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Preconceptions go down the pan

During one interesting exchange with a father at a parents' evening, I was told I had never done a proper job or a hard day's work in my life. I can't remember what had prompted him to say this, but I do remember the look on his face when I told him that in my past I had been a labourer for the parks department and a street cleaner in Birmingham city centre.

He looked bemused, even more so when I mentioned that my salary as a street cleaner was the same as when I started teaching. I finished him with the news that a school day was far more draining, physically and mentally, than a 12-hour labouring shift.

Although perceptions of teachers are changing, many people still have the wrong idea. After all, when we're not sat in a classroom with 30 pupils working in silence while we are doing our marking, we are swigging coffee in the staffroom while we discuss the wit and wisdom of Charles Clarke, or bemoan the fact that Chris Woodhead is no longer plotting a steady course for educational standards at the Ofsted helm. Then, of course, there are all those carefree holidays basking on the beaches of the Med.

If any of the above were true, perhaps we would not have a dramatically growing shortage of people willing to enter the teaching profession, or an equally dramatic number desperate to get out of it. To put it at its most basic, teaching is the only job I have had where, on a busy day, people struggle to find the time to get to the toilet.

To be fair, I have met people in other professions - ones I consider equally demanding or more so than teaching, from inner-city cab drivers to casualty nurses and police officers - who have told me they could never do my job. To those who have yet to realise how difficult it is to teach in the 21st century, I have always given one simple challenge - not to teach for a day, but simply to sit at the back of a classroom and watch what I or one of my colleagues has to do and deal with in a day. No one has taken me up on this yet, which leads to the sneaking suspicion that an increasing number of people do have some idea how difficult our job has become.

Now it's time for the Government to recognise this as well, not just in our pay and conditions, but also in prestige and respect. Some truly remarkable people are doing truly remarkable jobs in our schools, and it's time they got the prestige and working conditions they deserve.

Who knows, one day we might even have time to go to the loo.

Greg Bellmore teaches at Castle Vale school in Birmingham

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