The school year is drawing to a close. This year has been a challenging, frustrating, exhausting and disheartening experience for much of the time. As a newly qualified teacher (NQT in education-speak) I have been subject to an extreme level of scrutiny, with two mandatory lesson observations to endure every half term as well as a folder of evidence to compile to prove that I am meeting all of the required teacher standards. On top of that, I have had to teach a full timetable of English classes across the 11-18 range, preparing schemes of work for each unit topic, marking mounds of exercise books, homework, essays, coursework and exams, reading and making copious notes on the novels I have to teach and producing armfuls of resources to use in the classroom. Within the boundaries of an ordinary working day, it is impossible to do all of these things and do them well. At the busiest time of year, between January and March, I was working every night until around 11pm and all weekend too, just to keep on top of my workload. I thought I was coping until one morning in the midst of this hell of never ending marking and lesson planning, I received a complaint from a parent about something innocuous I had done and all I could do was sit down and cry. No matter what I did, it was never good enough. I was always wrong. I could always do better. I was working all the hours I could stay awake, and what for? I was earning less than the minimum wage and I was so tired and so disillusioned that I started to dread going to work. I longed for my old office job, when I had time to go to the toilet whenever I wanted, time to drink tea and chat to my colleagues, time to think, time to innovate, and the right to walk out of the door at 5pm and not have to think about work again until the following morning. What halcyon days!
At the beginning of last week, I had written my resignation and decided that teaching wasn’t for me. I wanted my life back. I didn’t know what else I could do, but I did know that I couldn’t spend another year trapped in this hell. However, I then had my last lesson with my GCSE class. I made them cakes and cards. They gave me beautiful cards and lavish presents. I cried. They cried. We have spent an hour of every school day together over the past two years. It’s been intense. I’ve seen them more than I’ve seen my own friends. I’ve stayed awake worrying about them. I’ve secretly looked forward to seeing them, enjoyed coming up with activities I knew they’d love, and spent many hours dissolved in fits of giggles as we’ve discussed the absurdities of their emotionally charged social and romantic lives. As I read their cards and realised that they really did appreciate every sacrifice I had made for them, I had the first truly rewarding moment of my career so far. It was a magical feeling.
Teaching is exhausting. It is often thankless. The public think we’re lazy moaners. The government thinks we’re useless and need more and more scrutiny and hoops to jump through in order to prove that we’re squeezing as much value out of our students as we possibly can (though exams are too easy now anyway, so what’s the point?). Senior staff members force us to do mounds of ridiculous paperwork that has no purpose in order to tick yet more and more boxes that have nothing to do with education and everything to do with league tables. Parents complain over the slightest hint of perceived injustice towards their precious darlings. And yet every day, we turn up, teach for five hours, sort out all manner of pastoral problems and run extracurricular clubs, and then go home and spend another five hours preparing for the next day’s lessons and marking the work produced in the lessons already taught that day. At my darkest moments, I’ve got so lost in all the crap that I couldn’t see why I was doing it any more. But then I got those cards and I realised; I’m doing this job because I love my students, and even if no-one else appreciates me, I know they do and I know they are grateful for the hard work I put into making their lessons the best I possibly can. Underneath it all, the moments I have had in my classroom, just me and my students, having fun, thrashing something out and achieving a shared goal have been absolutely priceless, and I wouldn’t exchange them for any other job in the world. As I saw my GCSE class coming out of their Literature exam this week, smiling from ear to ear, saying they felt confident they had got what they wanted, happy that they had been able to do their best, I was surprised to find myself becoming emotional and had to go off to the toilet and have a secret cry. My babies had done me proud. How could I have ever wanted to leave them behind?
Needless to say, the resignation got thrown in the bin. But things will need to change next year. I will need to work smarter, not harder. I will need to book up my weekends with social activities well in advance to prevent myself from spending all weekend working. I need to take more control of my life and not let my job take over. I need to stop caring that people think anyone can teach and that it’s a job for lazy people who just want long holidays. I need to stay cynical and keep refusing to tick the latest boxes (except during an observation of course) when they have absolutely nothing to do with improving the educational experience of children. But most of all I need to never lose sight of the magic that is happening in my classroom each and every day. I make a difference. And that really does make it all worthwhile.