The life of a teacher – is that an oxymoron? We are led to believe that teachers are either leaving the profession after just a few years or else are being attracted overseas by large, tax-free salaries; those remaining struggle with work-life balance.
There are certainly major shortages in many schools, but is the life of a teacher here really so bad?
I was once presented with a wooden plaque by a colleague. Written on it was: “Three great things about teaching – Christmas, Easter and summer holidays”. When I was a young teacher, a wise deputy head told me that long holidays were primarily for the children to rest, recuperate and grow as individuals, and not so much for their teachers. However, at the end of any term – each one flat-out busy – teachers also need time to gather strength. But much holiday time is spent in planning, catching up and innovating new and better ways of educating and motivating young learners. Holidays afford teachers time and opportunity for reflection, visits and developing their own learning and understanding at a gentler pace.
The thing with teaching is that you can never guarantee what each day will bring forth. So much cannot be anticipated. But this is also one of the joys – constant variety, evaluation and refinement, in order to give the pupils the very best. The downsides are the unforeseen problems, the disagreements to sort out or pressures of looming deadlines. These can work against a sense of achievement and lengthen the to-do list.
The relational matters, however, are also vital. Teachers are not dealing with a commodity, but with precious young lives. In order to make learning as stimulating as possible, an injection of creativity is required. And so the dedicated primary-school teacher goes on late-night runs to buy fruit for printing or wrapping paper to make board games.
At worst, the life of a teacher can be rather isolated, even anti-social. During working weeks (term time), there seems little else but work. Evenings of marking, report-writing and, these days, managing emails, take over from the domestic routine or longed-for social life. Then when school holidays come along, friends are away on vacation and regular events – evening classes and social groups – often cease. Perhaps this is why teachers tend to be friends mainly with other teachers, often even marrying other teachers.
Teaching used to be considered a fabulous profession for working mums: you have holidays when your children do and therefore avoid the astronomical childcare costs that many others incur. To a degree this still holds true, but this is rarely the central reason for entering the profession.
Any young teacher asking for advice about whether they should teach abroad should be told emphatically to go for it: maybe not to stay overseas for good, but to seize this wonderful opportunity to experience new horizons, cultures and different approaches to teaching. It can be life-changing. It is often suggested that, in working overseas, the work-life balance can be better maintained. So what is really making the difference?
A job that never ends
The pace of teaching life in the UK is certainly rapid, but so has been the pace of educational change. At an early-years conference I attended last year, we pored over the 12 – yes, 12 – government booklets dealing with legislative change to special educational needs. Barely is there time to digest what is new, let alone put it all into practice and evaluate the impact. If governments are serious about recruiting more and better equipped teachers in this country, they should not simply look to first-class honours graduates, but should ensure that directives are less frequent, with much more consultation and debate.
Teachers become teachers because they are passionate about learning and have the ability, often almost innately, to convey this to others. It is a job that never ends: you can always do more, always try something different, always alter your focus a little to home in on a new issue. It is also a profession that brings with it immense rewards: the satisfaction that comes from making a significant difference in the lives of others and spending your career finding out more about the subjects you love.
So do teachers have a life of their own? The answer to this is possibly not, but then we are all managed to a degree by the career paths we choose. So long as the rewards of the job outweigh the negatives, talented graduates will train to teach.
Frances Mwale is prep headmistress at Farlington School