Life is cheap when you're a teacher

7th January 2000 at 00:00
Ian Whitwham is worried about dying at the chalkface

Teaching is stressful. Teaching in the inner city is very stressful. And if you're past 50, it's dangerous. And if you're still chalkface and not management - God help you. You can easily croak, as my NUT rep observed. He's known it to happen.

After bungee-jumping, playing Russian roulette, being a Mafia stool-pigeon, swimming with sharks and being Shane McGowan, it seems that teaching is the most dangerous thing you can do. It often leads to "death in service", as the insurance people call it. A phrase suggestive of pointless masochism, dumb loyalty - of someone that has gone over the top or been found in a trench.

In the context of teaching, it means conking out at the chalkface, keeling off the lectern, passing on during a plenary session, losing consciousness during another rendering of Of Mice and Men, or abandoning all hope in a staff meeting. Poor kids, they have enough stress with the national curriculum without seeing me turn blue before their eyes, but you hope your death would not go unacknowledged before the rigor mortis kicks in.

And the man from the Amicable says the money's not even any good. My next of kin won't do that well: two years' pay and that's your lot. Not nearly as much as you get for going off your trolley - there are rumours of a cool quarter million. A recent head of year "won" 40 grand. An odd notion. Did she work towards an obvious and florid schizophrenia or just arrive in pink pyjamas?

She was also forced to retire, lucky woman. t's difficult to retire. I tried. It wasn't the palpitations or the pink pyjamas, it was the boredom, the sheer tedium of the chorus that has attended teaching for 30 years. Black papers and white papers and green papers and tabloid papers. I didn't need another dull workshop, working party, action group or stress management class. I had been monitored, measured, moderated, managed. I had been assessed, assailed, hectored and inspected, performance-related and debriefed. It was time to retire.

Fat chance. Suddenly I was wanted. Suddenly I was the bee's knees. I thought I was clapped out but I was wrong. They now value the experienced, so I must plod on until the grave or 65. I am condemned to be paraded, skint and senile, before the inner-city classroom. Perhaps eventually I will become a mere visual aid; I was recently sent in this capacity by the National Union of Teachers to lobby Parliament as an emblem of the now cherished pedagogue. Austin Mitchell did his Glib Good Bloke act, Mr Ashdown zipped past and Tony Banks arrived in a New Romantic quiff. He listened well, said it was disgraceful and kissed a blonde. The most conspicuous presence was Lord Longford, a skeleton in a black suit, who shuffled and muttered through cobwebs like the most loyal of retainers. He was death in service on legs.

So it's not looking good. And now my exam results are excellent. If I'm not careful, I'll become a "beacon" for my contemporaries, a superteacher. Death, where is thy sting?

Ian Whitwham teaches in a London comprehensive

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