The bittersweet cost of being the ‘popular teacher’

After 10 years of giving her all to teaching – including sacrificing having a family on her own – this teacher wonders: was it all worth it?

Workload, teacher workload, work life balance, teacher workplace, schools, being a teacher and a mum

Before turning to teaching, I worked in the performing arts. I entertained children playing well-known characters in shows touring the country. I made little money from it, lived out of a suitcase, never knew where my next job was coming from, had a diet of pure chocolate and loved every minute of it. But as time went by, I watched friends start to settle down, buy homes, secure “sensible” jobs and decided it was time to join them. And predictably, the next step for an ex-children’s entertainer was, of course, to train as a primary school teacher.

I began my PGCE course exactly a year after I hung up my fake ruby slippers. By using my drama skills I was able to jazz-hand my way through interviews, Ofsted inspections, staff training and parent presentations with confidence and ease. I was praised by senior leadership for my energy and creative flair. I quickly became the exciting new teacher parents spoke about in the playground and was often stopped by children in the corridor who wanted to tell me how much they loved my class or club followed by a hug or a high-five.

I am not pretentious in the slightest and behind closed doors I consider myself quite shy and self-conscious: teaching was like putting on a show or playing another character. I got used to seeing the glares and eye-rolling from the more experienced staff members each time I directed a school production or showcased children’s talents during open evenings or assemblies. I remember a fellow trainee during my final teaching placement mimicking my voice during an observation, claiming she had to be “fake and annoying to get graded as 'outstanding'.” Again, I let the comments go. After all, I had just come from an industry that was renowned for jealousy and competitiveness.

I loved my job and I worked really hard. I was always the last teacher to leave and the first to arrive. I would be in most holidays, moving the classroom around, dusting, sorting and clearing out. I even spent one weekend transforming my classroom into a Santa’s grotto. Parents often sent me wonderful letters and thank you gifts and I was showered in flowers, champagne and vouchers every summer. I spent the first couple of years working every weekend and evening, making resources from scratch, laminating within an inch of my life and writing detailed, essay length lesson plans. I even had a pair of slippers under my desk due to the hours I worked...

I wanted to be the perfect teacher.  

An obsessive work ethic

I didn’t have a demanding headteacher who inflicted a strict regime on her staff or work for a militant academy chain who believed teachers should only rest during their summer break. This workload was my choice. I strived to reach the end of my “to do” list each night and I prided myself on having the most organised and tidiest classroom in school. Looking back I had plenty of energy, plenty of time and an obsessive work ethic. I didn’t have a partner or my own children and was living back with my mum due to being unable to afford the rent in my local area.

My personal situation didn’t bother me initially, after all my job was my life. I was often referred to as the Miss Honey of the team and was the subject of many Bridget Jones style jokes in the staffroom. Even after my deputy head took me aside and expressed her concern that I would be "alone forever as there are no decent men in this job!" I simply laughed it off and continued working myself into the ground. Parents told me not to leave it too long, they told me my clock was ticking… I took it all on the chin. There’s plenty of time for all that I thought.

I then "miraculously" met my husband. He was a secondary school teacher and worked in a different county. I found myself for the first time leaving work early on a Friday to battle the M25 and started a long-distance relationship. By now I had established myself as a popular teacher who had formed great relationships with both children and parents. As I prided myself on being approachable and friendly, I also felt the boundaries start to blur with the increased interest in my personal life. Slowly the children in my class would ask clearly drip-fed questions about my marital status or when I was planning to leave the school. I was in my early thirties and knew the day would soon come when I would have the big white wedding followed by showing off a bump. But I had no time for that, I was far too busy with marking, planning and creating original resources.

I left the following summer to live with my partner in a new city and teach in a new school. Shortly after starting, I gained the trust and admiration from my new class and their parents. However, this came at a price. The passive aggressive comments from new colleagues soon started, aimed at my "different" teaching style and I was questioned why I would use puppets and drama to deliver set lessons. My confidence dropped and I found myself for the first time in my career dreading each day. It was my first experience of bullying in the workplace. Despite being graded "outstanding" after each SLT observation, I would be snubbed in the staffroom, talked about and not given information about documents or new starters. I lasted a year.

Luckily, I secured another job in a wonderful school, who loved my approach to learning and presence in the classroom. To quote from a good friend of mine I had finally “got my sparkle back”. I gained back my love for the job but my workload intensified once again, always wanting to go above and beyond. Children would chant my name as I walked through the dining hall and parents would hug me if they saw me out of school. Again, I still had no other commitments in my life. I was newly married at this point but to a teacher with the same work ethos as me. We were (and still are) like ships in the night due to the excessive hours we work. Holidays are spent working on different projects to gain an extra income due to high living costs and I can’t remember the last time we spent a Sunday evening together without one of us having a laptop on our knee.

Was it all worth it?

When I reached my mid-thirties, parents began to look confused when I told them that I don’t have my own children. I would often jokingly justify it with an explanation that I simply couldn’t work at this pace with my own children or I just didn’t have the time. A sugar-coated version of reality.

My husband decided recently he doesn’t want to have children. He feels that, in this profession, we simply can’t financially support a family and we do not have the time to raise one. He’s matched my crazy working hours with his own, merging it with new ambitions and pursuing additional career opportunities in his spare time. I am now approaching 40 and, quite honestly, nearly burnt out. Can I still maintain the popular teacher role for much longer, knowing my energy levels no longer match that of my bouncy, bubbly twenty-something self? Honestly, I don’t know any other way to be.

I have accepted I will not be taking any time out of teaching to raise a family. And I do worry it will eventually result in me resenting the profession I once adored. But I can’t help to question whether the career that has given me so much is also responsible for taking so much more away?

Was it all worth it?

I have spent over 10 years working with endless passion and enthusiasm, striving to bring out the best in every child in my care, using my skills and dedication to break the mould of teaching in the same generic, dull and uninviting way. Teachers with this much commitment will inevitably be the popular members of staff. And yes they will be liked and adored by children and their parents. Learn from them, do not sigh, smirk or suppress their creativity, sometimes it’s all they have.

The writer is a primary school teacher in Essex.

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