Despite everything

30th March 2001 at 01:00
Why does Guy de la Bedoyere want to be become a teacher?

Every week I browse through the pages of The TES and wonder, am I going mad? I am at a turning-point in my life. Frustrated by unpredictability, poor and late payment, and downright exploitation of freelance writers and broadcasters, I have resolved to join my wife as a history teacher.

At 43, with four boys, I haven't many options left. But I'm used to her life as a teacher. Something tells me we might function quite well if we do the same thing. I have two history degrees and an MA in Archaeology. So at least I'm qualified - unusual, as I seem qualified for little else.

Somehow, I hope I have something to offer. I have, after all, lived in the real world. Unlike a student straight from a BA course in a university bar, I know all about household family labour and 14-hour working days. The last time we burned the candles both ends was 17 years ago. In 1994, when we flew to the US for the first time, it was also the first time in nine years that we had had seven hours peace. Oh yes, and I nearly forgot - I love history.

Naturally, I've no illusions. I watch her ploughing away every day preparing lessons, and struggling with the arcane features of Microsoft. I've written HTML pages for her classes, typed her notes, scanned her pictures, and read the textbooks.

I have for years done nearly all the cooking, washing and ironing while she toils away every night at her desk, and I try to get on with writing books or the occasional bit of TV work.

I've also listened to her screeching frustrations at a lesson plan confounded by a 14-year-old twerp whose sole contribution to the class was to pour red ink on his hands and claim he'd cut himself - 20 minutes of her carefully-timed class went to oblivion.

Recently, she worked three days of supply at an east Lincolnshire school. After years of grammar school teaching, she was shocked to discover that every class had to be attended by two support teachers or, to be accurate, security guards. Each day was the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland, hurtling from one hideous scene to another, while missiles flew through the air. The staff looked on like war-weary troops sighting the last helicopter out of Saigon. They were delighted that she'd lasted an hour, let alone a day.

I've watched the mounting stress of an imminent Ofsted inspection, made worse by competitive conversations among staff members claiming to have done more than anyone else. All spoke at maximum volume in fits of paranoid self-assurance. One member of staff pronouncing that she had spent an entire nine-hour flight to the United States marking work. That was treated with a mixture of horror and jealous terror - gosh, should we all have done that too?

We also know an Ofsted inspector. Well-meaning and thoroughly conscientious, this lady has assured us Ofsted is making a fantastic difference. I ask whether she realises every one of her inspections is preceded by months of frantic fear leading up to last-minute decorations and souped-up lesson plans? And followed by terminal collapse and relief?

Oh no, she says, no one makes special arrangements for us. She really believes that.

So, why did I find myself being interiewed recently for a teacher-training course in a Midlands university? The interviewers were pleasant - and amazed that I was there at all. In truth, I view it all with a mixture of awe and fascination. Can it really be that bad? Every teacher I know tells me to forget it.

One of my wife's pupils recently handed in history project work on the Cold War. It looked quite good, thanks to new technology, but we could be sure she had never consciously thought about any of it at all. Getting no further than loading a CD and running Print Manager, she had managed to make sure her coursework had inconvenienced her no more than switching on the telly to watch Popstars.

If it's any consolation, I taught an Open University course last year. Many of the adult students were keen and good. But a quarter of my 30 engaged in perpetual bouts of "The dog ate my homework sir" excuses. The same clowns produced work which was usually diabolical and, when given the appropriate mark, screamed foul: I've paid, so I expect a B.

So, why am I waiting to hear if I have a place? Because we live in the age of bull and it's everywhere. You can't get away from it. I spent years at the BBC, where the bull was let loose ten years ago. My eyes used to glaze over. There were surveys and boxes to tick, all passed off as the credentials of a pseudo-professionalism. Endless packages arrived, and courses appeared - vast swathes of empty time measurable only by the nothingness that was learned, and the suits who manned them.

Who are these people? A chap turned up to do two days of training at my wife's school last term. It all sounded jolly good. Of course, there were hand-outs - the mark of a good course, naturally.

He only succeeded in telling all the experienced teachers that the way they taught - hey, guess what? - was all wrong.

This tripe is everywhere. A friend of ours, a Durham University contemporary and now a mother of five, went for a job as a medical receptionist after a secretarial course. She was rejected for not having been on a medical receptionist course.

You won't be able to spell complicated medical terms, she was told. What, like h-y-d-r-o-c-e-p-h-a-l-i-c, she replied. You might be able to spell that, but what about all the others? You haven't been on the course.

Even the teaching workload isn't entirely unusual. I worked briefly for a magazine in the East Midlands. There, staff were under pressure to work weekends and evenings. Taking holidays of any description was disapproved of.

My old BBC job went from two nightshifts every two months to three every fortnight, and they were longer. Many of my colleagues were compelled to work 20-hour days on protracted foreign trips, and any question of additional reward was legislatively removed.

In the end, it is a kind of Hobson's Choice, but history is all I know or care about. Maybe I have it entirely wrong, and history teaching has nothing to do with history. One thing history has told me is that there is not much new in all of this.

With any luck, I'll muddle through, if I get offered a place.

Guy de la Bedoyere is a broadcaster and writer of numerous books on Roman Britain, 17th century literature and the Air War of 1939-45

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