Mr McCotter’s gown rippled a bit, as he stifled a laugh. My 16 year old self had just told the careers master that ‘teaching was an option’, not my top option, mind, but a possibility nonetheless. His reaction told me that I should not even be considering it. This was the mid-80s. Perhaps morale was low in the profession then; I do vaguely recall industrial action over pay and conditions. Perhaps no self-respecting careers master (and McCotter was certainly that) would allow one of his star pupils (and I was certainly that) to don the gown.
I imagine everyone in teaching today had conversations like that. It was always other teachers seeking to dissuade. No colleague in the staffroom can complain that they weren’t warned about the marking workload, disrespectful teenagers and unsupportive parents. And yet, like the miracle of the sperm that makes it, we swam against the tide and made it into the classroom. Now we are the teachers, and some of us are advising on careers, and that bright boy or ambitious girl is telling us that they too wish to teach.
Do we put them off? Do we tell dark, Govean tales of Ofsted dementors and progress trackers? Are we edu-Kafkas, who warn them of teacher K, who was once satisfactory but who has woken this morning requiring improvement? Or do we nurture the naive spirit, the one that says ‘I know all that, but all I want to do is to teach children’? In them, do we see the 16 year olds who were once ourselves, and do our hearts leap a little at the thought that, despite all the bad stuff, this is still a profession that the best people want to be part of?
I’ve always tried to be an encourager. Yet, I have spent a good part of the morning in Whatsapp conversation with two brothers – one a teacher, the other having just quit his sales job. Niall teaches Maths in a Catholic girls school; he has found a way to be both good at his job and to lead a full life beyond the school gate. He thinks Barry, the other brother, would also make a great teacher. Barry left his job on Friday, seeking to set up a trophy business like our Dad. He may need another job, to make sure ends meet for him, his wife and two kids. So Niall sent him the link to the UCAS teacher training website. Which is where I stepped in.
Barry is a great person. He has stacks of personality, is bright and would be a wonderful motivator for young people. Several years ago, I tried to push him in the direction of teaching. But this morning, I have my doubts. I don’t think this is a job that can be combined with setting up a business: that just plays to the myth that our evenings, weekends and holidays are all our own. And I don’t think that teacher-training should be entered into lightly, fitted around other interests. On top of all of this, I am suspicious of those who believe that great teaching is somehow synonymous with sparkling personality. Many trainees start pretty modestly but, through their hard work make it to become good teachers. These are the ones I would encourage. They are the ones who will not be demented by the soul-sucking Ofsted ghouls, who – when they are told that they require improvement – will likely say ‘ Don’t we all?’ So I say to Barry: Are you willing to put yourself in the place of the learner, realising that there is much you do not yet know about teaching? Are you ready to battle hard on school placements, in settings you did not select, with pupils who do not yet trust you? Are you prepared to get out the school books yourself, to learn the stuff you need to get others to learn? Are you aware that you will be planning lessons, having them ripped apart by mentors, and marking work by kids who did not quite get the thing you thought you had told them? Are you ready to do that, while at the same time writing assignments for university tutors? Are you prepared for the shock that all of that is just the beginning, that the job itself is more arduous still? And, through all of that, are you confident that you will still believe – because it is true – that this is the best job in the world?