Back where I belong

13th February 2004 at 00:00
How many teachers would jump at the chance of escaping Britain's grey skies for life on a vineyard in southern France? Chrysta Garnett did, then she realised just how much teachinghad got under her skin

The night after the GCSE results at my old school, I had a dream. I dreamed the English department was having a party to celebrate the students'

incredible performance. I had phoned the school earlier in the day ("just out of interest", I told my bemused husband) and discovered that yet again it had broken all records. In five years, Halifax high school had gone from 15 per cent of its pupils getting five A-C grades to 50 per cent.

The point about the dream is that I couldn't find the party. It was at Blackpool pleasure beach (I'm sure Freudians would make something of that), but whenever I thought I'd found the action, a door was shut in my face.

Eventually I found the venue, but the party was over. My old friends and colleagues had gone home and I'd missed all the fun.

It doesn't take a dream analyst to work this out; teaching had got under my skin and I was missing it like mad. If I tell you that at the time I was basking in French Mediterranean sunshine beside a swimming pool in a converted priory surrounded by vineyards, you start to appreciate just how far under my skin.

I was 26 when I started teaching English in 1997 and left five years later as head of department. Halifax high, in Calderdale, West Yorkshire, was a challenging but incredibly exciting multi-ethnic school, led by Jeremy Waxman, an inspirational head. It was a job I loved, but it had left me mentally and physically drained.

From the beginning, I was ambitious, and was promoted quickly to second in command, then to head of English. I was lucky to work with children I liked and with managers who encouraged and inspired me. But in spite of the promotion, the great sense of camaraderie at the school and the local accolades it was earning, the sacrifices I was making in my personal life were too great.

The decision to sell up in England and move to France was a career move for my husband and a lifestyle choice for both of us. Mark and I have been together since we were sixth-formers; we have a daughter, Scarlett, now aged three. Mark had been a social worker in Leeds but longed to make something of his passion for wine; I just needed some "head space" and time to be a mother and myself for a while, instead of being just "Miss".

Having made the decision to leave, I felt I'd betrayed my students.

Inevitably, I had to leave some year groups at crucial times - on the brink of mock exams, and in the middle of GCSE courses - and leaving my tutor group was in some ways like leaving members of my family. I had started at the school with them when they were in Year 7 and I left them as they were about to embark on their final year. We had shared lots of laughter and tears, and I felt a real bond with many of them. I still think about them every day, wondering if they are on their way to achieving the hopes and ambitions they started out with.

I left teaching at Christmas 2002 and we moved to a rented property in Languedoc in southern France in January. There was a lot to do, so I had no real time for withdrawal symptoms. Plus, we were embarking on an adventure: we had sold our house and most of our possessions and, as at the start of a new term, we had plans and objectives.

Instead of the endless routine of planning, marking and meetings, I could finally experience the greatest luxury: time, especially in the evenings and at weekends. I rediscovered my family, books, (I'd been a head of English with no time to read literature) and a foreign language. I learned to love Sunday afternoons. But the more time I had to reflect on who I was and what I wanted, the more I realised how much of it was about being a teacher.

At first the creative and nervous energy I'd thrived on in a challenging secondary school found an outlet in stories. Without lessons to plan, I would wake up in the middle of the night with stories, rhymes and ideas swimming around in my head, demanding to be committed to paper. I started sending them off to agents and publishers, and when I received rejection slips I learned something else: how some of my former students had perhaps felt when their work didn't make it on to the display board or didn't reach the level 5 mark for which they'd worked hard.

By spring 2003, Mark was making wine at a well-respected vineyard, Scarlett was attending the local school and fast becoming bilingual, but I felt lost. I began to seek out teaching opportunities and soon started teaching English to a girl from our nearest village. It didn't matter that Sarah was just one 15-year-old as opposed to 30, or that it was in more civilised surroundings (her parents' air-conditioned villa as opposed to a crumbling Victorian school) - the buzz was the same.

With the harvest in, fermentations finished and the assemblage assembled (when the wine is actually made), it was time for us to take stock. We'd had an incredible year but we were ready to move on again. One part of his wine education over, my husband now wanted to return to the UK to start his own business in wine retail. For me, there was really only one option: to teach.

When I did my teaching training in the 1990s, one of our lecturers asked: is teaching merely a job or a vocation? At the time, I had just come back from a round-the-world backpacking trip, was flat broke and, not knowing what else I could do with my English degree, enrolled on a teacher-training course. As I saw it, teaching would give me a decent salary and great holidays. (I got the salary eventually and the holidays were pretty good although I spent a lot of them working.) I just hadn't banked on all the other stuff that made it such a difficult job to leave, but a wonderful vocation to return to. After a year away I'm hoping I've learned how to balance my commitment to work and family.

We arrived back in England in time for Christmas and are staying with family in north Devon. I've started looking for another teaching job - perhaps some supply work or a temporary contract at first, to test the waters and break myself in gently. After all, there's no rush; I have my whole career ahead of me.

Chrysta Garnett is now applying for jobs. Contact her at

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