With one term gratis for good behaviour, I have 22 years on my teaching clock. That’s about 880 weeks. I have not counted the number of students I have taught, or teachers I have trained, or NQTs I have inducted. I struggle to recall the numerous A level and GCSE specs I have ploughed through; parents’ evenings I reckon I have endured about a hundred of. The only other significant number I have left is 1. I have one week left as a teacher.
I haven’t written my speech yet. I have penned cards to some of my closest colleagues, utterly failing to convey the quantity and quality of my admiration for them. I’ve signed them off ‘Love, Mark.’ When, with another person, you go through difficult times, you share a tough job but you smile your way through it because there is mutual support and trust – then, there is a sort of love. We have achieved things together none of us could have achieved alone: we have made teachers, we have made some great teachers, and those teachers have achieved even greater things with their own students. Maybe I will make a speech out of that.
What do I know now that I didn’t know when I started? Have I made 22 years’ progress? I’m a lot less certain than I used to be. Now I realise that learning is slow, possibly invisible, and unlikely ever to be accurately captured in a lesson or a test. Now I know that I don’t truly understand what I am looking at when I sit at the back of someone else’s classroom, or skim through their exercise books, even though I will be asked to make a judgement or offer feedback: if learning is intangible, then the processes involved in teaching are mind-blowingly complex, conditional upon an unknowable balance between what we call ‘relationships’ and what we call ‘subject knowledge’. I think I mark work better now, and that I give better guidance about how students can improve their writing, and that some students whose behaviour would have given me trouble before no longer does. That’s my progress. I might get a speech out of that.
I’ve got some funny stories – that always goes down well in a speech. There is the time when I left my passport at home on a trip abroad, and the other when my colleague left the kids’ passports in the hotel safe. Colleagues will remember the open evening when, after a fire alarm we left some of the parents at the bottom of the field in the dark. But I’m not a comedian and stories are only funny to those people who already know them.
There is the option to make the speech that many other teachers across the country will be making this Easter, or summer: the one about why they are leaving. Students, and their parents, don’t have the respect for teachers that they used to. Workload is impossible because we have to cater for every learning need, stretching the highly able, supporting the lower starters while somehow narrowing the gaps between the two. ‘Those who can’t’ seem to have decided that among the things they cannot do is teach, because the job does not pay well enough for the stress you have to endure. DIRTy green pens! I won’t be making that speech, cocking my snook at all the poor sods still sitting in the staffroom. I don’t buy it anyway: I’m leaving a great profession, not a terrible one. If the golden age of high teacher regard occurred at any point within the past 22 years, if the job used to be a breeze, if we were ever well-remunerated for sitting on our arses – if any of that happened, it didn’t happen in the schools I ploughed my furrow. Schools were always skint, respect always had to be earned, and piles of marking always resembled the New York skyline. Sure, I’m tired but I ain’t moaning.
Place me in a cube with 30 kids and I can still be transported. Training H to stay in his seat, when really he wants to run the corridors; responding to R’s quizzical look, as he politely expresses some doubt about my latest pearl; getting everyone to hang on J’s stumbling, unconfident word; realising that there is no history homework that S will do that cannot be improved with a teabag stain; watching R master English and my subject within two years of entering the country; building W’s self-esteem so that he edges his way from an F, to an E to a C. These are my victories. These are the wins that allow me to live with the fact that S cuts my worksheet into confetti, that R thinks I don’t like her, and that K has bust his knee again so will miss weeks more of school. The gains do outweigh the losses, for me they always have. There is a speech in that. But the speech could darken: just because I have given a convincing display as a competent teacher for the past 22 years is no guarantee that I could keep it up. It takes a lot of personality to keep going – by that, I mean that I have to dig deep into my inner resources to stay good at what I do, to achieve more gains on my ledger than losses. If teaching has changed in my time, I might note that being good has got harder – harder for schools, their headteachers, their classroom staff. The bar went up on being OK, and it’s going up on being good. That’s a bit scary for a young fogey like me.
The speech-that-gives-thanks is both the safe and the right one to give. It’s a pity somehow that I can only thank those in the school I am at now, and not also those from the other schools that made me the teacher I will soon no longer be. My primary school teacher, who kept me reading when I wanted to run away. My A level German teacher, who was the one who suggested I might give this game a go in Poland. Chris Husbands who trained me at UEA, and Andy Buck who was one of my first headteachers. Simon, my first head of department; Shirley the Head of 6th form I was assistant to, and Jen who was assistant to me in the same role. The role call of gratitude is just too long: teachers are the best people in the world and I have been surrounded by some of the best of them. (That’s definitely in the speech.)
By the way, I still have some mileage left in me, or hours on my clock – or whatever the metaphor was that I began with all those years ago. There will be another blog for that, ready for the summer term. By then, I will have adjusted my standfirst, my little self-description – those few words in which I proudly pronounce myself a teacher.