Dig deep

27th April 2001 at 01:00
When the going got tough, the tough went gardening. Helene Mulholland talks about one teacher's growing pains.

When you teach in a school facing closure after a long spell in special measures, you might think that's enough stress to be getting on with. But for Jane Davis it was just a bit of extra frosting on an already steep iceberg. With everything to lose in the face of redundancy, the deputy head of French at the troubled Marina high school in Brighton decided to find a new way to make ends meet. She became a gardener.

Like many significant life changes, Ms Davis's brave new venture blossomed out of a major life crisis. After nine years working at what was first christened Stanley Deason high school, before being renamed Marina as part of a doomed makeover, she faced her first of three major life stressors.

The mother of four was suddenly left by her partner of 10 years and became "extremely anxious" about money. Then her brother committed suicide. Her GP told her to take six months off - so she started a course of psychotherapy. Although she was still not quite ready to return, financial worries drove her back to the classroom.

Two days after her return to Marina, she was told she faced redundancy the following summer, when the school would close and the staff would be restructured. "At the time I thought I'd be buggered if I was made redundant," she says. "I was 45, with a huge mortgage. I thought I was going to lose everything. It seemed like God kept sending boulders in my direction.

"I did enjoy teaching, but I was worried I'd find it difficult to get a full-time job in enough time to cover my mortgage. It made me wonder if there was something else I could do that might be less of a struggle. I enjoy gardening, so I put an advert in my local newsagent and got my first customer. She introduced me to other people and I began to build up a client base."

From November 1998 to the following summer Ms Davis gardened after school and throughout her weekends, working a seven-day week. She left Marina in July 1999, "because my job ceased to exist. Fortuitously, and to my great relief, the day I signed for my redundancy money the head of another school phoned me because the school needed a job-share head of languages for a year.

"I worked as a teacher three days a week - two days as head of department and one day as an ordinary teacher in the same school. I spent the other days gardening, and have been doing that ever since. Now I have a diferent teaching job, working a day-and-a-half in two schools, and spend the rest of the working week gardening."

She believes she has struck the right balance. "As a stress reliever from teaching, gardening is brilliant, and the two work well together. I'm not sure I would want to garden full-time because it is isolating and it's not mentally challenging, but it's a good antidote to three days' teaching.

"It's very liberating. On a crisp winter's day, to be out there in the garden with my radio, is so relaxing. And the next day my batteries are recharged in the classroom."

When Ms Davis left Marina, she left behind a pound;24,000 salary and a job she had enjoyed for 10 years. "It was stressful working there, but there were some really good kids. There were moments of achievement and satisfaction and pleasure."

As a part-time teacher and gardener, she has traded stability for the freedom to find a happy medium for herself. But earning pound;14,000 from her two part-time teaching posts, and an average of pound;5,000 from gardening, she is financially worse off. That's up to her to fix, she says. "Most of my customers tell me I don't charge enough." (As a gardener, she charges less than half the hourly rate of a supply teacher.) "My primary motive is not money. It was, when I was worrying about making ends meet and paying the mortgage. Now, I enjoy doing it, and although I need the money I make a living. I'm not interested in earning more than I need."

She paid off a chunk of her mortgage with her redundancy package, but her pension, which is based on her decade at Marina and doesn't include the many years she worked part-time when her children were growing up, is frozen. It will bring her a nominal sum of pound;3,000 a year, but she's not too worried. "My main asset is my house; if I want to do other things, I'll have to sell and buy a smaller one."

When retirement looms, hopefully in her mid-fifties, Jane Davis has her sights on a whole new range of challenges. She is reading a book about a woman who rode her bicycle round the world, and it's giving her ideas. She is also considering an Open University degree in psychology, and has enrolled on a creative writing course. There's also the possibility of a landscape gardening course,which would expand her range of services.

But for now, she says, she'll carry on with teaching for as long as it continues to stretch her. "I still enjoy it. It is still hard work, still a challenge. I am always learning."

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