'Teaching is tough, but it's a huge privilege – here's how to find the joy in it every day'

'Have an exit plan, don't forget that you can never win them all and remember that tomorrow is always another day': One teacher with 18 years' experience shares his secret to professional happiness

James Handscombe

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Geoff Barton wrote recently about the need for teachers to share the joy they find in their career and for us, as a profession, to make the experience of being a teacher a sustainable and enjoyable long-term prospect.

I agree: I can’t imagine teaching without joy, although I know there are some who do. As an introduction to my PGCE, I had to spend a week observing in a secondary school. I contacted my old headteacher and asked him if I could return for a few days to see life from the other side of the front desk. He assented and on the appointed day I went to meet him in his office. We nattered for a little while as he caught up with my exploits over the years since I’d left. My old history teacher put her head around the door and asked what I was doing.

Once I had explained, she asked: "Why do you want to be a teacher? Surely, with your qualification, you could do something better?"

It wasn't the first time I had been asked this, and I had my answer ready: "I’m sure I could get something better paid, but…"

She interrupted me: "Better paid is better" before turning on her heel and leaving. 

It was this attitude that had concerned me when I thought about applying my love of mathematics to a useful cause: there was no way I wanted to become someone who hated their job and was a worse teacher because of it.

Exhausted and exhilarated 

If I was going to be a teacher I was going to be a good one and for that to happen I knew that I would have to enjoy it. Before I signed up for the course, I made myself a promise that if I wasn’t enjoying it after five years I’d leave the profession and go in search of one of those better-paid jobs – the idea being that I might still be miserable but at least I’d be rich and miserable.

My first teaching job was in Tonypandy Comprehensive, a tough school in the tough land of the Welsh valleys. I drove home each evening exhausted, often frustrated by my inability to convey the beauty of mathematics, but exhilarated by the occasional success and determined to get better at my craft. My two years there was a highlights reel of enthusiastic blunders, disastrous lesson plans and dubious behaviour management skills, but by the end there were some who I knew had benefited from my work and who would miss me when I left.

By the time the five-year checkpoint came along, I was a head of department in a small comprehensive in south-east London. My skills were more practised, my authority less-often challenged but I was still learning, still making the odd blunder, still frustrated and exhausted by turns. Yet, I remained exhilarated by the opportunity to light a path through a subject that many of my students found a fog of incomprehensibility, and to share my delight in all things mathematical with a captive audience.

Love of teaching

Eighteen years on and I still love it: both the type of school I work at and my role within it have changed, but the best moments are still those mathematical interactions with students when some long-bewildering concept suddenly becomes clear, or when they finally get the grade for which they – and I – have slogged so hard.

Teaching is a privilege, it is a joy and I want as many as possible of those entering the profession find it that way. Some of the responsibility lies with leadership teams and some with the government, but we each have guardianship of our own time and our own choices. 

So, here are my suggestions on how to enjoy being a teacher:

  1. Have an exit plan. It’s much harder to enjoy the highs and brush off the lows if you think that you’re in teaching because you have to be. There are other jobs – you always have a choice.
  2. Remember that tomorrow is another day. No matter how your lesson plan falls apart, no matter how badly behaved the class is as a result, the bell will ring to mark the end of the day, the students will disappear and you get to go home, to sleep, to regroup.
  3. Remember your agency. Students are not blank canvases to be written on freely, but nor are they black boxes with impenetrable motivations. They are problems to be unlocked and if you can find the right way to encourage them, the right words to explain the ideas most of them, most of the time can be brought onside – just don’t expect it to be easy.
  4. Remember that you can’t win them all – and that you’re not meant to. Most of them, most of the time still leaves a few hard cases and a few bad days. Use your colleagues to help you, chalk the failures up to experience and remind yourself that even the worst ones are better off with you than without.


Teaching is bewildering, frustrating, and exhausting, but it is also the most amazing, the most rewarding, the most joyous job I can imagine.

James Handscombe is the principal of Harris Westminster Sixth Form.

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James Handscombe

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