Harder than it looks

What are teachers complaining about? They work only until 3.30pm and have 13 weeks' holiday a year.

We know that isn't true, but many people have sympathy with this notion, and politicians and newspaper columnists are spending a lot of time denigrating the teaching profession at the moment. This is one of the reasons why I was compelled to watch a recent television programme called Who'd Be a Teacher?, which examined various points of view in light of strike action planned in England.

Toby Young, the journalist who received much publicity when he set up an independent, state-funded free school, expounded his reasons for thinking that teachers don't really have such a hard time of it. He then stated that most schools don't start until 9am anyway, presumably offering this as evidence that teachers can enjoy a good lie-in. Is he really saying that teachers in his school are not required to turn up until 9am? How on earth do they prepare their classrooms for the day?

Fortunately, we quickly heard the other side of the story. A teacher was shown organising her sons early in the morning, before busily gathering everything she needed for the day and setting off to work. We watched her teaching; we saw her running lunchtime and after-school activities; we followed her home, where she prepared the family meal. Then she settled down to work again, marking books, planning and preparing teaching aids. She was enthusiastic, dedicated and conscientious - and she stated proudly that she loved her job. She also made it quite clear that anybody going into teaching and expecting an easy ride will be in for a shock, because it is impossible to do the job successfully without working many hours outside the school day.

Young might say that this teacher is not typical. But in my experience, most teachers are exactly like her - I have met very few who don't want to do the best they can for the children in their charge. They thoroughly enjoy the constant challenges, the fact that two days are never the same, the creativity and inventiveness of the work and the sheer pleasure of being in the company of young people.

That's not to say that it isn't possible to do a poor job. It is, but I've seen this far more among senior managers than class teachers. There were the people who were never in school and appeared to be professional course attendees; the principals who preferred to spend much of their time typing up policies, documents and staff instructions instead of coming into contact with any children; the deputies who relished monitoring other people, rather than doing any teaching themselves. But these people certainly weren't the norm.

It's the sheer pleasure of the job that spurs teachers and good leaders to give so much of their time. I'm sure they will continue to do so, if only their efforts are properly recognised and appreciated.

Mike Kent is a retired headteacher of a school for children aged 4-11 in England. Email: mikejkent@aol.com.

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