A crazy choice

8th November 1996 at 00:00
Who in their right mind would recommend teaching as a career?

So, applications for places in teacher training are falling. Teachers are probably to blame.

When bright students talk of going into teaching, we do try to put them off. "You can do better than this," we say, as if all of us landed in it by chance, not by an effort of will. (Although, let's face it, that is often the case. I know a town planning officer whose husband's job took them so far into the country that she became a science teacher. I also know of a monk whose divinity degree took him into teaching when his heart took him out of the monastery. ) Similarly, we put off weak students because we cannot see them surviving in the blackboard jungle. And why should teachers be people who achieved little themselves at school? Would a doctor encourage low achievers into medicine? And, more importantly, would you want them to operate on you if they became doctors? Why should any of us want our children taught by people who themselves were poor students?

I would defend to the death my right to deter a weak student, but am I right to deter the bright ones?

I will use two case studies to suggest I am. The first concerns a woman of 24 with two A-levels, a science degree and three years' experience at an accountancy firm, where she has just passed her accountancy exams. She is about to take up her first job as an accountant, on Pounds 30,000 a year.

The second concerns a man of about 50, with a science degree and a long career with a multi-national manufacturing organisation. He has just been promoted to one of their South American operations. I would not like to guess at his salary. What are we talking here? Pounds 80,000? Pounds 100,000? Maybe more. At his level one does not declare such things.

How would a teaching career compare with either of these scenarios? We all know that neither of the above will risk their lives in the normal course of their jobs, as Philip Lawrence did. Neither will be required to re-mortgage their home to finance their offspring at university. I'll grant you they'll have to make do with six weeks' holiday a year, instead of 12, but both will have secretaries, company cars, private health insurance, and lucrative pensions.

Deep in my heart I do not think they are any brighter than you or I, nor will they work any harder. But for what brightness they have and for what work they do, they will be well rewarded.

One is aware that in their chosen areas the sky is the limit. Limits are not laid down, as in teaching, with an iron hand that militates against excellence; why bother trying to be good, better, best, when it is never going to be reflected in your pay packet?

One could use this as an argument for payment by results - teach better, earn more, Forget it. The sums would be too paltry. No, if you're in teaching at all, you could be the best in the world, and you would never be a high earner.

If one's self-esteem is related to the status one achieves and the money one earns, then choosing teaching over law, as I did when I was 18, is crazy. Certifiable. Don't ask me to recommend the same path to youngsters whom I believe to be as bright as I was.

Someone once told me you'd go a long way to find a teacher in his mid-forties earning Pounds 40,000 a year, and just as far to find a lawyer who isn't.

And if someone tells me money isn't everything, in this day and age, I shall spit.

The writer has a BA, a teaching qualification and an MA, and after almost 20 years in teaching has attained the post of deputy in a secondary school, for which the pay is slightly more than for a newly qualified accountant.

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