Case study: the part-time physics teacher

6th May 2005 at 01:00
In flippant conversations with the kids at school I tend to talk about having a plummet rather than a career. "Downshifting" and "voluntary simplicity" are the current buzzwords, but my wife and I made the decision not to have conventional careers before we left university in 1981. At that stage, our joint career goal was to find jobs in a place with mountains and, for me, one that didn't involve either making taps in Leeds or working for the arms industry.

By the mid-Nineties I realised that time and sanity were much more precious than money. I taught physics in a "challenging" school. In the previous five years I had mentored some of the best students you could ever hope to teach, and had "taught" classes where my only goal was to have the room intact at the end of the lesson. Despite living on the edge of the Lake District, come Saturday I was too knackered to do anything. My wife, Jill, had shed half of her teaching job in 1991 and loved the freedom. We didn't need all of my salary. The mortgage was paid. We'd bought and renovated crumbling mansions and we hadn't any kids of our own. Thus began a campaign to get myself a part-time job.

It took eight years. The head at that stage couldn't comprehend that a man - a man! - might possibly want to go part-time. "But what about your pension, Keith?" he would say. I was a child of the Sixties, brought up with the threat of nuclear annihilation. I also lead extreme rock climbs and ski deep off-piste powder, so part of me thought that the odds of my making it to pensionable age were at best 5050. Besides, I'd done the sums and realised that while we might not be rich as pensioners, we would still have more to live on than many. And as my granny always used to say about pensions: "You can pay it in, but the buggers'll never give it back!"

Eight years later, the head was about to retire and so was a member of the physics staff who had a reduced teaching load. I made the head an offer: part-time or I'm off. I started filling in credible job applications. I think the combination of being demob happy due to his own imminent retirement and the fact that he wouldn't have to live with the consequences swung the decision.

Since then, I've had one whole day and two half-days free every week. I tend to do preparation and development work on my half-days and then take a full day to walk, climb, canoe, read, meditate, paint or simply put a bit of music and poetry back into my soul.

The kids find this difficult to understand. They think that somebody with my "brains" should be in a "proper job" getting rich. I gently point out that while they are in school slaving away the following day, I will be out climbing or surfing. You can see the realisation begin to dawn on them that there might be more to true wealth than simply money, status or the accumulation of possessions.

I haven't had a day off sick since going part-time. If I have a cold I can pace myself and survive, whereas, as a full-timer, I wouldn't be able to face a whole day of difficult classes. And when staff are absent, having part-timers available can bail the school out of difficulties, especially with exam classes; for example, I am currently teaching A2 religious studies to cover for an absent colleague. I can also give more energy to extracurricular activities and still have time for simply talking to students or colleagues.

In the past two years I have done some writing and, with academics from Lancaster University, have been heavily involved in the production of a particle physics website. My wife and I also run a youth gospel choir. As a full-time teacher, I simply wouldn't have the time.

I'd recommend part-time working to anyone, especially if you have the least doubt about your physical or mental health. It gives you a sense of control that you often lack in full-time teaching. You need to be able to live on reduced means, but I quickly found that I actually started using my worldly goods rather than acquiring things for "retail therapy" that I would never have the time to use. Do the sums: if you can afford to, go for it. You won't regret it.

Keith Hudson is a part-time physics teacher at Whitehaven school in Cumbria. His particle physics website is www.lppp.lancs.ac.uk. Find out more about his youth gospel choir at www.markone.org.uk

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