The job I have been doing for the past 20 years, give or take, between having the minx and moving from one hemisphere to another.
The job that has given me moments of joy, frustration, anger and gastro.
A job that has made me laugh hysterically, sob uncontrollably, shout forcefully and vomit dramatically.
It is a job that people respect enormously, apparently, but one that people are quite happy to mock or denigrate. Ask most teachers and they will tell you that, if one is at a dinner party and the topic of what one does for a living comes up, other guests will have one of three responses to your answer…
1. What do you do for a living?
I’m a teacher.
Oooooooooo, I couldn’t do your job!
2. What do you do for a living?
I’m a teacher.
Oooooooooo, all those holidays!
3. What do you do for a living?
I’m a teacher.
Or you get the complete wankers who feel compelled to offer the adage, “Those who can do, those who can’t teach, eh? Eh?”, as if awaiting the reply, “Yes. You’re quite right. I am a useless shit.”
If people do ask supplementary questions (either because they are genuinely interested for a moment, or feigning interest, or because the buffet isn’t yet open), the first question you will be asked is “What do you teach?” (answering this question with the simple response of “Bastards” never fails to gauge a person’s interest. It is also a useful way to end the conversation when the buffet is finally open). I’ve been asked how I got into teaching. It is funny that in 20 years I don’t think I have ever been asked why I teach.
“So, why do you teach?” I don’t hear you ask. Because every single day is unpredictable and emotional and scary and frustrating.
I know of no other job where you can be catatonic with range one minute, and laughing like a drain the next. Students, especially the age range that I teach (teenagers – pause for dramatic intake of breath from the reader), have an uncanny ability to wind you up so tightly that you end up regressing into a state of childlike stubbornness, resulting in conversations like this:
Me: You need to stop talking, Tommy.
Tommy: But I wasn’t miss.
Me: You were! I just stood here and watched you talking!
Tommy: No, you didn’t.
Me: Yes, I did.
There are moments when students are just so unfathomably rude to you, that you question why you even do the job, or why you’re not allowed to carry a big, pointy stick around with you.
There are moments when students and parents just simply know better than you do, refuse to listen and then blame you when it all goes wrong.
There are moments when you have so much work to do because you are expected to be a teacher, a counselor, a nurse, a parent, a philosopher, an employee (to the school and to the parents), a chauffeur, a bank, a travel guide, a concierge, an information desk and the all-seeing-fucking-eye that you just want to hide in a cave until everyone buggers off.
It is the only job where you will find yourself uttering surreal statements like:
“Kylie, please let Colin out of that locker. Yes, it’s very interesting that he is small enough to fit in there, but he’s gone purple and he’s crying.”
“I’m not sure why you are staring at your crotch, William, but I’m really hoping it is because you have your phone out and nothing else.”
“Sophie, please write in your exercise book and not on David’s head.”
Parenting is draining at times. I often find myself shouting random phrases down a darkened corridor like “Hair!” and “Socks!” whilst sobbing into a cup of cold coffee. Teaching is much the same, but instead you shout words like “Walk!” and “Pen!” whilst sobbing into a cup of cold coffee. When you are a parent, you find yourself repeating the same instruction 18 times until the simple task of, say, putting a cereal bowl into the sink is finally achieved. Teaching is much the same, except you are repeating the same instruction 18 times to 25 different kids, which is maths I can’t even attempt.
The list of banal questions you are asked daily, lesson after lesson, is enough to turn you from teaching and into the arms of mercenary work, or cleaning the toilets at an all you can eat seafood buffet.
Here are the top ten questions guaranteed to make a teacher whisper ‘for fuck’s sake’ under their breath before responding:
- Do I underline the date?
- Do I write this down / on paper / in my book?
- Can we watch a film today?
- Can I go to the toilet? (inevitably, this will be asked five minutes after returning from lunch.)
- What time does the bell go?
- Do I write in pencil or pen?
- Is pink pen OK?
- Can I borrow a pen?
- Is this going on my report?
- What do I have to do again?
This last question is the absolute bitch of all questions. This will be asked by at least two kids, one of whom will be called Josh, even if it is on a sheet in front of them, on a PowerPoint and tattooed on your forehead.
But above and beyond all of this, teaching is the one of the only professions I know where you have so many stories to tell. Every day, I come home with something funny, or sad, or surprising, or downright unbelievable to tell the long-suffering husband or indeed the minx.
Here are a few of my favourite moments so far, and every one is completely true – hand on heart.
After teaching Romeo and Juliet to a group of Year 11s somewhere in the wilds of Surrey, I asked them to write a text response in answer to the question, ‘How does Act 1, Scene 1 set the tone for the rest of the play?’ Not too stretching I thought. One boy, a delightful little shit with a shaved eyebrow and all the charm of a bowl of tepid sick, wrote his opening sentence thus:
‘In the beginning of Act 1, Scene 1, the servants of the Capulets and Montagues are fighting in a pubic place.’
How different a word and indeed a sentence can be through the simple omission of a letter.
I asked him to stay behind after class, much to his chagrin.
