Friday, 4 November 2011

Thinking of a career in teaching?

Give school teachers some sympathy. Really! They deal with so much crap!

Remember, I have perspective. I did that job.

But I was very naive! No-one told me the truth about teaching before I began. Well, as everyone says I am very helpful, here are ten areas to consider before the interview for that PGCE course.

1. Imagine the worst kid behaviour you can.
Double it. Welcome to your classroom, Monday to Friday.

Sad but true. Schools have plenty of kids who are social-work caseloads, but on an educational course you are specifically not being trained for this, so you'll be caught between a rock and a hard place.

For example, Tinkertop looks cute, but this can hide a foul-mouthed monster. She'll front up to any challenge (like please sit down), then start a fist fight and tell you to fuck off. All in the time you set aside to welcome her to GCSE Macbeth.

Unfortunately, her parents might behave much the same. If you meet them, Tinkertop suddenly makes horrible sense. You will sadly realise your job might not be about dreaming up fun ways to bring Macbeth into the everyday, but is a depressing daily trial of crowd control and form filling.

My advice is pick your school intake according to whether you like social work or teaching.

2. Prepare to suffer for the good kids.
Some great kids go to school. Not only the bright ones. The charming, funny, quirky, a delight-to-be-with ones. These mini people keep you sane. They are probably the reason why teachers stay on teaching. Some kids you know will go on to achieve amazing things with the subject you love. They are your reason to work. They share ideas, are wise in their own ways, and are just utterly brilliant.

But then you realise why they are doing well is because they are working or supported at home. Look at all the disruptions to the day, and the way the hours are divided and timetabled into unproductive short fragments. Kids have to find a sane place to go and recover, or simply go and teach themselves. This is called home.

Kids of all and any ability was one big reason why I wanted to teach. I enjoy their company. That sounds painful and naive but it is true. Unfortunately, this leads to trouble.

3. Face the suspicion that your motives are dishonest.
You really want to work with kids? What are you up to?

Especially if you're a man and the kids are young. Or if you are a good-looking man and the girls are older.

People can't quite believe you want to teach because you see school as a meaningful career. (Unless you are a male in a suit who wants to be a manager. Then it's okay.)

But cast your eyes over the daily newspapers and it's not surprising people suspect you. Every week there's a teacher who's a murderer, deceiver, thief, liar, adulterer, child abuser. You have to get used to that, but be on the safe side. Never touch a child, never ever.

4. Remember, you can't pick your senior management team.
You'll either get a great management team, or a lousy one. If the latter, you will find yourself unsupported in the classroom, no matter how hard your department head works to remedy matters.

You will be powerless to do anything about poor management. Sometimes, when the management is really bad, they will demand you implement change and then set about frustrating your ability to do it.

Then you are doomed, pure and simple. Decisions will be made that you are not a part of; you will be treated as if you are merely another cog in the machine; you will be patronised, ignored, and probably bullied.

If you have a great department team, hurrah! Let's hope none of them leave! They will support you, even against the senior management. However, on the times that your colleagues all meet in the pub after work, then creeps in the fear...

5. Think, how will it read in the Daily Mail?
Teachers in the pub? Oooer. One is nicked for drink driving, smashes up the car, assaults someone?

You can't escape the brush, and say that people make a mess in their lives regardless of what job they do. Teachers hold a special place in the national psyche. The media will be part of your job. Want to do something that is slightly off-beat? Someone will whisper, How will it read in the Daily Mail?

Associated with this, is the miserable realisation that you must daily face representations of yourself which are nothing more than crappy sexist stereotyping.

Take women teachers portrayed in TV and film, where the visual exploration of fantasies and power dynamics are controlled by men. Films of student-teacher sex fantasies do not help you, not one bit. You will be hot, or not.

If you are hot, boys will try and look down your front, and make sexual jokes in your hearing. There will be innuendo, suggestions, and your physical space will be violated on a routine basis.

If you are not hot, you will be given scant respect in the classroom, your teaching ability will be questioned, and those year 11 boys who are being brought up in a culture where a woman's intelligence means not much at all, will simply walk out.

And the Daily Mail will imply that you deserved it, because you are a predator.

6. Plot your exit strategy if you have a weak head teacher.
The direction that a headteacher brings to what is a hierarchical and disciplined system is significant, and the impact in the school culture, enormous.

If they are crap, they might issue sudden directives about attainment with no infrastructure to support them. The senior management won't help because they're looking to protect themselves upwards, not downwards.

