Meet Callum: the brilliant young teacher unsure if he can stick it in the classroom

Constant SLT scrutiny, poor pay, too much work and a lack of respect combine to make professional life increasingly hard for Callum, writes Emma Kell

Emma Kell

News article image

Oh, for pity's sake… Those super-value "non-iron" shirts don’t do what they say on the packet. At least not, apparently, after falling off the makeshift clothes rail overnight. Body heat. That will do it. Callum can’t remember where he heard this nugget, but for now, he’s clinging to it. He wonders how long it will be before he has to invest in some shoe polish. Six months and counting… He’s had a few colleagues fall foul of the new corporate dress policy with "letters on their files" (literal or actual? He’s not sure) to prove it. A lick and a polish will (quite literally) have to do it.

Callum wonders how long it will be before he becomes a "proper" grown-up, and the sound of the alarm feels less like an air-raid siren in the middle of the night. He’s up at least two hours before either of his housemates. Ryan is "between jobs" and he has no actual idea what Sandra does, but it involves travel to an air-conditioned office, a choice of international cuisine for lunch and a truly enviable 10-6 routine, so he’s so busy being jealous he has never managed to bring himself to listen properly.

Callum has been passionate about being a teacher since the age of 13. He struggled at school – not with the work, but, apparently, with "managing his own behaviour". It was his own music teacher who, one windy Wednesday afternoon after a(nother) confrontation with the resident wind-up merchant who never failed to get a rise out of Callum, raised the question that it might be a little more complex than "not following classroom expectations" and made the referral to CAMHS, which resulted in the sheer bloody relief of understanding that he wasn’t just "difficult". Callum didn’t mention his mental health issues on the compulsory medical section of the teaching application form; he still works hard to keep his (mainly under control, but worse at times of extreme stress) waves of reptilian panic that lead him to rage or want to hide for days.

Callum admires – and take significant comfort from – the teachers who are honest about their own mental health struggles online, and wonders how long it will be before teachers like him will feel genuinely able to be open about his own without fear of stigma or worse.

Callum’s parents have failed to hide their disappointment at his choice of career. Despite the prophecies of his physics teacher, who told his parents he doubted Callum would come to much, Callum excelled at university. "Have you considered law? International relations? The civil service?" were questions sprinkled into Christmas dinner with a well-intentioned but disastrous attempt at subtlety that had him narrowly avoiding ricocheting back into one of his teenage rages.

Callum wonders how long it will be before his family appreciates his passion for the job – for making a difference, for engaging the most "hopeless" of children (as his physics teacher would have had it) in music and sowing the seeds of self-belief. For now, he has to put up with that toxic cocktail of admiration and pity barely concealed in response to his confirmation that, yes, nine months in, he is indeed still teaching in That Place.

Six days until payday. Callum wonders how long it will be before that bag of pasta runs out. He’s always been stubborn (or determined, as he would prefer to have it) and would rather pull out his own fingernails than ask his family for financial support. After all, he’s a professional now and he shouldn’t need it. He loves teaching in London, but is not sure how long he’ll be able to hack a shared house of discarded wine bottles and early morning lentil crunching underfoot. Callum wonders for a moment how long it will be before he can afford a place of his own.

Callum slips past the principal’s office, doing an abrupt 180 at the sight of the slickly turned out deputy who eagle-eyes him (and forgets to say good morning), earning a snigger of sympathy from Saskia, old enough to be his mother but also having to RAG the teachers’ standards weekly for her evidence file. Moving along the corridor, Callum wonders how long it will be before he’s able to make eye contact with the (wonderfully well-ironed – how does she do that?) geography teacher he accidentally snogged at the Christmas party.

Aaand he turns the corner to find his Year 7 tutor group waiting for him outside his classroom. "Morning, sir!" "I SAW YOU buying bread!" squawked with the unparalleled astonishment of an 11-year-old realising that teachers don’t sleep like bats in classrooms and actually have to eat. "Siiir! Your socks are SICK!" (The Christmas penguins have come out again.) "Siir, do you want to smell my slime? It’s almost like banana!"

His five-lesson day flies by with more highs than lows. Caitlin’s "WHAT’S THE BLOODY POINT OF MUSIC – OR YOU?" mega-strop is trumped by Richie in Year 10 quietly sidling up at the end of period four to share his latest set of rap lyrics ("Nobody’s seen these but you, sir"). Give it a few weeks and the memory of Year 8's approximation of the opening bars of Beethoven’s 5th will be just about wiped out by a quite astonishingly understated and in-tune version of Star Man by a little group of Year 9 girls who claim to have heard of Bowie last month.

Callum’s last lesson observation with the deputy head he bumped into earlier didn’t go well. He missed an opportunity to highlight a point about literacy and didn’t stop, as one "should" in an observation, for a mini plenary to let the observer see visible progress, so absorbed in the lesson were he and his students. He’d also borrowed one of Barry’s purple pens for marking. Big mistake.

The number of students wanting to do GCSE Music has doubled since Callum started in September, but unless it hits 25, the school says the course won’t be "financially viable" for September. Something to do with "buckets". Callum drifted off during the first training session on buckets and daren’t ask now. Something to do with EBacc. Something to do with the saving grace of a brilliant teacher of the creative arts not being recognised as a viable piece of "evidence of outcomes". Something to do with that moment when a child realises that, yes, mistakes really don’t matter, being allowed to be creative makes the world seem a little darker and that the adult smiling on the other side of the room really, actually believes in them. In them! Callum wonders whether his old music teacher is still teaching. He hopes so.

Callum loves his job. Callum’s students love music (even Caitlin, on a good day). Callum is stubborn (or determined) enough to believe that this will last. We hope so too.

Dr Emma Kell is a secondary teacher in north-east London and author of  How to Survive in Teaching. Callum is, of course, an amalgamation of several hundred anecdotes

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Latest stories

Schools need to be ready for any blame pushed onto teachers by unhappy pupils

GCSE results day 2021: How to handle TAG unhappiness

What should a teacher do if a student blames them for not getting the GCSE grade they think they deserve this year? Tes rounds up advice for those preparing for that possibility
Grainne Hallahan 5 Aug 2021