Love your subject
I always knew that if I would teach English. It’s my passion. I wanted to inspire children with the same love of reading that I have.
You have to be certain that your love for your subject will sustain you through reams of marking, re-reads of books, re-re-reads of books, a barrage of indifference from your classes and their pertinent questioning. As an English teacher, I was expected to teach grammar and spelling as well as literature, and even drama and media studies. It gets tedious having to re-teach the same subject over and over at a level that you find mind-numbingly easy. It can be frustrating when a fabulous lesson you’ve planned, resourced and delivered just yesterday has completely gone out of their heads, and you have to cover ground that they should have learned last year. You learn that you have to lower your standards to begin with, as there will be a large proportion of the class that need to be led by the hand, and you must reiterate everything they learn constantly so that it stays in their heads. So yes, you must love your subject to death.
Make a positive difference
To make a positive difference, you have to wade through some really tough times, student apathy and tons of negative feedback. It doesn’t matter how passionate you are about your subject if you can’t pitch it at the right level of challenge for the kids, manage their behaviour and plan enjoyable lessons. Standing and spouting knowledge at them isn’t going to cut it. There is a real skill (some say art, or craft) in teaching that is very hard to pin down. You have to work with your strengths and your weaknesses and find your teaching ‘style’ before you can juggle all these balls and get kids to aim and achieve high in your classes. Some teachers admit that they’re not the type who allow kids to make a mess or be noisy in lessons, even if it’s because they’re learning creatively or socially; some are no good at being jolly and upbeat, but that’s just their style.
Most days you won’t notice that you’ve made any difference whatsoever. Most days will feel like you’re simply trying to control a crowd and getting nowhere. You’ll have to observe the effects of your teaching and adapt accordingly until you find out what works. You have to reconcile yourself to the fact that teaching is something that comes naturally to only a tiny few and in reality it’s a hard slog that will take years and years to develop. You’ll feel you’re rubbish for at least the first couple of years, and even after that you won’t stop learning. You’ll always have to take the good with the bad.
You have to ask yourself: will I be satisfied if only one kid says thanks at the end of the year? If the answer is no, then maybe teaching isn’t the rewarding experience you thought it would be.
Schools can be beautiful, well-made and well-stocked. But on the whole you’ll find that the school’s funds are inadequate to cover their needs. New teachers will often be saddled with unworkable classrooms, or worse, will have no fixed classroom at all. As a trainee you’ll have to move between one classroom and another with your burden of books and resources. This may become a permanent situation when you begin teaching as a qualified professional. You’ll often find that there are restrictions on printing, photocopying and laminating that mess up your plans for an all-singing all-dancing lesson with top of the range resources. If the classroom isn’t well designed then it can have a tangible effect on the kids’ learning and behaviour. It’s about making the best of a bad situation.
Your job satisfaction will depend largely on the support (or not) of staff. I think I’m an amiable person and I get on with most people, but you have to learn that with the best will in the world, some staff won’t like you. They may see you as a personal inconvenience or risk to the status quo. They may simply be jaded and look down on your rose-tinted optimism and enthusiasm. There is nothing worse than having to “get along” with teachers who hate you but are more senior, more permanent and therefore more powerful than you. You will have to walk on eggshells with those who don’t appreciate your existence. Older members of staff may not agree with your new-fangled university-taught methods of teaching, but you should insist on teaching the way you think is best. Remember, it’s your training. You’re furthering the development of teaching and shouldn’t simply copy others for the sake of appearances.
The best advice I’ve been given as a trainee is to make friends with all staff, not just teachers. Dinner staff, cleaners, teaching assistants, parents, receptionists, reprographics staff and most especially the caretaker will be much less critical of your presence. They can lighten up your day and even do the odd favour like unlock the lovely drama studio for the purposes of a lesson, or offer you an extra biscuit to cheer you up on a bad day. They’ll listen to your woes more impartially than a teacher, who might then go and inform the person/s involved.
The most nerve-wracking aspect of teaching for me wasn’t standing in front of a class for the first time (although I’d had nightmares about it the night before); it was making my first phonecall to a parent. Even though I was phoning for a positive reason, this didn’t make the prospect any easier. You never know what kind of parent you’re going to come up against. On the whole, I was pleasantly surprised. At my first parents evening, I was glad to see so many parents who really appreciated the work and opinions of teachers. They genuinely knew the value of education and were concerned about their child’s development, wanting to know what they could do to help. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was.
The chances are if there’s a problem child in your class, their parents are difficult too. The parents either won’t listen to you and absolutely swear that their child is as good as gold, or they just don’t care about their child at all. If you ever need to call up a parent about a child’s behaviour, then ask the advice of their teacher or Head of Year first – they’ll let you know what tack to take, so you’ll know what to expect and how to deal with it.
Rate of change
When I started training, I got a lovely £6000 bursary to see me through. The year after, English trainees got nothing. Now they’re bringing bursaries back in a tiered system depending on the demand for your subject and the class of degree you got. Pensions and retirement age are changing for teachers, as was well publicised last year. There are calls to make exams “harder” because “too many” students are leaving with good GCSEs.
More and more changes are happening in education than ever before. You have to be prepared to join teacher forums and subscribe to teaching magazines to keep in the loop. You have to be prepared for new schemes, new curricula and new priorities to come into favour each year. And you have to be prepared to learn and un-learn according to these changes. One minute setting is the in-thing; the next, new research is saying mixed ability is better. The education business is never stable, so you have to be open-minded and adaptable.
Hours & workload
I remember a man on the street being interviewed on national TV news about his thoughts on teachers’ pensions. He had no sympathy for teachers because he said they worked part-time hours and had too many holidays. If you’re tempted to teach because you think this is true then you’re an idiot.
The workload of teachers, particularly trainees, is soul-destroying. You will never have worked harder in all your life. Most teachers arrive at school at least an hour before registration begins. That’s about 8am. They will work during all their free periods and possibly during lunch (plus, some schools expect teachers to do yard duty or lunch duty). They will work at least an hour after school ends (up to 5pm if they’re lucky), and attend training or meetings every week on top. They will take their work home and plan lessons, make resources and mark work until late. During school holidays they will be at conferences, or planning the next topic for the term ahead. They may even be marking for exam boards to earn a little extra cash. At one school I went to, all the poetry resources had been designed by ill staff from their sickbeds. I’m not even exaggerating.
As a trainee you will have to do all those things a qualified teacher does (which take you twice as long while you learn the ropes) as well as assignments and possibly research projects. At my university they expected you to write a blog to be updated weekly, cross-referenced with the teaching standards you have to fulfil to qualify.
A teacher’s work is never, ever done.
If you’re still determined to teach, then go for it with gusto. I decided that after the most hectic 18 months of my life, teaching wasn’t for me. At least, not right now. But many of my compatriots have gone on to their first full year of teaching and for them it’s difficult (of course), but it’s worth it. You don’t go into teaching for the easy money or the holidays, you go into teaching for the rewards, to make a difference, to inspire others. I’m just saying, be under no illusions – you need to slog for a long time to get back those rewards.
Photo by Fhrankee