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My year in teaching: 'Teaching is hard but so is life'

In the third part of our series, Christian Pountain, director of spirituality and head of RE at St Christopher’s CE High School in Lancashire, reflects on the past 12 months

Teachers can use humour to maintain behaviour - but they need to judge the situation wisely, says Nikki Cunningham-Smith

In the third part of our series, Christian Pountain, director of spirituality and head of RE at St Christopher’s CE High School in Lancashire, reflects on the past 12 months

I love my job as head of RE and director of spirituality at a high-achieving Church of England secondary school in an economically deprived part of East Lancashire. I have held my current post for eight years, and I previously spent nine years working in a community school on the other side of the county, where I ended up as head of humanities. 

At this point, I feel obliged by tradition to state how over 17 years I have seen standards deteriorate and stress levels rocket. But, hand on heart, I cannot say that I have found this to be true. I’m working in my dream job. If I could, I would do it for free (I can’t because I have a mortgage to pay and a family to raise).

Teaching is hard, but so is life. In March, I sat on a panel at a church event, answering questions about the job alongside other teaching professionals. Something shifted in me as I listened to a fellow panel member state to the room – full of people from all walks of life, with all kinds of jobs (and none) – how teachers today “even face the threat of losing their jobs”.

I tried to rescue the situation by saying that I didn’t know of a single occupation where employees were free from the possibility of losing their jobs, but I’m not convinced that I did much to salvage the dwindling respect for the profession that the people in that hall felt that day. We would do well to occasionally remind ourselves how hard life can be for non-teachers, too.

Things that made me happy this year

As something completely different to my day-to-day responsibilities, I run a well-attended after-school judo club, which attracts many children who are marginalised from mainstream school life. Seeing them achieve their belts has been hugely satisfying. For some, this is a rare taste of success. 

Things that made me sad this year

Our school community has suffered a disproportionate amount of bereavement this year; far too many pupils have lost a parent or another close family member, often in horrible circumstances. There is no quick fix for these children – all we can do is stand with them in their grief and sadness.  

Things that surprised me this year

Great exam results mean nothing. I felt a surprising emptiness last summer after the best external exam results my department had ever achieved (and they are usually good anyway). As is so often the case, I have found that the holy grail of school life ultimately does not deliver satisfaction. However good the results are, they could always be better. And, in any case, those pupils have now gone and all that matters is next year’s results. It is rather like your team winning the Premier League – it’s the most important thing in the world in May, but it counts for nothing in August when it all kicks off again. 

But the teacher, like the football fan, must teach themselves to enjoy the ride. It surprises me how many of us are slow to learn this lesson. The most difficult person to teach is always yourself.

One thing I will do differently next year

I will go to bed earlier. As I write this, I am approaching one of those significant, round-number birthdays that cause one to reflect on one’s priorities. I could easily kid myself that I am working into the small hours because I am dedicated and want to serve my pupils well. But the truth is that I could work much smarter and much more efficiently. These kinds of small adjustments can have a huge impact on quality of life, and if I am really serious about doing the best I can for my pupils, then I need a good night’s sleep.

For more highlights, read the full feature in the 7 August issue of TES. You can read it on your tablet or phone, or by downloading the TES Reader app for Android or iOS. Or pick it up at all good newsagents.

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