How I said Goodbye

This day last week, I had one week to go. I pondered on my reasons for leaving teaching, after 22 years, on what I had learned, and on what I should say to my colleagues as I left. I wanted them to still feel fired up about teaching, despite the pressures there are and despite the signal I could not avoid giving off by my own resignation. I wrote my speech out, knowing that I could turn a better phrase on paper than I could ‘live’, but in the event I was hijacked. I read my speech out OK, but barely: I kept expecting someone to ask me to speak up. As my words expanded, my voice lost volume.

I should call it the ‘humble-mumble’: the things they said about me before I got a chance to stand up left me feeling unworthy of the moment… I didn’t deserve it, and the words I had ready would not rise to the occasion either.

Please Stand Up

Because this (above) is what they said. Each stood up on behalf of the group mentioned on the left, leaving me sitting nearly alone. Orchestrated by Barbara Terziyski, it was a roll call of some of the most fabulous people I know; to have been associated with them was my luck and my privilege. It would take a much better person than I to deserve their applause.

So this was the speech I mumbled. I have adjusted it slightly, to better suit a public rather than the original private audience.

26 years ago I made a decision. I’d graduated from Queen’s in Belfast, had spent a year in the Students’ Union and I had a range of great postgrads I could do, or apply to join the trainee journalism programme I had been promising myself. I had choices. 

Instead I did a crazy thing: I bought a rucksack and a sailor’s trunk, packed them and got on a bus to Poland. There I became a teacher and I have been one ever since. 

In February I did another crazy thing: I applied for a job at the IOE and today, one way or another, I stop being a teacher. 

‘Teacher’ is a great word: everyone knows what it means; everyone has a favourite, one whom they hated or who inspired them. We hold teachers to higher standards than normal people. Teachers have a vocation, we are trusted in loco parentis, under certain circumstances we can give a child a paracetamol. We can tell right from wrong, trainers from school shoes; we can read any child’s handwriting,  and when we can’t we can deep mark it anyway. We can take the origins of the universe and explain it in 50 minutes to a room full of 30 kids, each with their own special need.  We solve simultaneous equations while simultaneously taking a register on Progresso … with one leg in the corridor and one in the classroom, minding both. On a Tuesday evening we sit in teams to work out what types of questions will help students think more deeply in history, or geography or art. Teachers walk down corridors at break time without turning a blind eye or a deaf ear. We stop <insert child’s name> from doing stuff, or we try to, or we beat ourselves up when we can’t. We help kids who don’t have friends to make friends, and separate others from their friends so they might get some work done. We mark, plan, teach. We think, pair, share. We speak in triplets because that’s more persuasive. We perform a highly complex task in front of a hundred or more sometimes sceptical schoolchildren every single day, without getting stage fright. We bend young people to our will, making them work sometimes in spite of themselves, then we send them home after putting extra stuff on Show My Homework. Because of us they learn to design, experiment, differentiate and integrate, to compose, summarise, decline and conjugate, to overhead clear, gain a perspective and arrive at a conclusion. Many learn a lot, a lot learn less, and some learn at a pace different from the one we set.

Teachers – we … you … are the best a society produces; and we… you are the best hope for it.

 

Perhaps it takes tough times to really find out how good a person is, or how good a team is. This is a tough time for the education system, it’s tough being a teacher nowadays and certainly we have had hard days here. Over the last few years, when I have been doing my work outside Chace, I have been to schools and worked with staff and school leaders there. I meet some impressive people, hard working clever people. But I don’t meet better people than the ones I see here. I can’t thank now all those who deserve my thanks – I have tried to do that during this week. But I have to thank the people in the 3 teams that every day make my job a joy. The SLT continue to protect us from many of the worst excesses of government policy, and I want you to appreciate that that is a daily battle. Our headteacher does the toughest job in the world, he does it with a grace and humour I could never find, and I am genuinely proud to have served him. The Humanities crowd are loyal to each other and generous to others. My 2 heads of department – Dalga and Hugh – mean much more to me than their titles suggest. They give me credit where none is due. I wish I could have been better for you, but please know not all your efforts were in vain.

