The generation game

27th October 2000 at 01:00
A training match of two halves.

Paul and Jack Miller recently decided that they both wanted to be teachers, putting them in the unusual position of being contemporaries who also happen to be father and son. Here, an exchange of summer letters shows their vastly differing experiences of entering the profession

Dear Jack,

So that's it: the end of a big year for both of us. By September, I'll be a fully qualified teacher in secondary education and you'll be starting the second year of your BA in primary.

As a caring parent, my impulse is to tell you not to bother. Drop it. Take a year out to come to your senses. Go to Bangkok and bring me back a sarong to replace this one, which is getting a bit faded. However, you're more sensible, more ambitious and, most importantly, younger than me and, anyway, perhaps primary is different.

You may recall, this time two years ago, that I squeezed on to the PGCE course by virtue of there being one place available and no one else to fill it. I was told, after two interviews, that if I'd applied earlier I would have been rejected. There might have been an advertising campaign, but I was supposed to feel grateful to be offered a chance in a field that reportedly wanted middle-aged men.

No matter that I was amply qualified. No matter that I had practical experience in the disciplines I had applied to teach. No matter that, in fact, I felt more confident of my abilities than at any time in my life thus far. The long and short of it was that even if I found work, I'd be looking at no more than 10 years before I retired. In fact, I was not expected to last the course.

You could have told them I'm like a dog with a bone under certain circumstances. Say what you like, PGCE is no real training. It is necessarily a case of being pitched in at the deep end. I waded through the course, working like a young doctor, patronised by people half my age. And I found a job - without relocating, although I had to re-locate to meet one of my PGCE placements. Only for one term, but it was an encouraging start.

As you get older, the problem is not to persuade employers to employ you, but to get them to interview you. You have to climb over the barricade of bigotry and fear erected by a date of birth that precedes the last coronation.

That first teaching job was thrilling. I felt a real sense of vocation and worth among the staff. I learned to "get into character" and to get out again. My ego improved in bounds. I wondered if I was evolving into a new person. As we broke up for Christmas, I received cards from pupils saying they enjoyed English now, whereas they never had before. A couple of parents sang my praises. My Year 11 tutor group bashfully gave me an Aston Villa mug and an Aston Villa calendar at their assembly, and I bashfully accepted. In presenting my parting gift of a bundle of books, the head said: "It is easy to forget Paul is an NQT."

The did forget in the next job. Not their fault: there just wasn't time. No 10 per cent release time: in fact, almost all non-contact time was used in cover. No half-day induction. No top sets. Few NQT meetings. Fewer observations of me and none by me of them. This Year 11 tutor group had no sixth-form role models and seemed disgruntled at having a new tutor at such a late stage.

I admire twentysomething NQTs - there's no way I could have done it at that age. It is axiomatic that pupils need justified praise, though not, apparently, this NQT. I have few recollections of being told I had done anything well and such discussions as I did have, arose when I did something wrong. This may, of course, be because I am simply crap, although testimonials from my first term suggested otherwise. Many times, the memories of that first term were all I had to cling to.

Why could I not deal with ill-disciplined teenagers? Why did other teachers have their respect?

First, it is their school. I'm told it takes a minimum of two years - five years realistically - to "bed in". At my age, I haven't got that time to spare. Second, I was in a junior position: I couldn't get them chucked out. Perhaps, too, I didn't naturally inspire respect, being in a junior position to teachers patently younger than me. Third, I am a man. I know this argument goes both ways, but I was the only man in my department, full-time. Many of these children are from single-parent families or do not live with their natural fathers. Mums give the orders, dads go down the pub.

The day blood from my nose splashed over the Year 10 register, I knew this was not the job for me. So I resigned. I was deflated after one term and spent much of the Easter break in a state of depression. At the time, one teacher at the school expressed a hunch that I could be a good teacher. Another felt that the profession can ill-afford to lose people like me. Otherwise, apart from a few sympathetic noises, I didn't suppose anyone cared and I didn't expect them to. Afterwards, for whatever reason, things improved. Such limited success as I had achieved in the closing weeks gave me encouragement. Still, it wasn't enough for me to consider a career that is obviously life-shortening.

I have never thought of myself as a quitter. A few teachers hinted that, metaphorically speaking, I have no balls. Well, I don't feel the need to prove myself. I have met enough challenges in my life already, thank you. And, of course, the institute was right all along. Let's put our faith in the judgment of higher education. Mine had justifiable misgivings. Yours accepted you with none - with alacrity, even.

Let me know how you're getting on. In the meantime, my heartfelt wishes for your success, Dad

Paul Miller recently completed his induction year as an NQT in an Essex school, following one term at King Edward VI School, Lichfield, and a PGCE at Warwick University

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