I’m not a big believer in perspective. Not the artistic technique, obviously. I do accept that it is possible to make things look realistic and have depth on paper. No, I mean the proverbial ‘perspective’, as in: ‘now that puts things into perspective’. This is usually uttered around the time of a mass disaster, act of terrorism, tragic death of a celebrity, abduction of a poor child. It’s meant to signify that one’s own problems are insignificant in comparison to the scale of misfortune and suffering that we encounter at times to help us… well…put things into perspective. My opinion is that any shift of viewpoint is short-lived: our reality dose software update soon reverts to a factory setting refocus on our own personal strife and woes. Maybe it’s just me.
Where I do believe in perspective, though, is when it intrudes into the personal sphere. If bad or unpleasant stuff happens to my family – or, let’s be honest, specifically to me – then I’m far more likely to adjust my Weltanschauung for more than a few days. We’re far more likely, it would seem, to set up a campaign group or donate money to a charity if it involves a cause that has directly affected us. I accept that some people are naturally more altruistic than others (my wife is nicer than me, for example) but I think the general point still holds.
What’s any of this got to do with teaching then, eh? Well, there’s been a few fascinating discussions flying around eduTwitter recently about whether a) people who come into teaching later in life make better teachers (presumably after doing other jobs, rather than a life on the dole, but you never know) and whether b) teaching is a sustainable lifelong career these days.
Having come into teaching in my late twenties, I have views. My views are: firstly, I have known, and continue to know, some exceptional career teachers, who have been teaching kids good stuff since they left teaching college (or wherever). They’ll generally tell me that, like a stinky bit of blue cheese, they have got better with age but, to me, they seem made for the role. Usually, but not always, they have a parent who teaches or taught. Secondly, I think it is often advantageous to have come into teaching late – “Teach Second” as Ms Keenan put it nicely on Twitter today. This hunch is purely anecdotal of course. Having discussed the topic often with fellow Teach Seconders they regularly tell me that they a) feel more mature and balanced as an older practitioner and b) having had another job (or jobs) helps them to put teaching…into perspective.
I agree on both counts. I’m not saying that I’m better than other teachers because of what I’m going to euphemistically term my ‘life experience’ BT (Before Teaching). But I am definitely saying that I’m a better teacher than I would have been as a fresh-breathed 21-year-old. Not that I’d got my degree by then, so that’s kind of irrelevant. The reasons why? Immaturity. Poor work ethic. Issues with authority. Behaviour that may fall short of the teaching standards (or any other standards for that matter). Undeveloped communication skills. Lack of motivation.
So instead – I say this but my 16-year-old self would have laughed in your face if asked if I fancied teaching as a career – I did the following full-time jobs first:
- factory picker
- spray painter
- electrical fitter
- dole office admin
- filing clerk
- civil servant
- hospital complaints officer
- barman (again)
What motivates me to teach isn’t the money (ha); what motivates me is the belief that education can change lives. Trite but true. Which explains my decision to re-train as a teacher. But one thing that definitely motivates me to work as a teacher is not working as a spray painter. Or not working in a call centre. And certainly not working in a dole office, watching, from across the counter, lads you used to go to school with passing out mid signing on as the heroin hit kicks in.
Junkies aside, what was so bad about some of these jobs? After all, perspective should have taught me that at least I had a steady job. As I’ve said, I ignored perspective’s nagging voice and felt sorry for myself. Why? Because, without wishing to sound too much like Adrian Mole, it’s bloody difficult being clever in a job that requires little intellect. At school I kept my mouth shut and learned not to answer questions to which I knew the answers. I disrupted lessons. I fought. Later, in the factory canteen I kept my mouth shut as others talked ignorantly about topics I knew quite a bit about. Eventually, in one office staff room, I finished a crossword in seconds that had the others stumped. Don’t be impressed: it was the Daily Star Quick Quizword. My nickname from then on? Wordsworth. (I’ve yet to find any biographical detail on the Cockermouth bard’s crossword habits.) It was time to move on; I could keep my Smart Alec gob shut no longer.
The beauty of teaching – unlike spray painting – is that it is never boring. Tiring, stressful, relentless, unnecessarily bureaucratic, overly politicised etc etc etc. Yet, significantly, it allows you to have stimulating (or semi-stimulating) conversations each day. Personally, I tend not to feel the grind. Yes, of course there are days. Those days that we all have, where we trudge back to the car park questioning our sanity and pondering the wisdom of dealing with large groups of teenagers or young children. Still, I find these days (or weeks occasionally) are nothing in comparison to the spirit crushing anomie I felt when I worked as a filing temp and was asked if I knew how to file stuff alphabetically. The guy before me hadn’t. So I feel very lucky to teach. And I remind myself of this whenever things get a bit shitty. I’ve felt like this for over a decade. The job’s got harder, I’ve taken on more responsibility – though significantly I still teach a fair whack – and still I feel lucky, punk. Will it always be like this? Is it a feasible lifelong occupation? Can I imagine myself at 65, rattling on once more about A.C.Bradley’s view of the Shakespearean tragic hero? I think yes. And the reason I think this can be found in perspective. Personal, selfish perspective, of course, not the general ‘other people have it worse variety’.
