Those Who Can’t…

ITV News Central had a shock report for viewers of its 9 November bulletin.  According to a survey it had commissioned, a staggering 80% of Midlands teachers have considered quitting the profession.  Cue outrage.  Cue prophecies of doom and despair.  Cue expressions of wild-eyed surprise.

The only truly surprising thing about this result, though, is that anyone should be surprised by it.

All teachers at some point dream of quitting – just like all accountants, all shop workers and, for all I know, all plumbers.  All workers, in all walks of life, feel they are hard done by.  Sit in any staff room in the country towards the end of the lunch break and you’ll hear at least one person, contemplating the trying afternoon in prospect, say, “If someone walked in through that door now and offered me a different job, I’d have their hand off.”

That is, admittedly, an unlikely scenario, and yet, a couple of decades ago, that’s exactly what happened to me.  Well, all right, not exactly.  It was a phone call to my house rather than an incursion into my workplace, but you get the picture. What I still laughingly refer to as my teaching career was stalled at second in department level when, through family connections, I was offered a management post in an SME supplying pottery and glassware to the catering trade.  My potential role was to be on the financial side, with a view to being trained up to take over eventually from the finance director, who was due to retire in a couple of years’ time.

I agonised over the offer for a week or more.  I talked it over at length with my head of department, who was pragmatic and supportive, and my headteacher, who, for some reason I’ve never quite worked out, was glad to see the back of me.  In the end I decided to give it a go, on the basis that if I didn’t, I’d always wonder “what if…”   So I cleared out my locker, swapped my sports jackets for a couple of cheap suits and headed north.

For the first six months it was all gravy.  The new firm matched my teaching salary; they gave me a brand new car and a credit card with which to fill it with fuel; there was a non-contributory pension scheme and free private healthcare; there were long, sometimes boozy, business lunches in restaurants where they didn’t have pictures of the food on the menu.  Best of all, I arrived at 8.30 to open up and at 4.30 on the dot turned the key in the office door and left for the day.  I couldn’t believe my luck.

The work was also straightforward.  It was basic credit control and involved monitoring the balances on customers’ accounts and chasing them up for payment.  It’s dog eat dog in the catering trade but if they were using our cutlery to do it with, it was my job to make sure they’d paid for it.  The firm had a rudimentary computer network but almost everything was still paper-based in those heady pre-internet days, so every morning, after the coffee-time management meeting, I trundled out to the Midland Bank with a briefcase full of cheques and cash.  I usually bought a paper on my way back to the office, savouring the prospect an afternoon with the crossword.  After the clamour and crisis management of life in a large comprehensive, it was like a rest cure.

And then one afternoon I got a call from the manager of the Cash and Carry department asking if I could come down and speak to a customer. I expected an account balance query or a complaint about stock lead times but when I got to the trade counter I found Geoff, a middle-aged publican with a passing resemblance to Noel Edmonds.  He was taking an A level in English Literature at night school (you could, then) and was struggling to make sense of an essay question on Twelfth Night.  I sat with him for an hour, and we talked about being and seeming, alienation, hypocrisy, the decline of the feudal society and the differences between loving someone and being in love with them.

That was a turning point.  In the course of my hour with Geoff, I realised what was important to me and what I really wanted to do in my life, and I knew for certain that neither involved chasing overdue payments from cash-strapped restaurateurs in Oldham or Redcar. So I not only considered leaving, I did something about it.

To this day I’m very grateful for the chance I was given to re-invent myself, but my adventure in commerce ended almost as summarily as it began.  Within a few weeks I’d secured a job teaching English and Media Studies in a large Birmingham FE College, and so after just over a year as a Financial Comptroller (no, nor me) I emptied my desk drawers, swapped my now-shiny suits for a couple of crew necks and some chinos and pointed my rattly VW south.  And I’ve never looked back.

I’ve worked with dozens of teachers in a variety of institutions over the last thirty-odd years.  A number of them would, I know, have been among the most vociferous of the 80%.   Some of them take an active dislike to young people and some of them appear to resent every second they’re required to spend at work.  They’re right to consider quitting.  They’re in the wrong job.

Others are dedicated and supportive.  They don’t count the cost of what they do in time or energy because they believe in the value of helping young people to make sense of alien concepts, academic, social or moral.   They may well at times have considered packing it in – we’re all prone to moments of self-doubt – and they will certainly have had a moan about working conditions but they’ll all still be teaching in five years, because it’s what they do best.

Yes, teaching carries an inherently excessive workload and yes, management at all levels can often be poor.  You have to be a coach, a diplomat, a negotiator, a police officer and, sometimes, a parent, and that’s before you’ve given out a single worksheet.  You also have to accomplish all of these roles in the context of an inspection regime predicated on the deficit model, a set of central government policies that wants to steal the sugar from your tea and any aspirations you may have to a life of your own.   But nobody with any sense goes into the profession for an easy time.  They go into it because it’s who they are.

The simple fact is that when a good teacher walks into a classroom, something special happens.  But that wasn’t a question in the survey.

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