Friday, 28 December 2007

Teaching—stay or go? Or don’t even start?

A friend, 29 and in his second year as a successful teacher with good prospects for promotion, asked me the other day whether he should stay in teaching. The incentives to stay were enjoyment of the job, the early promise of a head of department post and the security of a regular salary. The disincentives were poor pay (for his age and workload), doubts about the long-term continuation of his current enjoyment (will routinisation set in and will grind outweigh excitement?), lack of time for other things after all the requirements have been met and, related to that, the impossibility of seriously pursuing his other passions—music, writing and academic study.

I could see no obvious way he could improve his income enough to clear his indebtedness--typical of his generation--and buy a house for having a family with his partner. My own story, from another era, was not much help: I left teaching at 36, disillusioned with schools for a variety of unsatisfactory occupations—which ended up as full-time supply teaching as the best paid option; then at 42 I got into full-time academic study and employment, continuing to retirement last year. For my friend in a different historical age, it's late in the day to break into the other fields he mentioned. Music and writing are financial gambles and an academic job would now require a PhD, except in education where jobs seem insecure and it’s hard to find the space to do anything like scholarship.

So moving from school would be difficult. It might also involve a real loss in that no other experience compares with teaching school students. Despite social squalor, tedium and conflict, teaching can provide a unique intensity of experience: the energy and creativity of a full class interacting in barely contained anarchy on the edge of chaos, the purposeful hum of kids engaged with their work, the attainment of a new synthesis of resources in a student’s latest piece of writing. University teaching has its rewards but is not at all the same thing.

On that theme of the satisfactions of teaching, while we were talking I failed to recall one of the main motivations that had kept me in teaching for eleven years (seven plus four, with two years out in the middle on a curriculum project). This was the excitement, intellectual and social combined, of having ideas, putting them into practice and making something new happen.

I would start with an idea--a notion, theory or hypothesis about possible modes of learning or interaction, or a sense of what was wrong with existing practice. My ‘theory’ might be about how informal, assessment-free forms of writing might aid the formulation of understanding, about the need to get aspects of academic knowledge incorporated into the kids’ ordinary conversational genres or about how ‘English' might be more effective if the boundary between it and history and sociology were removed. A new way of doing things would suggest itself; I'd work out how to make it happen, put it into action and then watch a new social reality emerge. I never got another satisfaction like that of seeing so-called non-academic kids engaging with knowledge, getting articulate, developing their thinking and interacting socially in ways they weren’t judged capable of. Possibilities for a different society seemed implicit; embryonic utopias were being born; my working-class students were becoming new sorts of people…

I started in a school in which I was allowed make my own social reality in my own classroom, but the potential for creating something with critical mass, as it were, came when, in my second school, I became head of a ‘faculty’ that contained a group of like-minded colleagues, including a couple of other heads of department; we could rewrite a third of the curriculum for our 14- and 16-year-old students and transform the pedagogy they experienced. (This was 1973-7—an age away from now.) Although we were working against the grain, and in the end the timid conformism of the head, the hostility of other colleagues and a changing political climate defeated us, it was great while it lasted.

So that’s an argument for hanging on at least to head of department stage, assuming some room for manoeuvre still remains in the system.

But what then? In my case, that was it—all over. After school there was nothing to do—nothing, that is, of equal significance. Like a Vietnam vet I was 36 and out in the world, condemned to less meaningful jobs and with no prospect of finding any equivalent excitement. I was too old, too knowing and too knackered: eleven years of trying to teach well had left me exhausted. Since then I have, of course, managed to find things to do, have amused and interested myself and have made a living, but nothing has lived up to those experiences of doing new things in schools with colleagues who were friends and kids who appreciated us. If I'd been interested in policy or management I could have maintained a pleasurable engagement with education, but for me the only point of being a teacher was always putting my own learning and intellect to use in making new things happen with students.

So where does that leave us? If the aim were to gain the maximum possible satisfaction from teaching, my advice to my friend would be to stay the course until he has been a head of department. But after a spell of that, the chances are he will have done his best work and he’ll still only be in his mid-thirties--young enough to have more than half a working life left but too old to start anything else except perhaps lecturing in education or inspecting or consulting: useful work but unlikely to give the same existential buzz. It would certainly be too late to get into the academic disciplines and compete with scholars who’ve been studying and researching continuously from their early twenties.

I wonder now whether the price I paid for those good years of teaching was too high; perhaps it was a mistake to go into teaching? To exaggerate rather, the price was the rest of my life. My initial choice of career meant that I failed to develop any specialised expertise that could keep me active, vigorous and committed for a lifetime--not just to 65 but into old age when I could die in harness like a novelist, composer, artist or architect. (The composer Michael Tippett died aged 90-something while conducting one of his own works in Finland.)

Starting again, would I go for something creative or artistic? Certainly it would need to be something that would keep me out of the clutches of institutions where work gets less and less enjoyable as ‘management’ tightens its microcontrolling grip. Best of all might be to stay outside employment altogether, working for myself.

I reflect: who do I know outside teaching who’s happy in their work? Some journalists and filmmakers, perhaps. Some who once loved their work— I'm thinking particularly of a museum conservation engineer as well as many teachers—have had their jobs ruined by ‘management’. Artists and actors impress me as successfully escaping the general ruination of work—but they don’t earn enough to buy houses to have kids in. Maybe that’s the only choice left—autonomy with poverty, or an income with alienation and a sense of your life dribbling away.

Of course, 30 years (age 35-65) of quiet classroom routine isn’t a terrible fate for everyone. If the school is not a bearpit and the management is sane and unbrutish, the work can be pleasant; there are indeed older teachersfor whom it never gets boring. Even if it does, the work and income are steady; and as one gets more practised and less conscientious the job can be managed without too huge a burden on one’s own time. Your centre of gravity can move away from the job and into family or new interests. (One of my own best teachers bought a hill farm and has run it to this day with his wife while continuing to teach.) In my day, though, and probably still today, such peaceful working conditions were available only in traditional grammar or independent schools, where I assumed I would be bored and where on principle I would refuse to teach.

Meanwhile, those who continue to work in tough classrooms after 35 tend to end up with serious health problems, physical and mental. Body, mind and spirit pay the price.

My advice is--I haven’t got any. Except acquire private means; then, after a stint as head of department, you could cut down to one class a week and teach it well, to your own satisfaction; and spend the rest of the time writing or painting or playing music.

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