'It's an unspeakable privilege to be a teacher'

By Emma Kell on 30 August 2018

As you say goodbye to pupils and hello to new faces, it's important remember the joy of teaching, writes Emma Kell

This is always a funny time of year.

Students are moving on to new adventures in a variety of new locations. Like many teachers, I’m bursting with pride at their achievements in their exams, their buckets of potential and their joyful and sometimes stubborn uniqueness which will have them making huge differences in the fields of medicine, education, politics and social justice. But the goodbyes are tinged with real sadness.

In my two years at Duke’s Academy in Tottenham, I have frequently spent more time with certain students during a week than with my own children. We have struggled, we have rejoiced; there have been tears and frustrations and cataclysmic breakthroughs. I can’t quite get my head around the fact that one won’t be there to roll her eyes when I talk too much and sort out my stationery, or that another won’t be there to greet me exuberantly on a Monday, talking at a rate of knots about how excited she is about the week ahead. I will miss the young lady who always found time to ask me how I was and showed kindness and empathy well beyond her years. I will find it hard to get used to the fact that I don’t have to steer a certain young man carefully back from his tirade of off-the-topic-but-fascinating questions or that I won’t have another young man to keep me on my toes with his rapidly expanding vocabulary and readings of Kafka and Nietzsche.

But this is the second summer in a row when I’m not moving on. I’m staying put. I’m sticking with the school, to which I travel a round trip of around 60 miles from rural Hertfordshire. I’m going to continue to live with the reactions from strangers when asking about my job. "Aren’t you brave!" they exclaim. "Isn’t it dangerous?" they demand, wide-eyed. And my special favourite (from an actual teacher not a million miles from Tottenham): "Have you got your own stab vest?" Those who know me remotely don’t dare say such things any more. Partly because they know how furious such unfounded stereotypes make me. And partly because they can see how proud and happy I am of where I work.

To read around the educational landscape in the UK at the moment, you’d imagine most teachers are grey, miserable and broken; most schools are haemorrhaging staff at rates of one in three – or more – each year. You’d read about the toxic politics and irreparable rifts between "us" (the teachers) and "them" (the SLT). You might imagine entire departments run on inexperienced new teachers or a churn of bright-eyed overseas teachers who see out their visas before moving along. These schools do exist. There are about 100 of them, referred to in The Teacher Gap as the "sausage machine schools". As Sam Sims and Becky Allen point out, if they weren’t doing the damage they are to the profession, we actually wouldn’t have a teacher crisis at all. Now there’s food for thought.

'I was a wounded teacher'

My first 15 years in teaching were unconsciously fortunate. No school is perfect and, with any deeply held moral purpose, schools can be rife with tantrums and tensions. The relationship between teacher and school is like any other, I suppose – where values and aims are shared, there may be daily frustrations and niggles, but there will always be a reason for your heart to leap when approaching the school gate. Where values and aims are misaligned, the relationship can quickly become toxic, dysfunctional and mutually destructive. I’m stronger now for knowing this first-hand, but when I first arrived at Duke’s, I was, in my boss’ words, rather wounded. Not quite broken, but not as far from this as I’d liked to imagine (I’d actually stopped applying for teaching jobs when this opportunity came up. I nearly didn’t go for the interview at all… I was, in retrospect, on the verge of walking away from teaching).

When you are wounded, it takes time to heal. It hasn’t been an easy journey. Establishing myself with an experienced team has challenged me hugely, and sometimes in unexpected ways. Each of us human and, in a school where honesty and sometimes blunt conversations are the norm, it can sting to be confronted with our own inadequacies – but there’s an acknowledgement that we’re all human, all flawed, and none of us is ever able to be complacent. We can always do better.

Allow me to describe the 23 August; a snapshot of my work at Duke’s.

GCSE results day has come to symbolise a culmination of the hard-won relationships, the fragile and precious trust that comes with journeys which often include profound struggles and hardships. Were there tears last Thursday? Of course, there were. But many of the tears were of pure joy and relief. There were squawks and leaps and howls of delight from some of our most restrained students and staff. And the stunned silences in corners as students absorbed the fact that their hard work really had paid off and that they can do anything – literally anything – with the results in front of them.

It is such an unspeakable privilege to have been a part of these students’ journeys; like the student who’s only been speaking English for four years and opens his envelope to find a Grade 9 in English literature and top grades in everything else. It’s a feeling of pure glee to see the students who really, really struggled with French finding they’ve progressed by four grades since October and speak of Paris living and travel and opportunities. There are other triumphs, too. Students who wouldn’t be opening envelopes at all if it weren’t for the investment of my amazing colleagues who never, ever give up.

Being part of something doesn’t just happen. It requires trust – trust from colleagues and trust from leadership and, above all, trust from students. It requires a sometimes bottomless pit of resilience and sometimes ruthless self-care.

As the holidays draw to a close, and I start to tire of the sock drawer and the endless washing up and my own increasingly restless children, who are more than ready to get back to school, I find myself proud and happy not to be saying goodbye to the Duke’s community. There are a thousand other students waiting for us when we return next week. A thousand precious young people with formidable potential and their own share of challenges and fears and dreams of the future. It’s a daunting road ahead – to give these students the very best of ourselves, day upon day, is tough and exhausting. But it’s worth every moment.

Our school’s logo is a Pegasus. We actually have our very own Pegasus (“no, not a real one,” as explained to a curious Year 7 student) but it’s made of horseshoes and it’s pretty awesome. I’d like to end by citing a poem I discovered through a colleague at Duke’s: 

“Come to the edge," he said.
"We can't, we're afraid!" they responded.
"Come to the edge," he said.
"We can't, We will fall!" they responded.
"Come to the edge," he said.
And so they came.
And he pushed them.
And they flew.”

― Guillaume Apollinaire

Emma Kell is a secondary teacher in north-east London and author of How to Survive in Teaching