Ditch all the baggage;Platform;Opinion

9th April 1999 at 01:00
Nicholas Woolley thought he wasn't suited to teaching until he quit his job at a Manchester comprehensive and took off for Canada

"ANYTHING but this," we said, and handed in our notice. Between us, our teaching experience averaged three years - and we were both giving up. Stock phrases described us as a waste of taxpayers' money, a sorry statistic, uncommitted. But in the end we didn't care. My friend found a job in Stockport and I took a plane to Canada.

It should have been easy, but it wasn't because we had already metamorphosed into career teachers with vocations. Resigning - apart from teaching itself - was the hardest thing we had ever done.

On the interview circuit, I learnt that once I'd done my training I was in it for life. Fellow applicants chatted about career paths, head of department prospects and, on the strength of all this planning, the new car they'd bought with borrowed money. They really scared me. Although I'd enjoyed my teacher training, I wasn't prepared to commit myself to a life in the classroom and a Ford Escort. Yet.

Initially, I thought my perspective was perfectly reasonable. I was young and open-minded. But when I explained my feelings to a fellow candidate, she sneered. Fraudulently suited and tied, I was depriving a real teacher of a job opportunity.

So I decided to lie. Honesty would only get me grassed up to the head and out the door. Unless I adopted the role of a confirmed lifer, I would never get work; never find out if this was, indeed, a good choice.

"Why teaching?" "Er, I think I might like it."

"Where do you see yourself in 10 years' time?" "How the hell should I know?" So I was offered a job on the strength of a false persona. How could I admit to experimental motives when, as far as I could tell, they went against everything the system wanted? Schools, I was informed, are about consistency and continuity - and I was in no position to argue.

I had been working for two months when a senior staffer made small talk over the urinals. "Give it a year," he said, "and if you don't like it bugger off and find something else to do." I was shocked, and couldn't believe a teacher was saying this.

Other colleagues told me it took a few years to get used to our school; pupils asked if I'd bought a house now I was settled; and I'd only been there a couple of weeks when a bloke from the union suggested I should "maximise" my teacher's pension. Feeling faint and claustrophobic, I told him I'd think about it.

And the media didn't help. The drive to school involved as many Radio 4 soundbites as gear changes. Blunkett, Woodhead, failing schools, everyone remembers a good teacher, the profession needs commitment.

I did try, of course, to step back from it all. But teachers talk to teachers, and their conversations revolve around school. You can't sit in the staffroom and say "I'm not sure I like it here" however much you'd like to. So instead you say: "I don't reach those Year 8s" and end up discussing strategies instead of selling out.

Eventually, you forget that other opportunities exist - your life becomes your classroom, your frames of reference shrink. After a while, you stop scanning job papers and indulge, instead, in those teacher fantasies you heard about on interview day. How do you get out of that classroom? By becoming a headteacher, obviously. You work your way up through the ranks. Here. Forever. Whether you like it or not.

So, had it not been for the personal commitments that brought me to Canada, I would probably still be there - attending courses, clinging to ideals, and being unhappy. I wouldn't know whether the problem lay in my school, my students, my approach, or the job itself. Since I dumped the professional baggage in England, however, I've been able to consider my options. Really, that's all I wanted in the first place.

Having dissected my short career, I've realised that my school and I were not compatible. But - like the persona who got the job - I like teaching, am good at it, and am ready to get stuck in. No ruts, mind.

I'll be Ontario's next toilet sage.

When I'm a headteacher interviewing potential staff, I'll always choose candidates who don't seem committed to a life in the job. Once they're in place, I'll tell them they can leave at any time - and I'll keep reminding them, especially when they're feeling low. They'll be welcome to doubt, to wonder, and to fantasise about engineering or journalism or anything else.

They'll be welcome, too, to try them out. The real teachers - rather than the blinkered, self-destructive career-heads I could have employed - will come back to the fold.

Wooed, rather than trapped.

Nicholas Woolley taught English for two years in a Greater Manchester comprehensive. He now lives in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, where he works as a freelance writer and supply teacher

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