I would take refuge with my fellow trainee teachers and huddle in the cramped computer room where the IT guy hung out. Our heavy bags laden with folders, lesson plans and exercise books amassed in a heap. It was here, while rushing to type up yet another lesson plan, that the prospect of a well-earned glass of Champagne at my graduation celebration – the image of golden bubbles dancing in a stemmed glass – would skulk through my mind. I knew that it would more likely be a plastic glass of warm beer, but no matter, it kept me going. With eight of the 10 months of my teaching course completed, I was almost at the finishing post.
Yet, on a sunny May afternoon, my worst fears were confirmed and I found myself among the ranks of the unemployed.
It all began last September when I embarked on a school-centred initial teacher training course in English at an inner-London secondary. At the ripe age of 56, I wanted to make a difference and felt I had the skills to do it. I had left a job I enjoyed as a teaching assistant with special-needs kids.
But standing in front of a class of 30-odd pupils and delivering a lesson was not as easy as it first appeared. My questioning was closed, my voice wasn’t loud enough, my lesson plans weren’t detailed enough and my PowerPoints could be sparse. What’s more, I lacked oomph – that ingredient that is so needed, especially for an English teacher.
I thought back to when I did the skill tests in one of those plasticky, prison-like cubicles. The relief had rippled through my body, as a smiling assistant handed me the carefully folded piece of paper that said I’d passed.
But two "cause for concerns" later, and I felt like I was driving a car with dodgy brakes. As time went on, it became increasingly evident that I was unlikely to make it to my desired destination.
But then something amazing happened: my teaching started to excel. Pupils became engaged, questioning was open and provoking, and I was actually enjoying it. But this success was fleeting; I tried to hang onto a vestige of hope, but I couldn’t keep up the momentum.
I’d tussle with conflicting emotions. Had I even had a proper conversation with my youngest son about his English A level? It wasn’t a lack of interest. With assignment deadlines, objectives, pedagogy, piles of marking and class data dripping from me, there was no time; no time for what really mattered in life. The three-hour commute each day hadn’t helped either.
The word “resilience” was bandied about a lot – that’s what every teacher should aspire to, right? As a single parent on a low income, I was hoping among other things that teaching could be a financial shift up the ladder, but rather than saving me from my problems, it was actually causing quite a few of them. Inevitably, the stress took its toll and I called in sick.
I returned after the Easter break clutching a good-luck mascot from my daughter – a cuddly elephant to accompany me on what was to be my final observation. However, a visit from Ofsted to inspect the provider was imminent and I was told that this would take precedence over me receiving the result.
Ghosted at school
Then came the silence: a silence that was to last two whole weeks, as I took up my new role as school ghost. I’d look on as my trainee-teacher colleagues busily beavered away at their lesson plans. I had no lessons. I’d roam those school corridors hearing my own footsteps, as I’d float past classrooms with teachers' dutiful instructions echoing in my ears.
There was a break from the monotony, as I received a call to go to reception. I was given a big envelope from a huge pile in the corner of the office. Inside were copies of written feedback on the lessons I’d taught a couple of months earlier, on expensive A4 paper. “It’s Ofsted – we want to make a good impression,” the receptionist explained.
I entered a lonely limbo and, as mornings drifted into afternoons, I realised that I had acquired a precious commodity: time. I had time to think and began to question what my £9,250 course fees had been spent on.
On-the-job training seemed like an excellent idea, but in reality, trainee teachers were relied on to take lessons, as there were clearly not enough qualified teachers to go around. Wednesday afternoons brought professional studies – a change from the humdrum of school life and a chance to meet other trainee teachers. But these sessions were frequently taken by teachers who already worked in the school, and were of no financial cost to the provider.
It occurred to me: why didn’t we have professionals to teach us some of the more important elements of being a teacher? I was told I needed to turn up the volume of my voice in the classroom, but I was never shown how to project my voice. A voice-coaching session would have been great, not to mention professional stress coaching.
Around the square wooden table in the headteacher’s office, I was told in a stony voice by the director that if I decided to withdraw from the programme, they’d withdraw my letter of termination. So there it was: a choice that felt like no choice at all.
I am QTS-less. I have nothing that proves the time and effort invested in this teaching course.
My final reflection is one of being unable to live out my fantasy of becoming a teacher and celebrating with a bottle of bubbly. But now I ask: had I qualified as a teacher, I might have been able to afford the champers, but would I have had the time to enjoy it?
The writer is a learning-support assistant in Essex