This year has been hard, but getting to spend it in the office with the CLT team (and Phil) has been extraordinary. Louise, Dan, Ethan: you have blown me away with your commitment and skill. We are a more confident, research-informed, better bunch of teachers because of you. And Barbara. As Hof and CLT, I have line-managed her every day of the 9 years I have been here. Frankly for most of that time it has been trying to get out of her way, so that the force that is Terziyski can get on with it.

Then they gave me gifts of alcohol and books, chocolates and pickled vegetables. And a cherry blossom tree. Similar to the one that stood for years at the front of the school, from today it stands at the front of my house.

Planting cherry blossom

22 Years on the Clock

22 on the clock

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.

Talking to the younger me.

PGCE Graduation

Who was this man? And what became of him? Twenty-one years ago, I gained those 4 letters after my name which turned me into a teacher. This was UEA. Graduating on the same sunny day were two people – still dear friends – who would be best man and woman at my wedding; and Annie, the amazing person who would become my wife. It was a good group, that Class of ’95.

I note from the photograph that I am wearing the same suit that I graduated from my first degree in five years earlier. I had spent the intervening period teaching English teachers in Poland, an experience which had left me with a determination to qualify. It had also left me with a mere £40 in my pocket when I landed in Norwich. The picture is of a grateful man: grateful because I had been allowed to follow my dream without having to pay a fee. The country invested in me. Twenty-one years and several thousand students later, I am still at it, so perhaps the country feels it invested wisely.

What were my expectations then? I had by this time already secured my first post, teaching History at Warren Comprehensive in Barking and Dagenham. I had no idea of London geography, and didn’t realise that to get to school from our flat in Hackney would take a cool two hours. Ofsted had only recently been invented, which everyone told me was a ‘bad thing’. (Chris Woodhead, the first Chief Inspector, was certainly known to be a ‘bad thing’.) I had no particular career ambition. The words, ‘I would like one day to become an assistant head, leading professional development and spending hours on twitter’ had not occurred to me. I had some notions of making learning History fun. I think I half thought I might get some time on the side to pursue my other ambition, to write.

Some of my students would say my lessons are fun. I have found some time (though rarely the energy) to write. Promotion came too, but not too hurriedly. I spend much of my time now with teacher-trainees, and I wonder whether if the man I was then had met the man I am now would either think the younger me should become a teacher. Would I have taken on the debt to train? Would I have baulked at the government interference in local education authorities, the imposition of academies, the tearing up of pay and conditions agreements? How would I have responded to an Education Secretary referring to me as the Blob, or labelling to me as coasting, or inadequate? Told I was in for a 50+ hour week, I would have been fine. I would have been prepared for the behaviour, the marking, the shifting demands of the curriculum. I had trained on a blackboard, so I might have looked askance at an interactive whiteboard. If I had shown me Google Images or You Tube, I would have called me a witchdoctor.

I fear I might have walked away. I had other options after all. (All teachers – with their degrees, their life experiences, their idealism – could have been something else.) I didn’t share my tutors’ loathing of first-generation Ofsted: I saw the point of an inspectorate insisting on improving standards. The Tory Secretary of State was Gillian Shephard, who had been a teacher and seemed still to respect them. The National Curriculum was a baby of 7, and there was considerable political consensus when it came to schools. I am not certain I would have joined a profession abused the way it is today. Now it is merely the plaything of ambitious ideologues, politicians bent on hiding them away from parental or local accountability, sacrificing them to carpet salesmen and religious proselytisers. When the best have been allowed to become academies and the weakest have been forced to, then the rest will just be hoovered up aswell. I didn’t sign up for that 21 years ago, and I doubt I would today.

To the young man in the photograph I say, I am proud of what you did. You made the right choice for the right reasons, and along the way you have had a lot of laughs. I hope you can keep smiling.

 

NOT SO PRINCIPLED AFTER ALL?

