Notes from the Classroom

Schools-out-for-summer

It’s been a challenging year. For much of it, I had utterly fallen out of love with teaching and decided that it wasn’t for me. The crushing workload and constant onslaught of soul destroying government changes to the system made me feel like I was on a hamster wheel: constantly exhausted, stressed and completely unappreciated. Paperwork and observations took up increasing amounts of my time as the prospect of an Ofsted inspection loomed (and never eventually came…roll on next term!). I always had marking to do, always had a lesson to plan, a new text to read and work out how to teach, a new scheme of work to create, a parent complaint to deal with, some paperwork to fill out, a student to console or chase…there was never a moment of rest, reflection or completion within a day. There was always more to do and never a tidy desk to look at and feel a sense of achievement. I often found myself wondering why I was putting myself through it all.

I had plenty of dark days, beating myself up for making yet another bad career decision, for ruining my twenties with aborted career plans, for being a failure at everything I set my hand to. I cried myself to sleep, wondering what I was going to do with my life, where I could go next, when all I had ever wanted to do was be a teacher and now that had all turned to dust.

But slowly, as the evenings grew lighter, the weather grew warmer, and the exams loomed, I began to emerge from my despair and view things from a different perspective. Putting aside the paperwork and the pressures, the actual act of teaching itself is extraordinary. It is endlessly creative, exciting, interactive and full of possibilities. Every lesson is an adventure; a journey of discovery not just for my students, but for me, too. I get to experiment, to try out new methods, to hone existing skills and to develop my own knowledge of literature through listening and responding to the insights of the young people in my classes. Every day I learn something new, and every day I am exposed to fresh ideas and intellectual challenges. In the process of doing this, I get to build relationships with hundreds of fascinating and utterly unique young people, who all come to my lessons with entirely different perspectives. Over time, I get to know them individually and find out what makes them tick. I enjoy teasing out their personalities and being welcomed into the turmoil of their lives. I can see when they’re not happy and need a quiet word of encouragement or commiseration. I take pride in their achievements and give them the praise some of them will never get at home. I laugh with them and cry with them and have a bloody good time with them. They are my joy, my pride, my inspiration and my reward. They are worth every tear I have shed this year, and it took me nearly leaving them behind to realise it.

It makes me sad that teachers have so little respect in our society. It makes me sad that the government treats us with contempt, and treats our children like cogs in a machine. It makes me sad that our pay system is based on the results our children achieve in their exams, as if that is the only worthwhile measure of what we do on a day-to-day basis. It makes me sad that our curriculum is constantly being tampered with to suit the whims of an unqualified and unexperienced government minister who thinks that teachers can’t be trusted to use their expertise and experience. It makes me sad that so much of my time is taken up with pointless paperwork that has nothing to do with giving children a good education. There are so many things that make me sad about our education system and there are so many things I wish I had the power to change.

However, ultimately, I can choose to let these things ruin teaching for me, or I can choose to focus on why I became a teacher in the first place. I became a teacher to make a difference to childrens’ lives. I wanted to be a positive influence. I wanted to open their eyes to the wonders of the written word, and empower them to use language to express themselves creatively. All of these things I get to do on a daily basis, plus so many more wonderful things that I never even imagined would be part of my job description. Yesterday I received a card from one of my most talented pupils, who wrote ‘thank you for teaching me that anything is possible.’ It made me cry because when I read those words I knew that despite all of the difficulties I have faced this year, I have still managed to achieve what I set out to do in my classroom. I couldn’t ask for anything more, really. Being a teacher was never going to be an easy option. That’s why all those people who say teachers are slackers and they wish they got our holidays aren’t queuing up to train to be teachers themselves. But something I have learned this year is that sometimes taking the hardest road is the most rewarding. As my summer holidays start, I am exhausted, mentally and physically, but I already can’t wait to do it all over again.

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36 comments

  1. What a wonderfully thoughtful article. I am so glad that you found that nugget of joy to help you cope with all the dark moments. I don’t have experience to comment on the paperwork and inspections etc or pay conditions but I do see how much change keeps happing with the syllabus and exam system as each new party comes to power. education really should not be a political point scoring exercise. How I wish these politicians would put their pet ideas to one side and focus on what is really important

    1. Thank you very much. Yes I wish that too – but they only ever seem to be interested in generating column inches for themselves, unfortunately. It makes me sad!

  2. Our world needs more wonderful teachers like you! A good and caring teacher can make such a positive difference in a child’s life, so thank you for not giving up. Commented from Australia.

  3. Clearly you have a vocation. A lot of people would give anything to have one. When you have a vocation, there’s always a lot of tough stuff to struggle through, but you press on if it’s your vocation: and for you, it really seems this is!

  4. Since I have been a government employee, I understand exactly how you feel. When I first started working for them, I was constantly saying this doesn’t make sense. The only consistent thing about my job was change. About the time you got use to a procedure, someone would change it and the change didn’t really make a difference. I eventually came to realize the reason for the changes weren’t for making things easier or better, but simply to show that whoever was making the change was doing something. I’m sure you are dealing with the same sort of thing. It’s too bad that teachers can’t devote their time to teaching and someone else could be hired to take care of the nitpicking stuff. It would save money in the long run and the students would be better educated. It will get easier as you get more experience dealing with the problems because you will learn what is important and what can be safely ignored.

