I never intended to be a teacher. I wanted to be a radio DJ. More specifically, I wanted to be Noel Edmonds. I’m guessing that’s a sentence you haven’t read before.
Who says young people too often lack ambition?
But quickly realising that the poptastic uplands of DJ fame weren’t awaiting me, I was lucky enough to have a teacher who changed the course of my life.
Mr Samson taught in an idiosyncratic way. To bring alive the Spanish Armada he placed small boats on the school biology pond, added some oil, and set it alight.
My career choice
My recollection of being a truculent, insecure teenager in Mr Samson’s A-level English lessons was that he took texts by authors I’d never heard of, and by asking canny questions, he made complex texts come alive. He made the complicated simple but not too simple.
And so I wanted to be an English teacher.
And as World Teachers’ Day arrives, I think back over 32 years and reflect on what that choice of career meant to me.
First, now that I don’t work routinely in schools, what I miss most is the laughter.
From the dressing-up charity days, to the silly end-of-year assemblies, our schools and colleges are characteristically places of joy.
When I was new to a rural deputy headship, while eating a large Eccles cake a colleague had bought me at an esteemed local bakery, a burly Year 11 lad asked: “What’s that Mr Barton? ‘Cos from here it looks like a cowpat in pastry.”
Second, teaching is a profession in which you keep learning long after your formal qualifications are finished. Here’s an example. Early in my career I was teaching Philip Larkin poems to a Year 10 class. One poem was "To the Sea", a celebration of the faded glory of an unnamed seaside resort.
I read it through a couple of times and asked the class to tell me what they noticed.
A girl called Heather put up her hand and said this: “You know how in the poem there’s ‘blue water’, ‘red bathing caps’ and a ‘white steamer’? Do you think Larkin is saying that these colours of the union jack symbolise an England that has disappeared?”
It was an astonishing, mind-opening comment. And to my last lesson, on my final day of a long career as an English teacher, I never stopped learning from the insights of my pupils – those of all abilities.
Ah, yes, that word "abilities", which we use so remorselessly in education.
It brings me to my third reflection. In school leadership in particular, I learned how important it was for staff to interact with pupils beyond the classroom, to see them not only through the lens of their own subject specialism.
One girl was a nightmare in maths. Whichever class we moved her to – even with our strictest veteran teachers – she seemed to spend half of each lesson standing in sullen fury in the corridor.
But she also took GCSE dance, where she showed exceptional levels of dedication, a capacity to practise endlessly, and a self-discipline that never happened in maths.
I watched her dance in the Christmas show, in assemblies, and I saw teachers from other subjects see her not simply as a stroppy, reluctant mathematician. She was someone with a raw talent that dance unleashed. I was proud that she wasn’t defined by ability or attitude in one narrow part of school life.
Fourth, I loved the way that as a teacher you could open unfamiliar worlds to young people in the way that all those years ago Roy Samson had done for me.
I spent many hours teaching pupils debating skills, giving them ethical issues to grapple with, and accompanying them to far-flung schools and universities to take on intimidating competitors. And I saw how the knowledge, skills and self-belief they gained gave them the confidence to take on the world.
Showing your human side
Finally, I learned that very often our schools and colleges show us the better side of ourselves as humans.
In one grim fortnight in the middle phase of my headship, in the midst of a tragic loss, I was required more than ever to show a calm surface demeanour which would allow the school community to grieve but also signal that we would maintain the routine of school life.
But at the end of a eulogy I’d delivered, a student called Jess came over and tapped me on the arm. “How are you, Mr B?” she said. “Is someone looking after you through all this?”
We see that compassion, that embodiment of the world as it could be, occasionally in media depictions of young people. But in our schools and colleges, we see it far more – alongside the optimism of youth, the sense they have of creating a more just world.
So I guess, looking back, I could have been a DJ, or a journalist, or perhaps the lawyer that some people thought my pugnacious nature suited.
But instead I became a teacher.
Few other jobs give the satisfaction where it’s not just the now that matters. It’s also the future.
When we teach – especially when it goes well – we quietly shape a future generation. We gain a sense, as Apple’s Steve Jobs put it, of leaving a dent on the universe.
Thank you to all the teachers out there. Long may you leave a dent.
For World Teachers' Day 2019, Tes is having a new teacher takeover – every piece published on our website on 5 October will be by a new or early career teacher. Find the rest of the articles at our World Teachers' Day hub.