Coming out as proud to be a teacher in Britain

30th January 2004 at 00:00
I am a teacher. I teach. There, I've said it. I've come out. Yet over the round of Christmas parties, I found myself with a curiously new, unBritish attitude towards my job. Let me explain.

To be a teacher in certain parts of the world is one of the highest aspirations of youth. Teaching is a career of eminence. Teachers are well-respected members of society, referred to with deference and admiration. I am not talking about some outpost of the former British empire: look no further than some of our continental neighbours to find attitudes very different from those in the UK.

To be properly British, I should be mindful of my lowly status. Much of the publicity teaching receives is bad: dumbed-down exams, bullies, and the occasional criminal investigation. Rarely are exam achievements celebrated or teachers praised. I've been tempted to temper my vocation with a suitable excuse. "At the momentI " (suggesting I have other strings to my bow). Or "I'm taking a break fromI and helping out atI (substitute name of local school)".

I can't give that impression, so I vary my introduction from the belligerent "I am a teacher" (so don't mention bullying or lowering of standards or you're in trouble), to the cringing, don't hit me "I am a teacher" (it's all in the non-verbal communication involving an embarrassed facial apology and squirming tone of voice). My response varies according to mood and audience.

So what was my attitude this time? I found it transformed by a simple grammar change. "I teach." As I said it in the company of some high-flying financial executives, I felt myself transform into a caped crusader for my profession. Those two words empowered me to proclaim my skills and attributes to whiz-kids on monumental salaries. So what if they are good at juggling numbers and negotiating deals? My powers enable me to expand children's minds. I suddenly realised the value of my skills and qualifications.

Plus, my simple "I teach" provoked unexpected responses. I was taken aback by the admiration, the deference, the comments of: "Rather you than me," or "That's wonderfulI I've been wondering about a change of career, but I'm not sure I'd manage. All that preparation and marking." I listened to eager questions as high-powered people confessed their inadequacy in understanding their children's struggles with reading, or stress over their failure to form friendships. I realised I'd been belittling my achievements.

Many of us in teaching garner our rewards so frequently that we do not recognise them and fail to appreciate them. What is your response to the child's: "Oh, now I get it?" Is it, as mine often is, a silent comment along the lines: "Of course you get it, I've spent 10 minutes explaining it again and you've got a long way to catch up with the rest of the class"? Or do you accompany a mental victory punch in the air with a quiet "Yes!" in celebration?

Does a Christmas card from a child you barely notice, in a class you have maybe covered once, convey the depth of appreciation felt? Do you understand your value to your pupils? Be assured: these are no small victories. Yet they are swallowed up in a life of hectic busy-ness which means that in the classroom more can be accomplished in a single day than many office workers might achieve in a week.

Our impact as teachers should not be underestimated. It can be negative as well as positive, but one thing is certain: it is not negligible. We should not go on the defensive, or apologise to the rest of society. We teach.

That is something to be proud of.

Angela Pollard

Angela Pollard teaches maths at Crescent school in Rugby, Warwickshire

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