Why do we do what we do? Why do you teach? Why did you take Holy Orders and enter the monastery of education? For my part it was because I had toiled in the clubs of Soho for almost a decade, where everything was permitted and nobody cared, and I didn’t realise how slowly a man can dissolve in labour and restless motion until I barely possessed a reflection.
The adverts at the time said, ‘Use your head - teach,’ and I was Saul on the road to Damascus. Months later I was David in a class of Goliaths. Every step was difficult, but it never felt like the wrong path, and never has, even when I resembled Sebastian more than Solomon. Teaching has saved me, and given me my life back, and my debt to the profession is a canyon I can never fill, although that doesn’t permit me the right to not try.
This is why I teach: because it has to be done. Because there are children on every corner who don’t know how to spell, or where their ancestors came from, or who have never held a book from the first page to last and wanted to start again immediately. Were we to stop teaching, humanity would disinherit its past in a generation, and every moment from Magna Carta to Amritsar would vanish as if it had never happened. We are guardians of something more important than any of us: the ancestral manor of ideas that comprises every thought, life and iota of meaning that humanity has ever breathed, wept or loved.
Think of it: every tear, every heart break, every tantrum and celebration ever committed to the page of the world is sustained, like a song, only as long as it is remembered or commemorated. The terrifying honour of it all is that the responsibility for this inheritance falls to us, perpetually, like a permanently shifting chosen people with one task: pass life on; it is not yours to keep.
Every day I spend in a school reminds me of this, even the tough days. Especially the tough days, in fact, when the height and incline of the mountain we’re climbing feels keen, our fingers are numb, and letting go feels like the easier option. Because there are people at the end of the rope beneath us. If we let go, they go too. It’s easy to be mesmerised by the fantasy that we are pivotal in their lives, especially if you watch too many films about teachers, but the truth contains a sliver of the fable. They do need us. We might be the one person who expects great things from them; who will be there for them, who values their work; who believes that they are more than the sum of their histories, tragedies and comedies.
Our role isn’t messianic; we are ship’s engineers, struggling beneath the decks of their futures. But we might be all they have, and unless we all do our jobs, they might never find out the size their worlds can be. I read a report today that stated some heads were afraid to take on challenging schools in case Ofsted came along and torpedoed them if they didn’t succeed instantly. On one hand who can blame them? A system that sets the bar of failure so low will only discourage ambition, and must be changed or abolished. On the other, why do we teach? Why do we do this?
We don’t do it because it’s easy or glorious. We do it because it needs to be done; because children need us, and because we are the only ones who can do it, because we’re the only ones here. That’s why I don’t teach to please Ofsted, to acquit myself favourably in the Value-Added Hall of Fame, or because the status tickles my ego. I teach because I have to; because I want to; and most of all, because it is important.