The result is, you might feel adrift and alone. And when you face Kirk with a hammer, that is a very lonely place indeed.

7. Prepare to watch your educational aspirations shrivel.
The saddest experience for me. Yes, I am a weedy theoriser / philosopher, I confess.

I also came to realise that if you are to develop any ideas within a school you must have a welcoming environment and a supportive team. Then you can genuinely innovate, challenge the way things are seen, introduce new ways of doing things, try out creative approaches, or basically have any vision at all.

Failure of some of those ideas must be part of the package. But failure is not the measure by which schools want to be judged. If your feeble head teacher is terrified of parents and the Daily Mail, you're stuffed. At best, even the most timid of your ideas will invite scorn. Sadly you might conclude that schools are anti-intellectual places geared to mediocrity.

8. Watch good colleagues leave in joy.
Some teachers in the staffroom you might adore because they are intelligent people who are fantastic fun. They provide balance, perspective, rationality.

Then you discover they are leaving. They believe their talents can be put to better use elsewhere. They go on to have great careers in office administration, and still claim that leaving the classroom is the best thing they ever did. Dispiriting.

9. Be aware how everyone pulls rank.
Schools are places designed to divide, order, rank, and create hierarchies. They are also places of judgement. This applies to kids and teachers. You will be placed in a category, given an identity and a label, then measured, ranked, and treated accordingly, like it or not.

Develop strategies from the start. My advice is make friends with cleaners and office staff. If you are attentive to the cleaners, they talk about how lovely you are to the infrastructure staff and that filters up, so slowly you build a reputation as a good classroom teacher who likes order. Any school loves an image like that.

Similarly, whatever paperwork the office gives you, deal with it immediately and hand it back, even if you fill it in wrong. The secretary will fill it in for you. You will be first to get that paperwork in on time and enjoy a reputation for being conscientious when really you are nothing of the sort. You are a manipulator. It's also called surviving.

10. Know that your own professional newspaper can happily treat you like an idiot.
As a teacher, I read the TES many times. Obviously it has self-serving views and advertisers to protect.

But the TES is not really useful if you are any thinker; they appear to cling to the same worn-out agenda that you might be fighting against. Indeed, their views can seem stuck with old interests and oft-repeated ideas. They can appear as if they are worshipping monoliths in the past.

Admittedly, these days - from the other side - I can laugh and know that of course the TES distorts events; of course it employs Sun journalists to hopefully whip up a bit of interest in its tired old pages.

Maybe it shows what they really think of their readers. I can believe they think their readers are not capable of much independent thought if they're teaching. You are, after all, cogs-in-the-machine and classroom fodder who must keep an eye to how your actions can be judged in the media.

But the TES I suppose knows this simple idea: you have to be kept in ignorance.

If you knew the truth, you probably wouldn't want a career in teaching.


Kitty said...

Great post, Grit! Like you, I love kids. I considered a career in teaching and a small voice inside me said 'nah - hope to have your own and leave it at that'. I have many friends who are teachers - I admire them enormously.

One of the reasons I like the schools which my kids attend are that the staff are a TEAM. And the Heads are Heads - not wishy washy people.

Must tell you a story about a friend of mine's son. He has severe dyspraxia, and when at the local primary school became very frustrated with his inability to do something in the lesson. The (male) teacher shouted at him. The boy (aged 8) turned round and said 'shut up you f*cker!' on account of his frustration. The teacher called the mother and repeated what the boy had said. He added 'I have never been called that in all my years of teaching', and my friend calmly responded with 'you do surprise me'. :D Her son is now at a school which caters especially for dyspraxics, and is doing brilliantly.

Grit said...

hi kitty! thanks for your comment. i'm glad to hear your story; dyspraxia is a difficult condition and looks to many people like plain awkward mode. i haven't checked this charity out, maybe someone can chip in a word about it:

Angela said...

In Grmany things are not much different. Schools are places of frustration, and all you can do is try to survive and manipulate, as a student or a teacher. All your reasons (and a few more, like jealousy inside the staff) kept me from becoming a teacher. Now I am having my own little school room in my garden pavillion where children with a DESIRE to learn come for English lessons. THAT is fun for all of us. Much like your own home schooling of your triplets, Grit.
Why can the "organized" education not include a little FUN and EFFECTIVE learning? One wonders.

Grit said...

that sounds like a lovely experience, angela! let's hope that more and more people in germany come to imagine the possibilities like you.