Let me back into the madhouse

13th October 2000 at 01:00
Peter Briley (above) gave up teaching for the saner world of television production. But tantrums, tears and strange-coloured pools on the toilet floor have driven him back to his senses - and the classroom

The time has arrived to leave civilian life and return to teaching. It is a time that, like a first kiss, a legal drink, and complaining that "music had a tune in my day", I once thought would never come.

In 1998, after five years of teaching in a north-west London primary, I decided I'd had enough. I was incredibly attached to the school - it was vibrant and full of characters - but I was overwhelmed by reams of paperwork, endless meetings and unrealistic expectations from the Government. I decided there had to be an easier way to earn a living. I needed to preserve my sanity, reclaim my evenings and weekends, and lead a stress-free, "normal" life. No more putting up displays for me. Hurrah.

It's a strange sensation to quit teaching. You leave with a smug, self-satisfied "so long, suckers, you'll never see me again" look on your face. In reality, you feel a mixture of emotions - from blind panic to massive relief. But you are certain about one thing - you have made the right decision.

You are congratulated by colleagues for being brave, quickly followed by a list of excuses - "If I didn't have the mortgagekidscarschool fees, I would do exactly the same". This is reassuring, even though it's a decision you've made over a long time after weighing up the pros and cons, and a with a heartfelt belief that, all in all, life has got to be better on the "outside".

No marking, no tears, no strange pools in the toilets, no stressing-out about how to tell parents that their child is possibly the most undesirable person on this planet. Free time, hobbies, long lunches - just lunches, even - adult conversation and regular office nights out beckon. So I swapped my classroom for the creative, stimulating, pulsating environment of a television production company away from children.

No children? A production office contains more squabbles, arguments and tantrums than any playground I had been in throughout those five years.

No marking? Have you ever had to check a report on the end-of-year balance for the budget controlling the maintenance and upkeep of the pot plants? I have.

No tears? Have you ever had to console a 35-year-old who has just been told to stop wasting staples and to address a nasal hair problem? I have.

No strange pools in the toilets? I won't burden you with the details, but what a strange colour it was.

As for undesirable people, forget Big Brother's Nasty Nick. Office politics is full of sleaze, back-stabbing, bribery and corruption. Slowly but surely memories creep back. You long for the child with snot permanently dripping from his nose, the one with greasy hair plastered over his head, the one with the dirty, ill-fitting clothes, the one with his hands permanently in his trousers.

One day it hits you with full force, usually as you are desperately trying to unjam the photocopier. You want to go back. The reality is that you are used to days full of variety, days full of noise and expectation, days full of anticipation and challenge, days full of arguments and meetings.

But getting back into the system can prove as difficult as breaking out. Most teachers react with amazement and shock - or immediately call for a straitjacket.

I take great pains to explain my reasoning. I accept the profession is full of stress, it is underpaid, undervalued, there are unrealistic expectations and an inordinate amount of work. But until you have had eyestrain from staring at a computer screen for eight hours or have willed the minute hand to go quicker on the office clock or run out of friends to email, you will not realise what you are missing.

My decision is based on knowing I am guaranteed fulfilment, reward and a full, very full, day - in short, there is a point to the job. All the worry and stress you moaned about becomes a faded memory - you wonder how your old class is getting on and you want to be stimulated again.

How do you do it? Looking at the ads is scary - and what about all the changes in the system, curriculum and expectations since you left? "Must have experience of Sats, literacy hour, numeracy hour, EAL, aiming to break the threshold"I how do you answer questions on these when you haven't experienced them and everyone else has?

How do you explain your time out of the profession? I haven't had a baby, I haven't travelled, I haven't been doing private tuition, I haven't been developing other skills. If I said I went off to Bali with my son in a papoose to teach how to maintain a sewage system in a rainforest, maybe I could get away with it. But "I worked in an office" just does not cut the mustard. It is a daunting prospect.

The ads all say "caring, committed teacher required". Now be honest. Isn't there just a tiny, tiny part, way at the back of your head that would like to ring up and say: "Hi, I'd like to apply for the position of classroom teacher, but in fact I really don't care, I'm not committed and I'm only here for the holidays. Is that OK?" Of course we all care and are committed, otherwise we would be balancing profit-and-loss accounts in huge open-plan offices and looking forward toteam-building weekends in the Brecon Beacons. Who do you turn to for advice? An agency?

A teaching agency has a distinctive look. Welcoming armchairs, a free cup of coffee, full of hustle and bustle and staffed entirely by children. The "consultant", who appears one year older than the kids in your last class, single-handedly makes you feel as if today is the day to book yourself into the retirement home.

After promising that you will look carefully at the leaflets and you are sure that you will be able to add to his commission, you try your local council. You check out its vacancies list. Why, when you look at such a list, must every vacant position have a hidden reason for its existence? Take "three-form entry Year 1 in an improving school". If the school was improving so much, why did the teacher quit? Is it the stress of improving? Is it a bad area? Is it the unfriendly staff? Is it the unruly class? Logic defies you to consider it could be that they just fancied a change.

You read of 4,000 vacancies. You accept that you'll have to work in a different borough because, after ruling out the live-in caretaker position, there is nothing else going. I have entered the scary, uncharted world of the supply teacher in west London as I was too late with my sudden decision to return to the classroom and missed the vacancies for the start of term.

But am I defeated? I can still picture the office, people's faces screaming with the fear of lost hope and ambition. No, I can't wait to get back.

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