Day after day, year after year, I arrive at work, log on my computer, check I have my lessons in order for the day, then go and teach them. I will do a bunch of other things too: perhaps a duty, or a line management meeting, or a lesson observation. Always some colleagues to talk to. The days never seem to repeat as you do them, but, taking the long view, they certainly shuffle into a pattern. And at the end of each month there is a salary slip, and the prospect of recuperation at the end of term. It’s a job, innit, and not a bad one.
For some reason, however, we see it as more than that. Perhaps it’s uncommon these days to hear people refer to it as ‘a calling’, but most teachers I know do do it as though they were responding to some higher moral purpose. They will let their tutor group in to see them at lunchtime, or lay on a homework club on a Thursday after school, or reply to a tweacher friend while watching the football. They will go through the motions as they would any job, then they go through some more. Why?
I write this in the week that teachers have gone on strike for the third time in one academic year. The government tells us we are the enemies of hard-working families (as if we weren’t also hard-working), that we are politically-motivated (as if politics were something that should be left to politicians), that were are pay-obsessed (as if we were the ones who fought for PRP.) Our principles have been questioned: how can we call ourselves professionals, and how can we say we want the best for every child, if we then down chalk and walk out? The principles of fair pay (when others are on zero-hours contracts) and the right to retire at a reasonable time and on a reasonable pension (when others will not, and have none) are up for debate for any worker, and not just teachers. Are we more righteous than the next?
I entered the classroom at the same time as Ofsted did. The notion of a government inspectorate on this scale was an abomination, and schools pledged to ignore it. Performance management was mooted soon after, and we railed against the unnatural grafting on of business ethics. The Threshold was introduced some while later: colleagues boycotted it, insisting that they oughtn’t to have to jump through bureaucratic hoops to be paid a decent sum. There were principled objections to all of these (and I remember holding them), but there are few now remaining in the staffroom who do not accept these as part of the landscape. Indeed, a whole alternative moral framework can be built around this new reality: Ofsted and the rest have made us more accountable for the increased funding schools have received over these 20 years, and actually teaching is better and student outcomes are better too. Does it mean were are unprincipled, or shallow, if we now accept what once we campaigned against?
What are the shibboleths of today? What are the trigger-words that test our principles, and place us either on the side of the angels or of the Gove-devils? Local Authority vs Academy school – that could be one. Champions of the former believe in local accountability, inclusion and the collective; academy adherents espouse the freedom to experiment, to drive from the front and the devil take the hindmost. If you are at one, you look upon the other with either fear or envy. What about performance-related pay? What place can it possibly have in a profession dependent upon team work, and one where we understand that gains are incremental, sometimes invisible and often fuzzy? On the other hand, if we want talented linguists, mathematicians and engineers to ply their trades in the classroom; if we recognise that the person sitting next to us in the staff briefing truly is exceptional: should we not embrace PRP and inspire more to aspire more?
Right now, I know where I stand. (I’m an LA kinda guy, and PRP is a Pretty Reprehensible Practice.) I am fortunate to have an employer whose instincts tally with my own. But if I were in a different setting, I cannot say for sure which of my cherished principles would remain intact, and I do not castigate my co-professionals for supping with a shorter spoon. We all do what we must.
If I am at the hinge point of my career, and if I therefore swing forward another 20 years, on what moral ground do I suspect I will still be standing? First, last and always, we must saddle up alongside the notion of publicly-funded schooling; this funding must keep pace with demand so that we can continue with an education system as good as any in the world. Second, our system must have children at the centre – not as proto-adults, not as future drones, but as the gloriously inventive and energetic things that they come to us as already. It must be a place that attracts the best as teachers: the smartest of their generation, the most dedicated, even the most principled. The pull factors might include a more competitive pay structure, but some little respect from our political leaders would go some way too. And that would be all (it would already be a lot.) These are the principles – a world class education as a right, respectful of the rights of the child and built upon the glorious efforts of the many – that make it more than just a job.
Now, where was that pay cheque?