    1. Some things never change! It’s heartening to know that teachers aren’t alone in this though. The boys at the top want to play and we have to let them move us around while constantly knowing their game won’t work. I’m just glad I work in an environment where I can still largely play my own game and do what I like, within limits – I am a big fan of ignoring what I know to be pointless, too!

  5. How I wish you were my daughter’s teacher. She has just finished year 10 and has had so many exams this past year I’m surprised there has been time to actually learn anything – apart from constantly revising!
    I am so pleased you decided to stick with it, you sound like one of those teachers that your pupils will be remembering forever.

    1. Thank you, Jennifer – what a compliment! I hope your daughter will find Year 11 easier – there are fewer exams/coursework requirements so she should be free to relax a little before the big exam in the summer. That’s so lovely of you to say – I hope they will!

  6. I love this. I’m a relatively young teacher (I’ll be going into my third official year this fall, but I long-term subbed for 4 years before finding my position), and I have many moments of doubt about whether I should be in this profession or not. You really spoke to me here-thank you!

    1. I’m so glad to hear that, Allie – thank you. Us teachers have to stick together – and keep reminding ourselves that as tough as it gets sometimes, the rewards are truly worthwhile. Good luck!

  7. I always thought it was just in the U.S. that the government kept fiddling around with the educational system. It is enlightening to learn that it happens elsewhere.

    A retired teacher

  8. This is so inspiring. Many people would just pack it in after such a low and difficult period. But you obviously do have a real vocation, and long may it continue to give you joy despite the obstacles.

  9. As a retired teacher I can so relate to your struggles here. And I applaud your decision so carefully and painfully made. At this stage of my life I always find that I recall the high points of teaching and especially the joys of finding ways to open up texts of real significance for students

  10. I taught for 30 years and I can honestly say the first year was the worst. It is a baptism by fire. I think that you will always have bad days but the rewards are great and there is always someone who you will make a difference to. Some will love you , others will not. Just remain creative and give the best you can. I think you must be a wonderful teacher. By the way I saw your post on old fashione girls re the I am sorry to say poem by William Carlos Williams. I used that as a springboard and let the kids write their own I am sorry poems . They were great.

  11. Another beautifully written post. As anyone who has spent a lot of time as a student can attest, good teachers are few. Those that I had I treasure to this day. If it’s respect for your profession you seek, you might consider teaching in Korea or Japan!

  12. I detested English until I was landed with the Head of English Literature as my teacher for GCSE. (This was in a cushy, pushy, lovely private school btw.) I was initially completely intimidated, but he alone changed my whole education. I fell in love with English, I realised that my being pushed into sciences when I actually liked languages and literature would end there and then, someway through that first term of year 10. I literally and figuratively would not be where I am now if my timetable had not thrown me that luck. Sadly he retired when I went on to A-Level but he flicked a switch which I will be forever grateful for. We all have had this experience – a teacher that makes such a difference to our lives. I suspect you will be that teacher for many, many students for years to come!

  13. Dear Rachel, well done on this year. The older the children we teach the longer it takes to see the fruition of our teaching – so you often have a long time to wait for that. Teaching three -5 year olds it’s so much more immediate. Enjoy the summer x

  14. Reading this made me cry. I am so pleased that you’ve ended your year with the knowledge that you have made a real difference to the lives of some of your pupils, some of whom will never forget you. As a parent I feel so much admiration for teachers and what they achieve in such difficult circumstances. I hope you have a restful summer and many, many more years of satisfying career.

  15. Nothing you do in future will ever be as difficult as your first year in teaching, I suspect. But you have come through it with a reflective and positive frame of mind, having discovered the best as well as the worst of it. We need teachers like you. I’ll say that again. We need teachers like you. And I would recommend your blog this year to aspiring teachers so they can keep heart. You may not stay in teaching for ever (!) but it is the best job ever. I was told this by a first year teacher when i was a headteacher. She too was a jewel.
    As they say, thanks for sharing. But be sure that you will enjoy next year. I look forward to hearing more about teaching and your other adventures.

    1. Thanks so much, Caroline – it is the best job ever – when you have time to sit back and realise it! I will make sure that next year is more enjoyable for me. I don’t know how yet, but I will do it!

  16. Good for you, Rachel! I would also strongly encourage you to, if you have not already, seek out senior teachers as mentors. If you have someone you work with and trust who can serve this role, great, but I also think it is good to find someone who does not work at your school.

    I don’t know if GK12 tenure works similarly to USA university tenure, if it does and your colleagues evaluate you, then it is important to have someone to whom you can speak frankly who is not in a position to evaluate you. This is something I always recommend to young, untenured university faculty.

    You have tremendous intelligence and passion and a real gift for the area you teach – your students in the years to come with thank you for hanging in there, but that doesn’t mean it will be easy. I struggled with teaching and research in the first years of a university professor position, but I ultimately figured out how to succeed while living a great, balanced life. And I won my university’s research award this year, so my efforts have received recognition. I also hear from a number of students every year that my efforts with them had a real impact – I always appreciate that they take the time to tell me. Good luck in your new year!

    1. Thank you! Yes we do have a loose system of mentoring at my school but I’d like to get more involved in that, as I agree with you on the importance of having someone to talk to and support you professionally without that impacting on management’s perception of you. Thank you so much for your kind words – and congratulations on your wonderful achievements!

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