And don't forget to switch off

28th October 1994 at 00:00
It's important to learn to take the job seriously without letting it dominate your life, says Trevor Patterson. When I was at primary school I used to think my teacher had no other existence outside the classroom and slept in the stockroom.

Now I am a primary school teacher I can see that, with increasing workloads, I was not too far from the mark. The pressure and stresses on teachers, and newly qualified teachers in particular, are high and it is important to learn to take the job seriously without it dominating your life, A major problem with teaching is the difficulty in switching off from the job. Everything seems connected with work. A picture in a magazine, for example, could be used as a stimulus for a piece of creative writing. Cardboard boxes, instead of being thrown out, could be saved and used for craft work, old yogurt pots are kept as they may come in handy for something, Before you know where you are you have a collection of old buttons, beads, plastic containers and anything else that might be useful so that your home becomes not just an extension of school but more like a scene from Steptoe and Son.

Being unable to stop thinking as a teacher is also a problem. I was in a pub once and someone suggested I was taking my work far too seriously and that I was increasingly treating friends as primary school children. I told him not to be so ridiculous and that he must stand in the corner with his hands on his head until he could be more sensible. He did have a point, I suppose.

Being a teacher can also leave you open to criticism from others, again making it difficult to relax and forget about work. Teachers can have a "more educated than them" image.

They are seen as walking encyclopedias who never make mistakes and could win Mastermind without any trouble. You can end up a sitting target for any mistake you may make, whether it be a spelling or grammatical error, a slip adding up a darts score or the fact that you don't know who was Foreign Secretary during the Crimean War. The response is usually along the lines of ". . . and you a teacher!" We cannot, of course, be expected to know everything but it's soon brought to our attention if we don't. I half expect the secretary general of the United Nations to ring me up asking for my advice, saying: "What do you mean you don't know how to solve Bosnia, you are a teacher aren't you?" Primary school teaching is not just a job from 9am to 3.30pm with plenty of holidays. The work involves hours spent at home writing schemes of work, planning lessons, building up resources, making work cards, putting up displays, writing up assessments and record-keeping.

Break and dinner times can be spent listening to children read, clearing away the last lesson and preparing for the next. Then there are times set aside for staff meetings, parents' nights and extra-curricular activities such as running clubs and organising sporting events.

The free period is usually spent catching up on work. But it can be a brief respite, a beacon of hope, shining at the end of a dark tunnel - only to be extinguished, ususally, with the news that it has been cancelled because the teacher who was going to take your class now has to cover for someone who is off ill.

Sometimes it seems to be a national pastime to moan at teachers. There is a common misconception that teaching is a piece of cake. If it is so easy, one must ask, why is it that so many leave the profession because of stress-related illnesses or take early retirement at the earliest opportunity?

It cannot be much of a spur to NQTs to find the demands placed on teachers constantly changing as the national curriculum expands, contracts, and transforms at the wishes of the latest Education Secretary. Nor can it inspire much confidence when those newly qualified are faced with only a few job opportunities, many of which offer only short-term contracts.

Teaching is a physically and mentally demanding profession that remains immensely rewarding. Teachers are under stress both inside and outside the classroom. A sense of humour is an essential ingredient to relieve the tension that many face. Without it, not only does the quality of teaching deteriorate but so too does the quality of life.

Trevor Patterson is a teacher at Churwell primary school, Leeds

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