Picture the scene: the first lesson of the autumn term with a new Year 9 class. They’re an able group and you’ve taught all of them before. Every face is fresh and full of a fleeting enthusiasm for learning. You launch into a lesson you perfected during the holidays when you had the energy and mental space to create something truly outstanding. You give it your all, and the students are with you 100%. They’re focused, they’re engaged, they’re inspired. At the end of the lesson you positively glow with joy: THAT was the sort of lesson you became a teacher for, not for the teaching but for the buzz it gives you when you and the students are both totally invested in a lesson.
The academic year is a pattern that teachers fall into easily, whether they have lived it since they were children or whether they have returned to it after working in the “real world”, and despite the clichéd comments from the head during the first inset session of the year, pointing out that everyone is looking fresh and relaxed, it’s easy to start the academic year feeling positive. This year you’re going to stay on top of your marking! You’re going to make a difference to those children’s lives! You’re going to organise trips, run clubs, write positive letters home to parents!
How long does the optimism last on average? A week? Two? The positivity is hard to maintain, and most teachers can easily name someone nearing the end of their career, most often seen drinking tea in the staffroom and struggling to get any joy from their job. But while this person may have at one time been someone in their late 50s or early 60s looking forward to retirement after a long career, it is now as common for it to be someone in just their first or second year of teaching. We are in the midst of a recruitment and retention crisis, with the news on 14th December 2015 shouting that schools spent £1.3 billion a year on supply staff.
A year on and things aren’t looking any better.
It’s a disheartening image, and one which is becoming an almost endless threat to the wellbeing of teachers, the budgets of already struggling schools and the stability and success of students, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
Many teachers have had conversations with friends or acquaintances who are interested in training to become a teacher and are after an insider’s opinion on the profession. There are some positives that are easy to bring to mind; the holidays, the fun that can be had at Christmas or sports day, rewards events, the trips to places that you’d otherwise never have the chance to visit; but these are infrequent, and although they’re easy to bring to mind they are not reasons to fall in love with teaching. The reasons to love this crazy, challenging profession are much more mundane and much more genuine.
On 3rd September 2014 I went onto Facebook at lunchtime after teaching my first lesson of the year and posted this status: “Realisation halfway through 1st lesson of the year: I love teaching. I love kids. I love challenging their ideas. I love making them see thing differently. I love it! (Bets for how long this feeling lasts…)” True to form, it only took about a week for me to start feeling out of control with the amount of work I had to do, and for this to seem a distant memory. So the question is, how do we fall in love again with a profession that is demanding, infuriating but potentially intoxicating? In my experience, there is one simple reason to fall in love with teaching again.
I taught at an all boys’ state academy for over three years. During this time I encountered a shocking amount of sexism, both from staff and students. One day I asked the head if I could deliver assemblies to the whole school, and then proceeded to talk to those boys about Emma Watson’s launch of the ‘He for She’ campaign. I talked to them about the phrase “man up” and how this was telling them that to be a man meant they shouldn’t have or show emotion or vulnerability, when of course this is not the case. Some boys found me afterwards and said they wanted to put their names to the campaign, while others spent the next month telling me to man up to see my reaction. Being able to smile and bring those boys into a discussion gave me the chance to challenge a throwaway comment and encourage them to think about the language they use and the reactions they want to provoke in others. They didn’t stop using the phrase, but that wasn’t really the point.
In 2015 I organised a mock election which saw 1,600 students vote for their preferred political party. We had a hustings event with the candidates for the school’s constituency and students campaigned on behalf of the parties they supported. After the election, I received a letter from the headteacher saying he had never seen young people so engaged in politics. I glowed with pride, of course, but I knew that their engagement was due to their own desire to be passionate about something. Our society admires sports personalities and celebrities who throw themselves into their passions, and we hold up famous people such as Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. as heroes because we admire their drive and their passion. But it is no less significant for any of us to have a passion, and to show our young people that they can embrace what they love and care about, even if they are in the minority, is a humbling but empowering thing. In no other job than teaching can I imagine being able to introduce new ideas to so many people, being a role model for being passionate and showing that it is possible to unmoved by the derision of people who disagree.
During my first PGCE school placement I used a clip from The English Patient in a lesson with the deputy head of the school. He advised me not to use things I feel personally passionate about in lessons in case the students do not share my enthusiasm and I find it upsetting. On the contrary, by showing my humanity and my love for films, music, movements or campaigns I have received the respect (sometimes grudgingly) of the students I teach. By sharing what I love with them and showing them the fire inside me for anything from human rights to Harry Potter, my life as a teacher became easier. They were willing to work with me, and I wanted to give them the best education they could possibly have. But it wasn’t teaching itself that made me fall in love with being a teacher, it was the opportunity teaching gave me to truly be myself.
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Having studied at Cardiff University and done her PGCE at Oxford University, Kathryn has taught for 7 years. After spending 3 years as a classroom teacher in a large Church of England school, she moved into a Head of Department role at a heavily oversubscribed, high achieving academy and then became Head of Humanities at an academy with a significant number of FSM, EAL and SEND students. She has worked in co-educational and single-sex schools, and she has experienced a wide range of student needs during her career. Her main focus is on delivering outstanding RE at all levels, but she is also interested in developing high quality teaching and learning across the school and improving the quality of PSHE and SMSC. Kathryn taught literacy to a small group of boys whose reading ages were between 6 and 8 in her first post, and spent her time as Head of Department at an all-boys’ academy where she increased the uptake at GCSE by 71% in 2 years and achieved 93% A*-C in 2015. Kathryn has always sought to develop her own teaching practice by attending a range of CPD events both in term time and during the school holidays, and she is keen to share her enthusiasm for teaching with colleagues through Creative Education’s courses.