A backwards step that was a move in the right direction

28th July 1995 at 01:00
A colleague who recently retired warned me that it felt "rather like the end of a 30- year toothache". He spoke only partly in jest, for his experience of teaching had not always been happy. A sad epitaph for what was once and still is a fulfilling vocation. But it's not uncommon.

We all know teachers who struggle to survive in the classroom, or who hold a post of responsibility as if it were a burden. It's wrong that they feel they have no choice but to soldier on, sometimes through years of unhappiness and offering little of value to their pupils or school. Perhaps the only solution is re-training, early retirement or, in extreme cases, dismissal. But there are other teachers who are simply in the wrong job in their school. I was one.

Three years ago I resigned as head of department and returned to being an "ordinary" classroom teacher in my school. I resigned because, after eight years, it had become like the proverbial unrelieved toothache. I worried endlessly about the responsibility, became sensitive to the slightest criticism (real and imagined), and saw my classroom work suffer.

Visits to the doctor became more frequent; my life outside school deteriorated. I lost confidence and was deeply unhappy. On the day of resignation, I had the tooth pulled and, as in the dentist's surgery, I experienced both pain and relief.

For several years I had silently struggled with the knowledge that the job wasn't for me, that I had made a mistake in wanting it. Three factors prevented me from doing anything about it. First, the conviction that you don't ever take a career step that looks like a backwards move; second, the shame in admitting that I was wrong for the job, and finally, the idea that I couldn't survive if I took a salary cut.

It wasn't easy to face up to the first two facts, and to cope with the notion that I'd failed. I would like to believe that schools are aware of such problems, and sensitive enough to deal with them - even to offer financial help when teachers opt to move to a lower salary. I think this is rarely the case. People are usually left to work out their own salvation, and rarely can. Teachers, pupils and schools are all the losers.

I have no regrets. I made a decision that has certainly helped my school: my replacement is more effective than me. (It would have pleased me even more if the school had, in the smallest way, acknowledged that my decision took some courage and cost me Pounds 2,000 a year).

My life is now richer in other ways. Most importantly, I am a better teacher. I enjoy my classroom work again, and I have recovered my self-confidence and self-esteem. The other day I even thought of applying for a post of responsibility again! And, when I retire, I shan't liken my teaching to toothache.

Marcus Short is an ex-head of special needs who now teaches in the West Country. He writes under a pseudonym.

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