First encounters

30th April 1999 at 01:00
Gemma Warren finds all is revealed over Easter

Imagine the scenario. You're an English teacher on a two-week holiday. In the first week, you do all your marking, plan your lessons for next term, and de-limescale your bathroom. What do you do for the second week? You go out to raving, twenty-something parties and have intellectual chats in coffee bars. Or not. If you are an NQT, you're so used to working flat-out, that when it all stops, you feel empty and vacant. So obviously you give up that precious final week. You go off to the National Association for the Teaching of English conference.

Back in November it all seemed like such a good idea. That was when professional development meant something else rather than catching up with your sleep and your friends.

I haven't got the faintest idea what a conference is anyway. I've never been away on my own without five giggling mates, some factor 25, and a packet of Durex. I've read David Lodge. This is just professional procreation.

I ring up my mum. "I don't want to go away. No one's going to like me and I've never been further north than Watford. Can't you write me a note? I think I've got a pain in my elbow." It doesn't work. And I'm still none the wiser as to what a conference is.

I ring up my friend who's an academic. She tells me that at a conference everyone presents papers on their latest research. Immediately I'm panicking. No one's asked me to deliver a paper. Then I realise. Of course. They want me to deliver the papers. I'm an NQT with no life. No wonder I got a reduced rate. I'm there to make the coffee.

I look on my official bumph to confirm my suspicions. "You're on workshops 13 and 24," it tells me. I don't remember signing up for workshops. Is that what they give to people who aren't clever enough to give papers? Is it the same as a workhouse? Knowing my luck I've signed up for nudist approaches to drama and the history of the apostrophe. Or it's beverage-making skills. That's probably why my school was so keen to send me. I'm beginning to realise what the "T" in NQT stands for. I make my gloomy way to Newcastle.

But the NATE conference is a revelation. I don't have to make the tea, or deliver the papers. Here's the deal. Conferences mean that loads of English teachers get together and talk about English and teaching for four days. And nobody tells you to shut up because you're boring the pants off the few friends you have left. You actually get to talk about school all day and nobody pointedly comments on the empty state of your love life.

Here's a typical Saturday night: I try to convince friends to go to a poetry reading or story telling. They all tell me to piss off and get a life. They tell me not to be such a teacher. But here it's different. Teachers are top. There's poetry reading on tap and nobody bats an eyelid. Hundreds of miles away from home, I finally come home.

I spend four days happily discussing learning objectives, literacy, and language policies and forget to ring my mum. I feel like the ugly duckling did when she finally hooked up with the swans. I finally act my age and not my SATs score. There is a heaven called Newcastle where you drink gallons and gallons of coffee, and get a free dictionary and a chunky marker.

Life doesn't get much better. It's like a soul food diet called the NATE plan, and it's earth-moving in a different way to David Lodge.

At the end of my four days, I am half a stone heavier, but something else has changed. I've realised that if teaching English is wrong, I don't want to be right. I'm a few inches taller.

Gemma Warren teaches at The Latymer School, Edmonton, north London

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