'I taught the wrong subject for 10 years'

Paul Read spent years as an art teacher before switching to English – and finding that it was the ideal subject for him

Paul Read

Teacher careers: After 10 years, I have found my ideal subject as a teacher, says Paul Read

I trained as an art teacher 15 years ago. When I look back at what inspired me to take my PGCE, I see solid, if slightly clichéd, motives. 

I was working in a minimum-wage bookshop job and wanted to put my degree in fine art to better use. Curious about teaching, I thought I might enjoy the challenge. 

I taught art at a couple of London schools. It was exhausting, and I always felt that my best was never good enough. 

I enjoyed the repartee with like-minded colleagues, but, looking back, I wasn’t truly invested and lacked the passion for the subject that others had. On a good day, I could fool myself, but I’m not sure I was fooling my department head or the SLT. Or some of the students, for that matter. 

Other teachers around me showed profound ambition, acing performance reviews and jumping at every promotion in a scramble to move on up through the school as quickly as possible. I didn’t have the same drive. My aspirations were becoming increasingly literary, as I completed my MA in creative writing in the evenings.

Finding my perfect teacher job

In 2014, I moved to Italy with my partner and our young children. We both felt worn out by London and our new roles as parents, and decided to scale down. I taught English at an international school

After London weighting and having nudged into the upper pay scale, the wage drop was a shock, but our overheads were low and we made it work. I sold two books to a British publisher, one of which, The Art Teacher, took obvious inspiration from my previous life. 

Teaching in Italy had its challenges, but I became an expert on conditional clauses, phrasal verbs and other grammatical delights. It was refreshing not to have to constantly factor in the logistical challenges of tidying up after clay, printing or painting lessons. 

Far better was the fact that, despite some of those children speaking barely any English when I started teaching them, they could reply to me, after a year of lessons, in a solid approximation of my mother tongue. It was incredible to know that I’d helped that progress.

There were multiple reasons for us moving back to England, ranging from the financial to the emotional to the political, and I signed up as a supply teacher while looking for longer-term work.

Shortly before Covid hit, I found myself teaching English at several schools and knew, as I mingled with the department and deconstructed Animal Farm with the students, that this was what I should always have been doing. 

The buzz of teaching literature hit me in different ways to portraiture or colour theory. In truth, my own experiences as a writer were greater than those of a figurative artist, and I could aid the students’ written creativity to a degree I hadn’t been able to do when called upon to improve their artwork. When I found a long-term English position, even marking was pleasurable. Even marking.

It wasn't always easy. I still had Year 9s accusing me of not being “a real teacher” (supply has its perks, but wearing a different coloured lanyard to the on-roll staff isn’t one of them). But, in general, I loved it. 

It pained me when students claimed they didn’t like The Woman in Black, and I’d find myself trying to convince them to adore the book as much as I did. In the old days, if anyone mentioned they weren’t fans of Hundertwasser or Magritte, I’d shrug and say it was their prerogative.

I’d like to think the students sensed my enthusiasm, and I didn’t feel as though I was shortchanging them either. It’s insane to think that I spent almost 10 years teaching the wrong subject.

I now have a full-time English post and, in retrospect, this is the obvious fit for me. It’s a relief to have figured out what I love to do, even if I did arrive at the realisation the long way around. But I don’t believe I’m alone in making, or wanting to make, a teaching switch. 

Technically, once you’re qualified to teach, you can try your hand at any subject, provided you can demonstrate your aptitude, and understand there will be specialists with more experience applying for the same positions. It’s not uncommon for schools to gap-fill subjects mid-year, moving staff around to cover the holes, and we all know that maths teacher who’s teaching biology, or the trained history teacher hiding in the languages department. 

The fact is, if you can teach more than one subject, you’re a godsend for timetablers. And being able to say, “Actually, I can also do a bit of geography,” will give you an edge in interviews. 

For those wanting to move away from their specialism, there are subject-knowledge enhancement courses available. And, if you speak to your headteacher, it’s possible they’ll happily consider you as someone to teach a second subject, should the need arise. 

Maybe don’t leave it 10 years, though. 

Paul Read is a teacher and writer

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