When I was doing my PGCE, our trainer told us emphatically not to stay only in our classroom or department. He told us to leave our comfort zones and veer off course from the well-worn path between classroom and staffroom. He wanted us to explore, to walk around the school or college where we were placed and get to know it, in all its rich variety. "Take a piece of paper," he told us. "If you're carrying a piece of paper, you can go anywhere." I've never forgotten that advice or that phrase, even if I have forgotten most of what I learned on my PGCE. Two and a half decades in the classroom will do that to you.
Now lockdown is easing and our PGCE associate teachers have returned to the building. I see them looking worried in our workroom. What an odd year it's been for them, learning to teach in a situation that's a once-in-a-century anomaly and a challenge for every teacher. Nobody prepared any of us for this – certainly not someone just being inducted into the arcane, mystical ways of the classroom. It's been like learning to drive in the middle of a grand prix. There's no PGCE course in the country that includes a pandemic preparation module.
Teaching is facing something of a personnel crisis, and something of a mid-life crisis. Applicants for teacher training have been dropping for years and the dropout rate is huge. But applications rose during lockdown, presumably due to people who were seeking or needing a career change. However, five or 10 years on, how many of those will remain in teaching? Even as people join the profession, teachers over 50 are disappearing from our classrooms. And many of the remaining teachers over 50 have left the classroom behind to become managers. People may try to staunch the flow, but we all know older teachers who have decided just to go. It's all just felt like too much. And most of us over 50 have understood why.
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You get to a stage where your nemesis is hassle. What makes this drain at the top end of the age scale particularly worrying is not just the loss of experience and wisdom in individual schools and colleges, since it isn't really an issue of individual schools and colleges. It's the loss to our education system as a whole, as this is a systemic issue. So it has to be addressed systemically.
Older teachers leaving the profession
The average age of teachers in the UK is dropping and the teaching workforce here is one of the youngest in the world. The average age of a teacher is now 39. That means I am now 12 years older than the average. It's nice to be above average in something, I suppose. We have the youngest average teacher age in Europe, and the lowest percentage of teachers over 50. The pleasing flip side of being an old lag is that I now teach students who've been taught by ex-students of mine. I am proud of those ex-students who have returned to the classroom to teach. They're better teachers now than I am. But I'm still hanging on in that classroom, weary though I feel.
So, with all this in mind, I think back to that advice I was given last century: take a look around; get to know the place in all its variety; with a piece of paper in your hand, you can go anywhere. Teaching is an odd way to spend one's life. You pour yourself out so that others can be filled. We're like the medieval image of the pelican, who was thought to feed its young with pieces of itself. The teachers I work alongside are amazing people. They could be doing a thousand other things if they chose to. They could make a living nursing, film-making, writing, singing, acting, checking accounts, oil-drilling, running businesses, designing computer games, training sportspeople, running pubs (a lot could run pubs). But they're not. They're in classrooms every working day.
It isn't a case of that tired insidious old cliche that those who can't do something teach it instead. That's a lie. Parents home-schooling over the lockdowns learned that teaching is not easy. A teacher is a juggler, a wearer of many hats, a magician. The teachers beside me in the trenches have always been amazing, with skills way beyond what most people see. We're an iceberg people in an iceberg profession, with most of what we do remaining unseen.
In my decades of teaching, I have experienced a lot. I have been squared up to in doorways by teenagers taller than me who went on to be charged with the most serious of crimes. I have advised young men about how they treat women who have gone on to make serious mistakes. I've taught students who've lived under assumed names because they've been relocated for their own safety. This is the hard, horrible frontline of life and I have been there, trying to guide and protect and open up new paths.
I have had students of mine die violently and I have had to compose myself as I shook hands with grieving mothers and grandmothers and siblings. I have had students who decided they couldn't go on. I have worked to give students something to carry on for. There have been many difficult days. But there have also been days of enormous privilege. In this job, I've been immersed in the very stuff of life, in all its rawness and all its ugly beauty and hopeful fragility.
Some days I feel like that character in Bladerunner who is dying in the rain. I've seen dull eyes turn bright as understanding has struck and stuck. I've shown students how to do things they thought were beyond them. I've had students thrust stories into my hands about far-off fantasy worlds that have brought them alive. I've had students trust me enough to share deep things about their lives. I've helped them find a voice.
I've met parents who have worried and worked hard to support and to help the children they love. I've been right in the middle of family dramas. Embarrassingly so, at times. I've called parents into the building only to then defend their child when the parent turned angrier than I'd hoped for. And along the way, I've been paid to read poems. I've been paid to study stories. I've been paid to help people advance in the world. I've seen students smile on results day and I've told them the same thing I was once told: with a piece of paper in your hand, you can go anywhere.
So, to the PGCE associate teachers desperately trying to find their feet in a world where the rug has been pulled, take a good look around now you're back in the building. And you over-50s who are feeling your fires die out, try to re-catch the flame. While our students are wearing masks, take the chance to look into their eyes. There's a future forming there that you will have the chance to shape. We're midwives, you see. There's a cost attached to this lifestyle and the remuneration is not what it could be, but teaching is really not a bad way to expend your energy. Even if you are over 50.
David Murray is an English teacher at City of Stoke-on-Trent Sixth Form College