Gemma Warren keeps her options open

3rd November 2000 at 00:00
We were out a few weeks ago, and one of my boyfriend's friends asked me what I did. So I told him. "How long have you been a teacher?" he asked. "Almost two years," I said. And then came the fateful question. "And how long do you think you'll carry on?" I almost choked on my Virgin Mary. How long did I think I would carry on? Forever, of course. Once a teacher always a teacher. You can't desert the cause, and all that. In the blood, and all that. To be honest, this question knocked me for six. Here was a perfectly innocent passer-by assuming the unassumable. He was taking it for granted that teachers could do something else. This was a new possibility.

A week after that I got a call from one of my friends from my PGCE. "I'm leaving," she told me. "What, to go travelling?" I asked. "Are you pregnant?" No, she was leaving for good. "It turns out that teaching just isn't for me. I want to try something else."

Is there something else outside teaching? Everyone around me seems to be on the move. Of course, I've read the statistics and the shock reporting. I know that people leave teaching because they get disillusioned, or tired, or just want a new challenge. When I was a student, I looked at these figures with contempt. They were leaving because they couldn't hack it. I, on the other hand, could and would.

I am older and less arrogant now. I have known exhaustion and job-related frustration, and I know that you can't fix children the way you can call an engineer to fix your computer if you work in an office. You can't just start a two-for-one promotion and see your sales go up. If it all gets too awful, you can look for something else, surely. But giving up, in teaching, sounds just that: it's an admission of failure.

Why is it so hard for teachers to move on if they're not happy? My flatmate informs me that no one has a job for life any more. He didn't like his job, handed in his notice, applied for another job, and is now very happy with what he does. He tells me that I should be moving and shaking, and thinking in terms of skills rather than in terms of vocation. Vocation is for sissies who don'tknow how to work a computer. I wonder what skills I have which I could use somewhere else. I can shut up a class of 30 11-year-olds in under a minute. I can just about manage to persuade Year 9 that reading The Lady of Shalott will improve their lives, even though I'm not sure how. Does any of this transfer? Could it really be that, unlike other professions, teaching is like a professional cul-de-sac: once in, impossible to get out? After a bad day, it feels as if you're stuck. Staying is unthinkable. Going is even worse.

I have to admit that I look at my friend with a twinge of envy. She wants to go into TV, and now she's a runner for some breakfast show. So how do you go about convincing a panel that even though you've been a teacher for several years you are now ready to become an advertising executive?

I had a quick glance at the job ads in the paper this weekend. Most of them require experience, and I don't think they mean clearing up crisp packets on a coach. You never see "only disgruntled teachers need apply". Do people value the skills of teachers? Does battling for X number of years in a classroom count for anything in the wider professional world?

When I was at school, I had an English teacher who used to really make us think. One day she said: "Don't you ever feel bored when you wake up in the morning? Don't you ever feel frightened that you've been doing the same thing and you will be doing the same thing for years and years and years, day in, day out?" I thought she was barking, of course. I thought she was a bitter, twisted old teacher who didn't have any excitement in her life. But, recently, I have been wondering if I need to be doing this all my life. It's given me a sense of liberty, although I haven't got any idea exactly what it is that ex-teachers do.

The only thing I can imagine at the moment is catching up on a bit of sleep and then dying of guilt afterwards. But I've also come to realise that I do have options. I just need to be brave enough to keep them open.

Gemma Warren teaches at the Latymer School, Edmonton, north London.E-mail: gemmaw@callnetuk.com


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