`I'm in my dream job. I would do it for free'

7th August 2015 at 01:00
In the third of our four-part series, a secondary teacher looks back on his personal highs, lows and lessons from this academic year

"Sir, does Dr Pepper affect your sperm count?" shouted Sam from Year 11 as I raced down the corridor to my lesson.

It was the kind of question from the kind of child that needed to be taken seriously and answered immediately.

"What do you mean?" I enquired.

"Well, Sir, somebody told me that it did, and they said I should ask my RE teacher."

All teachers must have their own Sam in their classes and corridors - these students make the job worthwhile. In my best reassuring tone, I attempted to summarise the difference between facts and old wives' tales. This particular conversation was actually relatively straightforward, because I was able to finish it with: "In any case, Sam, you have nothing to worry about, because you are a girl."

I love my job as head of RE and director of spirituality at a high-achieving Church of England secondary school in an economically deprived part of East Lancashire. I have held my current post for eight years, and I previously spent nine years working in a community school on the other side of the county, where I ended up as head of humanities.

At this point, I feel obliged by tradition to state how over 17 years I have seen standards deteriorate and stress levels rocket. But, hand on heart, I cannot say that I have found this to be true. I'm working in my dream job. If I could, I would do it for free (I can't because I have a mortgage to pay and a family to raise). Knowing that you are working towards a higher purpose and making a difference to young lives is reason enough to bounce out of bed in the morning, eager to go to work.

Teaching is hard, but so is life. In March, I sat on a panel at a church event, answering questions about the job alongside other teaching professionals. Something shifted in me as I listened to a fellow panel member state to the room - full of people from all walks of life, with all kinds of jobs (and none) - how teachers today "even face the threat of losing their jobs".

I tried to rescue the situation by saying that I didn't know of a single occupation where employees were free from the possibility of losing their jobs, but I'm not convinced that I did much to salvage the dwindling respect for the profession that the people in that hall felt that day. We would do well to occasionally remind ourselves how hard life can be for non-teachers, too.

And we need to remember why we are here. As you go up the leadership ladder, you find that you have more responsibilities outside of the classroom. This year has shown me more than any other that people must come before projects. Always. This January, I was rushing to a meeting and I almost completely dismissed a child in need of help. Thankfully, I realised what I was doing before it was too late. But how often do we fall into similar traps? It was an important reminder and I had plenty of others this year. Here's how my 12 months shaped up.

Things that made me happy

As something completely different to my day-to-day responsibilities, I run a well-attended after-school judo club, which attracts many children who are marginalised from mainstream school life. Seeing them achieve their belts has been hugely satisfying. For some, this is a rare taste of success.

Also, two former pupils - one now at the University of Leicester and another at the University of Cambridge - came back into school to say the same thing this year. To paraphrase: "Everything taught to me, especially during assemblies, now makes perfect sense, and I am very grateful." To say this makes me happy is an understatement.

Things that made me sad

Our school community has suffered a disproportionate amount of bereavement this year; far too many pupils have lost a parent or another close family member, often in horrible circumstances. There is no quick fix for these children - all we can do is stand with them in their grief and sadness.

Things that surprised me

Great exam results mean nothing. I felt a surprising emptiness last summer after the best external exam results my department had ever achieved (and they are usually good anyway). As is so often the case, I have found that the holy grail of school life ultimately does not deliver satisfaction. However good the results are, they could always be better. And, in any case, those pupils have now gone and all that matters is next year's results. It is rather like your team winning the Premier League - it's the most important thing in the world in May, but it counts for nothing in August when it all kicks off again.

But the teacher, like the football fan, must teach themselves to enjoy the ride. It surprises me how many of us are slow to learn this lesson. The most difficult person to teach is always yourself.

One thing I will do differently next year

I will go to bed earlier. As I write this, I am approaching one of those significant, round-number birthdays that cause one to reflect on one's priorities. I could easily kid myself that I am working into the small hours because I am dedicated and want to serve my pupils well. But the truth is that I could work much smarter and much more efficiently. These kinds of small adjustments can have a huge impact on quality of life, and if I am really serious about doing the best I can for my pupils, then I need a good night's sleep.

One thing that made me laugh

I have learned to laugh at everything, especially myself. If you can train your mind this way, you'll never be short of amusement, especially when working with teenagers.

What I wish I had known 12 months ago

Last September, we were due for an Ofsted inspection. Now, at the end of the year, we still are. It is impossible to sustain that level of high alert indefinitely. I suppose that I, like many teachers all across the country, would have found my job much easier this year if this element of unpredictability had been removed.

However, I am grateful for my job and aware that proper accountability is absolutely necessary in the public sector, as it is anywhere. And so I refuse to whinge.

Christian Pountain is director of spirituality and head of RE at St Christopher's CE High School in Accrington, Lancashire

Coming soon.

The final instalment in our My Year in Teaching series:

14 August - Rebecca Self, a special school teacher in Surrey

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