First encounters;Features and arts

26th November 1999 at 00:00
Katherine Lee asks why teaching is considered a waste

I don't know about you, but I always thought teachers were meant to be clever. That is, until I decided to become one.

Having reached the final year of my English degree, I felt suitably qualified to go on for a PGCE. Yes, I was to train as a secondary teacher. Nothing unusual about that. Or so I thought.

My first doubt arose when my Oxford undergraduate friends who had their eyes on the city (and are now ensconced in graduate schemes with banks and big companies) appeared to disapprove of my vocation.

One stared in disbelief when he realised my impending interview was with the university department of education and not a Fat Cat eager to recruit City kids. I started to think that teaching was somehow not a job for us, the managing directors of tomorrow, and I was the only one who hadn't picked up on this - that I was the sole Oxford graduate to have taken the perverse and dishonourable decision to join the profession which was responsible for getting us to Oxford.

However, I went ahead, got the place and felt safe in the knowledge that another year of my life was vaguely under control. I plodded on through finals (an experience which made me all the more determined to teach, if only for the opportunity to phrase questions obscurely and instil fear in all candidates). Having two teachers as parents ("good positive role models", according to my interviewer) and having had some inspirational teachers (including one young Oxford English graduate), at the end of my final term I still felt that I was doing the Right Thing.

I knew the pay was less that perfect. I knew it would be stressful. I knew it was time consuming and I wasn't going into it for the long summer holidays. But I also knew I wanted to teach - and why I wanted to teach. Indeed, I had explained this at length in my interview when I was asked the most predictable questions, albeit in verbal fancy-dress: "So, could you tell us the series of decisions which brought you to decide on this vocation?" - in other words "why do you want to teach?" Unlike the many other people who have subsequently asked the same question, there was no hint of disbelief, suggestion that I may have lost my mind, or horror in the tutor's voice as he asked me this.

But the disturbing thing is that the people who have tried most earnestly to dampen the start of my career have been teachers. Even more than the public school boys whose teachers gave up their evenings and weekends for "the boys", it has been teachers who have been both shocked and disappointed that an Oxford graduate should aim so low.

So why have I not given up the whole idealistic notion? Why am I still insisting on training for what I think is a worthwhile, honourable job, rather than sitting in an office thinking up new ways of ripping people off, or of a new way to sell shampoo, or dealing in money that doesn't exist?

I'd be lying if I said that the constant discouragement hasn't made me think twice (or more), and wonder if I am just being short-sighted and have been paying too much attention to Dead Poets' Society. And I have met some teachers who love their job, and could rival Robin Williams's enthusiasm for the subject.

But just last week, a friend of my parents said: "you've got a first-class BA from Oxford, and you're going to waste it on teaching!" Which leaves me wondering whether teachers aren't meant to be clever after all.

Katherine Lee is studying for her PGCE in secondary English at Oxford University

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