“Ummmm, just read that sentence again.”
“Why what’s wrong with it?”
“Well. You’ve spelt public wrong.”
“Well, it completely changes the meaning of what you are trying to say.”
“Does it matter?”
“Ummmm, well yes, actually.”
“I can’t be arsed to change it.”
“Ok, great, thanks. Off you pop then.”
Although, this was also the boy who, when I told him that I had made him a folder of revision materials that he could take home to use in the holidays, responded with “Fuck that shit.” Nice.
On the theme of misunderstandings of Shakespeare, I once spent an hour convincing a child that Lord Capulet did not hate his wife, that their relationship was simply one that was representative of the times. When I asked them to support their argument with evidence from the play, the pupil, in confident voice, stated “Because in the first scene he shouts, “Bring me my longsword, ho!’”
There are lots of funny stories surrounding the misunderstanding of words, or bad word choices, or poor spelling. In a recent essay, a girl wrote that in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch goes home one evening and ‘exposes himself to his children’. I’m hoping that she meant emotionally. Another boy, in his creative writing, wrote that his character was making himself extremely comfortable in a ‘large-breasted armchair’. I told him that that was not quite the phrase, but if those chairs did exist, I knew quite a few men who would buy one…
My favourite spelling related tale though, is this one. I had asked a Year 7 class to design a film poster, complete with credit block, hook line, visual image (you know, proper like). The film was about an exciting event in their own lives and they had to choose a famous actor or actress to play themselves and their family. Lovely lesson. When the kids left, I began cleaning up and as I looked down I noticed a scrap of paper on the floor.
When I read it, I was a furious.
The language was disgusting and racist and I simply couldn’t believe that a Year 7 child had come up with this filth. The note read…
anal swots nigger
As I looked up the pupil’s timetable, ready to stomp to their classroom and read them the riot act, I suddenly realised what had happened. What she meant, what she was actually trying to spell was this…
I think I laughed for about 20 minutes. I still have the scrap of paper.
I’ve had my car shot, my classroom set fire to and I’ve been called a variety of horrible names by a multitude of scrawny little tossers. It’s quite cathartic to say that. Scrawny little tossers. Because when you are a teacher you get called things, mainly because the kids know full well that nothing will be done, and you’re not going to retort because you can’t, unless you don’t want to be able to pay your mortgage. One boy was quite confident in his assessment of me as a ‘fucking slag’ and told me of his summation quite often. Turns out that that boy’s mother was quite ill and that he was looking after her and his siblings (of which there were many). Sometimes kids are going through more than we can imagine. Sometimes we can empathise with them and try to understand why they are taking it out on us. Sometimes they are just little shits. Experience means that you can, more often than not, separate the shits from the suffering.
My empathy does have limits, however. This is the same boy who caused such a disruption to one of my classes that I had to send him to another department with a note that asked if he could have a ‘long weight’. He was gone for 35 minutes. When he came back, he was carrying a 7lb weight given to him by the Science Department. I told him that he would need to go back, it simply wasn’t long enough, to which he replied, “Are you taking the piss?” A little bit, yes.
There are moments that make you despair or that make you want to put your head in your hands and leave it there forever, like the Year 10 girl who came running in to my class to tell me that she had learned something amazing in Science – that there was only one moon. Before that lesson, she had thought that each country had its own moon. I’ll say again – Year 10. She was so proud though that I had to check myself and smile rather than grimace or say “Really?”. She was also one pupil in an English class of 25 who looked at me with bewildered awe when I told them that Barack Obama often travelled with a figurine of the Madonna with him because of his beliefs. After a couple of minutes of silence, I realised that I had to explain that I meant religious beliefs, not a belief in the 1980s pop icon. The Virgin Mary, not Like a Virgin. The added punchline here was that this was at a Catholic school…
So why do I teach? The answer to this is in one last story.
I consider myself to be a bit of a whizz at Assessment for Learning, that is, little activities throughout lessons that monitor whether kids have learnt stuff and what I need to do about it if they haven’t. My feedback, I would suggest, is always clear and helpful. I spend a lot of time marking work so that pupils know what they have to work on and how, so I was a little perturbed to hear this statement from one of my Year 10s last year, who on receiving his feedback, and after hours of marking, exclaimed, “Wahayy! A shit load of ticks and no crosses!”
And I guess that is what teaching is to most of us most of the time, a shit load of ticks and no crosses. We can’t like it all the time, sometimes we don’t like it at all, but sometimes it just fills you right up with whatever you want to call that feeling – joy, for want of a less clichéd word. And that is what makes up for all the other shit; that lightbulb moment, the moment when that kid who hates your subject answers a question with something insightful or wise, when they see that what you are teaching them matters. When they say something that makes you laugh so hard that cold coffee shoots out of your nose. It is the one of the only jobs where you will meet truly remarkable kids who have so many different talents and abilities, who might struggle in your subject, but who might excel at singing or acting or fishing or running or drawing or caring.
Yes, some days it is all too much and honestly, there have been times when I have wanted to quit. But what else would I do that allows me all of this?
And, of course, all those holidays…