This article was first published on the Autus Books website in December 2014.
I’m sure this conversation will be familiar to teachers all over the world:
“What do you do?”
“I’m a teacher.”
“Tck, you’re always on holiday, aren’t you?”
I used to take umbrage at the assumption – made from a position of ignorance – that teachers had it easy with short days and long holidays.
I’d explain, somewhat defiantly: “Actually, I’m in school before 7 in the morning and don’t leave till after 6 and, even then, I’m still marking at midnight. Also – I think you’ll find – I work through most of the holidays. Planning, marking, running revision sessions. Besides, teachers need a break, it’s a very stressful job, it’s both emotionally and physically exhausting.”
But eventually I stopped getting uppity and started playing along. “Yeah, I only have to work for six or seven weeks at a time then I get these great big holidays stretching out in front of me like endless white beaches. I’m so lucky. Teaching is a great job, you should try it. Go on, go back to university and re-train, pass your NQT year, and teach poetry to a class of thirty smelly teenagers on a Friday afternoon when it’s windy and there’s a dog loose on the playing fields outside your window. What’s stopping you? I’ll even write you a reference.”
It proved to be a much more effective strategy – not least for my blood pressure – because it unmasked the elephant in the room: that most of the people who sneer at teachers for having an easy ride, couldn’t and wouldn’t do it themselves. Why? Because teaching is tough and they know it.
Teaching involves long days and lots of pressure. It genuinely is emotionally and physically draining. In the days when I taught a full timetable, after five lessons back to back in an inner-city comp – punctuated only by bus and break duties, and running a lunchtime club and a detention – I was absolutely spent, I was good for nothing. I had to ingest wine intravenously whilst lying comatose on the carpet, mumbling about WALT and WILF. WTF. It was not pretty.
I’ve known many people who – like me – worked in a different industry before entering the teaching profession. And they – like me – had no idea what teaching would be like. They assumed working in the public sector would be easier than the private, that pay and conditions would be better (we’ve all heard tales of those gold-plated pensions) and that teachers always finished work at 3.30 and had lots of holidays in which to lie-in and be lazy. But when they became teachers, without exception, they admitted with a sigh, “It’s a lot harder than I ever imagined it would be. The hours are longer, the pressure much greater. Oh, and I actually have to work in the holidays. Who knew? The planning and the marking is never-ending. I just never expected it to be this tough. My old job as a brain surgeon/rocket scientist/venture capitalist was a breeze in comparison to this.”
Yes, teaching is hard work and teachers truly deserve their holidays (even if they work through most of them). But, as we prepare to break up for the school holidays after a half-term keeping coughs and colds at bay (yes, we all know the moment we stop we’ll feel poorly), let’s not bemoan the stresses and the strains, let’s not say ‘God, I need a break. Teaching is so tough these days, what with SLT demanding the impossible and Ofsted crawling all over us, and all that planning and marking, chasing targets, moving goalposts, and then there’s the difficult parents – it wasn’t like that in my day – not to mention the bloody kids, don’t get me started on the bloody kids, and did I mention Ofsted, and…’
All of this may be true but there are plenty of other people who delight in denigrating the teaching profession without us helping. Not a week goes by without a high profile speech or report criticising teachers and teaching. We really don’t need to join in. Let’s keep the wolves at the door. In fact, let’s slam the door in the wolves’ faces! And let’s curl up on the sofa with a glass of wine and reflect on all the good things about teaching. Let’s recall and talk about what a great job teaching is and how lucky we are to do it. Let’s consider the difference we make to students’ lives.
Teaching is tough but it is tough because it matters; it is tough because we are doing something important, we are improving the world around us one person at a time.
A friend of mine is a nurse and when she’s asked what she does for a living she replies (albeit tongue firmly placed in cheek), “I save lives”. Take her lead… This holiday, when – at a family gathering or on a night out – you’re asked what you do for a living, simply say this: “I have the best job in the world. I change lives.”
It’s hyperbole, yes; it’s gilding the lily somewhat, of course; but it’s also fundamentally true. Because you do, you know. You do have the best job in the world and you do change lives. Each and every day.
You are fantastic. You matter. You do a job which many other people could and would not do. Let them moan. Let them articulate their jealousies. You deserve the holidays, take them as your reward.
Have a good holiday – you deserve it!