I was reminded of this the other evening as I re-read Orwell’s seminal, incendiary piece of non-fiction The Road to Wigan Pier. I first read it back in my early twenties. Now, looking back, I started to truly appreciate the hardships described, specifically thinking about the job my grandfather did all his life: mining:
It is impossible to watch the ’fillers’ at work without feeling a pang of envy for their toughness. It is a dreadful job that they do, an almost superhuman job by the standard of an ordinary person. For they are not only shifting monstrous quantities of coal, they are also doing, it in a position that doubles or trebles the work. They have got to remain kneeling all the while–they could hardly rise from their knees without hitting the ceiling–and you can easily see by trying it what a tremendous effort this means. Shovelling is comparatively easy when you are standing up, because you can use your knee and thigh to drive the shovel along; kneeling down, the whole of the strain is thrown upon your arm and belly muscles. And the other conditions do not exactly make things easier. There is the heat–it varies, but in some mines it is suffocating–and the coal dust that stuffs up your throat and nostrils and collects along your eyelids, and the unending rattle of the conveyor belt, which in that confined space is rather like the rattle of a machine gun. But the fillers look and work as though they were made of iron. They really do look like iron hammered iron statues–under the smooth coat of coal dust which clings to them from head to foot. It is only when you see miners down the mine and naked that you realize what splendid men, they are. Most of them are small (big men are at a disadvantage in that job) but nearly all of them have the most noble bodies; wide shoulders tapering to slender supple waists, and small pronounced buttocks and sinewy thighs, with not an ounce of waste flesh anywhere. In the hotter mines they wear only a pair of thin drawers, clogs and knee-pads; in the hottest mines of all, only the clogs and knee-pads. You can hardly tell by the look of them whether they are young or old. They may be any age up to sixty or even sixty-five, but when they are black and naked they all look alike. No one could do their work who had not a young man’s body, and a figure fit for a guardsman at that, just a few pounds of extra flesh on the waist-line, and the constant bending would be impossible. You can never forget that spectacle once you have seen it–the line of bowed, kneeling figures, sooty black all over, driving their, huge shovels under the coal with stupendous force and speed. They are on the job for seven and a half hours, theoretically without a break, for there is no time ’off’. Actually they, snatch a quarter of an hour or so at some time during the shift to eat the food they have brought with them, usually a hunk of bread and dripping and a bottle of cold tea.
My grandfather was a very intelligent man but was forced by family poverty to leave school at fourteen to enter the mines. Born a generation earlier, I may well have followed in his weary, begrimed footsteps. Like me, he believed in the transformational power of knowledge. When he finally finished down the pit he spent his redundancy money (£3000 for 50 odd years of backbreaking toil) on a cruise. He won the ship’s quiz night. There was a sense of shock among the other thousand or so entrants when he responded to the compere’s question about what job he did.
He would be incredibly proud of me entering a ‘profession’ – especially one that gave young people the opportunity to accrue the knowledge he was forced to accrue himself from the local public library. Whether they always appreciated my efforts to teach them would not seem that relevant to him. He died as a result of his industry: pneumoconiosis, caused by decades of breathing in coal dust, got him in the end. His brother James, my great uncle, had been killed in an accident, in the darkness, half a mile underground, on his 26th birthday. Family folklore says that his mother had had a premonition and begged him not to go to work that day. Knowing the dangers of mining and knowing that each day at work could be your last takes its toll on a man. While teaching is a tough, noble profession, for me it lacks that sense of fear, and physical and psychological destruction. I’ve read, with great sympathy, some upsetting accounts of mental burnout caused by the demands of teaching. But placed next to my personal escape from the drudgery of manual labour or office based tedium I feel fortunate to be enveloped by the madness and chaos that often characterises the modern world of education.
So I’ll carry on teaching, thank you. I’ll whinge every now and then. I’ll grumble to my wife when my lessons bomb. I’ll swear at the telly when the latest government educational policy disaster is announced or blindly defended. I’ll resent the pile of mock papers. But I’ll keep on doing what I’m fortunate to be able to do.
Thanks for reading,