Kate Bohdanowicz, former journalist and newly qualified teacher, writes:
You could call it a mid-life crisis but at the age of 40 I did something rash. I packed in a well-paid job as a journalist on a national newspaper and shelled out £7,000 of my redundancy pay on tuition fees so I could train to be an English teacher.
When colleagues asked why I was leaving, I’d say I wanted to give something back. I wanted to do something rewarding and I wanted to work with young people. I imagined the innocent faces of my students lighting up as I imparted yet another nugget of wisdom and the rapt silence of the classroom as I stood before them, shaping hearts and minds.
So a year ago this month, after forking out ridiculous amounts of money to track down replicas of my GCSE, A-level and degree certificates (last seen in 1996, in the cellar of a house-share in North London), I found myself sitting in a hall in the Institute of Education. Not only was I going to be a teacher trainee but I was also going back to university. I’d gone from heading up a department with an expense account and global travel to essays and seminars, library fines and student unions.
My course was in the post-compulsory sector and my placement is in a sixth form college in Hackney, East London. It’s an inspiring place – renowned for bridging the gap between youngsters from deprived backgrounds and Higher Education. As soon as I walked in, it felt right. I felt honoured to be there – to be given the chance to make a difference to these young lives.
Yet I also felt uneasy. Surrounding yourself with teenagers is a surefire way of making you feel old. I’d expected that. What I hadn’t banked on was being older than most the staffroom as well. When I set foot in the classroom – after a gap of 25 years – the first thing that struck me was the board. It was white, not black. Where’s the chalk?
I spent five weeks observing my mentor, who is 12 years my junior. She’s a fantastic teacher with a huge knowledge of, and immense love for, her subject. She also talked a language of which I had scant recollection. Metaphors, similes, alliteration and onomatopoeia were words I hadn’t given a thought to for more than 20 years. Yet these were the bread and butter of English GCSE lessons.
It sounds crazy, but until this point, I hadn’t thought about my lack of subject knowledge. It hadn’t occurred to me that I would have to relearn the subject if I had any chance of answering a fraction of the myriad questions I was being asked. A-level lessons involved close analysis of sibilance, bathos, enjambment and triadic structure. I was sinking under a glossary of tongue-twisting grammar terms. Add that having to learn PowerPoint and Prezis, differentiation and Piaget’s theory of cognitive development and suddenly this teaching lark seemed like a bad idea indeed.
If I'm honest, I thought this year would be a bit of a breeze; a welcome break from almost two decades of office work. I hadn’t factored in the eight hours planning I’d spend on a single lesson, only for it to limp along in a spectacularly boring fashion. I hadn’t considered the exhaustion that comes with trying to master behavioural management. There were times when I couldn’t cope and had to call for back up. On one occasion I witnessed what can only be described as a riot. Time and again, this talented young teacher would walk into my lessons and settle them down in an instant while I stood twitching in the corner.
So now, as I near the end of my PGCE, I wonder what the future holds. I’ve secured a part-time job teaching adult literacy in my local community. That’s the dream; the chance to give something back and all that. Yet, having thrown off the rose-coloured spectacles, I know it’s not going to be easy. Ex-colleagues ask me if I made the right decision. Truthfully? Yes. I just hadn’t banked on the PGCE year being so tough. And as I start my job in adult education I appreciate that going back into the classroom is far more difficult the second time around.