Closed life that only the initiated appreciate

10th June 2005 at 01:00
Last weekend my two sisters and their husbands came to stay. They have little contact with teachers or teaching now that their children are well into their twenties. But in the way of things, talk got round to things educational: general matters like tuition fees.

But there's another side to things educational. Like living with a teacher when you both wake up at four in the morning, full of fear and loathing because one of you has forgotten to fill in a coursework cover sheet properly or, infinitely worse, Alex Aardvark has not brought the assignment he swore on his mother's grave, even though she is only 40 and in rude health, is on his personal computer and his dad absolutely guaranteed that the printer cartridge would be bought so that I would get a print-out and he was on his way to school with it in a plastic bag when he was ambushed by aliens who feed on completed English assignments but he'll bring you another copy tomorrow which is only one day after the deadline for the marks to be with the board and you've already given him a C and he is one of your target cohort. You get the picture.

So you go downstairs, bleary-eyed and resentful, and mark someone else's coursework. And suddenly you read a piece of original writing by Oliver Plunkett, of whom you had despaired in Years 7, 8, 9, 10 and most of Year 11, about his personal battle with the devil and how he overcame it and your life is lit with vicarious joy and every sacrifice you make seems worth it.

The problem is that no one else but you and a few other people in the same profession cares about Aardvark or Plunkett. They don't want to know about the girl who has been shipped from one foster parent to the next and will do anything to get the attention she craves. They don't understand the all but overwhelming impulse you feel to strangle Percy Sludge every time he sneers at you or tells you his dad earns more in a week than you do in a year and he passed no exams. As individual stories they are boring.

How can you convey to someone who doesn't experience it how your life has been made bearable by the boy who is funny or the girl who smiles every time you see her? What people want are lurid stories about attacks on teachers, how the younger generation has no consideration for others or how rigour has disappeared from the curriculum. So teachers talk to each other about their trials and tribulations. We find it boring, too, but it is a tacit understanding that you will support junior colleagues when they tell you the story of Minnie Minx's latest piece of cheek, in great detail, when you are at your most tired.

I was talking to someone who worked in media and sales before she became a teacher and she said that what she loves - and that's the word she used - about teaching is that every day is different. What she could have added is that every child is different. In her other life - when she had a life - she would often wake up and think that she cannot be bothered. Now she might wake up and think that she could not face one more minute alone in a room with that difficult Year 9 class, but she never feels that she can't be bothered.

Having done some work with the graduate teacher programme, I am not sure I could face the demands of qualifying by jumping through all the hoops.

Maybe if I was younger I might have the energy, but I doubt it. The advice I would give to anyone thinking about teaching is: it's a great job, but only if you can stand the pace.

Kevin Fitzsimons is head of English at a comprehensive in Hull

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