Gemma Warren just wants a life of her own

7th July 2000 at 01:00
My dad says that he's sick of reading my column and not getting a mention. My boyfriend, he says, I mention. My mum occasionally gets the odd look-in. But not my dad. So here you go, Dad, this opening is dedicated especially to you. Although now my friends will probably get pissed off. And my Year 10 are constantly pestering me to include them somewhere. "It's meant to give a positive spin on education," I tell them.

It's interesting to me that, as a teacher, you can't leave your work in school. Everyone thinks that they belong in this column. And they're right, they all have a stake in it somewhere. I don't just bring my work home with me. I bring it to the pub, to the gym, to the queue in the supermarket. Everyone really does remember their best teacher, even though it's not enough to make them leave their air-conditioned offices in droves and join us. Education is a community issue. We've all been to school and, as a teacher, everyone thinks that they understand my experiences in the classroom probably better than I do. When I'm standing in front of a class, I never feel alone. I feel the ghosts of civil servants, education officials, my family, friends and colleagues, all breathing down my neck.

Schools are supposed to be the focus for the community, and if what I've read in the newspapers is true, we'll all be opening 24 hours like my local corner shop. But if that's the case, if I really am part of this touchy-feely, new millennium community, as a teacher I am also denied the right to have a community of my own. It seems to me that teachers are public property, up for examination by everyone. But they only see the teacher. They don't see the whole person, and I don't think that you can separate the two. They are not the north and south of a compass. It all mixes in together at the core.

My pupils think it's hysterical that I have parents. They'll be reading this and they won't be able to look me in the eye on Monday. "She's got a dad," they'll mutter to each other, and then collapse with the giggles. "How's your dad, Miss?" they'll shout in the corridor. I'll have shattered their myth that all teachers spring fully formed from the womb, ready to torment them.

This isn't about professional distance. I know what the bundaries are and I don't want to gossip with my sixth-formers all day about their boyfriends. But I do find it strange that as a teacher, and especially as an English teacher, I'm expected to give something personal of myself while I'm not allowed a personality. Everyone has an opinion, a life experience about education, and yet, as a teacher, I can't have a life of my own. A profession has been created where we're expected to give something of ourselves. God knows, if I billed the DfEE for all the hours of overtime I put in, I'd be a millionaire. But there is no room for our character. What do people want: professional or person?

I know some people who go to work and assume a professional mask that tells others nothing about their lives or their personality. They have a complete demarcation between the personal and the professional. My best friend was recently criticised at her appraisal for sounding too friendly when she answered the phone. My flatmate lives for the weekends. "I enjoy work, but it's a means to an end, and that's it," he says. It's different for me. I can't teach a book and not remember the first time that I read it. I can't see a member of my form and not recall what it's like to be 16 and miserable. A teacher can't function by being purely functionary, and yet, when you invoke the slightest ghost of an outside life, children find it bizarre.

I think that there is something wrong with the image of a teacher in the classroom. We've created a teacher-monster: an android that looks like a person, but has had all the human bits taken out. Children presume that we're all miserable old bastards, counting time until the bell rings.

A teacher's life is believed to be so awful that only the truly mad would take it on. I want to claw some reality back. Let's think holistic. You can't take shares in teachers like they're some kind of Internet start-up. You can't sell teachers as being special and unique, and then deny them the chance to have that special and unique thing: a personality. This column does belong to a lot of people. But it also belongs to me, and we all need to start acknowledging each other's existence.

Gemma Warren teaches at the Latymer school, north London. Email: gemmaw@callnetuk.com


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