Gemma Warren is defined by her job

22nd September 2000 at 01:00
One of my friends has asked me to speak at her wedding. I was flattered and moved for a few weeks, but then I decided to ask her why, out of all of her friends, she had chosen me. I was hoping she'd say it was due to all those special times we'd spent together in the Marks and Sparks changing room, or it was down to when I lent her my computer at university and she managed to change the password so completely that none of us could ever get back into it again. But no. The reason she asked me to speak at her wedding is because I'm a teacher. "You're good at these things," she told me.

Rewind a few months. Another of my friends has been trusted to take her six and eight-year-old nephews out for the day. She asks me if I would like to come with her. Now I'm not averse to spending the day trekking around London Zoo with young children, especially if it means getting loads of ice-cream. But halfway through the day one of them drops his lolly. The other one gets frightened by the chimpanzees. Then they need the toilet, which we can't find, and they all start crying. We're standing forlornly in the middle of the zoo surrounded by melting lolly and screaming children. "Deal with this," hisses my friend. "You're the teacher."

I'm walking around Barcelona last summer. I'm there for a weekend with a friend, and we're happily exploring the museums and the museum shops in rather unequal measure. We're making our way to the Gaudi park, and somehow we manage to get lost. Directions are not my strong point. This is the woman who gets lost on the way to school. I don't know my left from my right. Believe me, it makes aerobics classes impossible.

It's hot, and we're getting a bit tired of asking the way in our GCSE Spanish, and getting incomprehensible replies. I haven't brought the map out with me. I didn't realise we'd need it. My friend is furious. "You're a teacher. How can you be so disorganised?" Why is it that people assume that because you are a teacher you are a multi-skilled being with a quick answer to every situation up your sleeve? Is the battleground of the classroom a suitable metaphor for the battleground of life? I don't think so. One of my friends is an accountant. I don't ask her to split the bill every time we have diner. My boyfriend is a comedy producer. I don't expect him to be remarkably funny 24 hours a day. With teachers, it's perceived that your job is who you are, and I seem to be going through a bit of a personality crisis.

It works the other way, as well. We were out a couple of weeks ago, and after a long evening in too many bars, I was doing something mildly, vaguely inappropriate. I won't say what it was, but let's just say that I'm sure the people monitoring the town centre security cameras have seen a lot worse. There was a shocked pause from all my friends, most of whom I thought were not in a fit state to utter a coherent sentence. "You can't do that. You're a teacher."

Apparently the ways that we can or can't behave are set down as strictly as the national curriculum tells us how we can or can't teach. I feel like I'm always carrying the classroom about with me, and it's getting a bit heavy.

So let's get back to the wedding speech. I'm struggling with this, really struggling. Granted, I can talk coherently to groups of 30 children. I have even been known to talk in the odd assembly. But I'm not expected to make everyone laugh every three minutes, or tell a variety of amusing anecdotes, interspersed with a few gems of knowledge from the philosophical thought of the last millennium.

I don't talk continually in my lessons, I take questions, I discuss, I let others discuss. I can't exactly get up at this wedding with a white board and say: "Right, who's got some good ideas for what we can do after dinner?" "But you're a writer," protested my friend, when I rang her to tell her I was floundering. "Just write what you do in your column." What, tell the assembled gathering about the latest antics of my Year 10 class or moan on about the national curriculum?

My life in the classroom and outside it have to disentangle. The skills I use to teach children may reflect my personality to a certain extent, but has no one ever heard of yin and yang? You have to have some balance somewhere. In my spare time, don't come calling on me to be a teacher. The door might be open, but you won't find anyone at home.

Gemma Warren is a teacher at the Latymer school, Edmonton, north London.Email:

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