Normal job? No thanks

2nd January 2004 at 00:00
Exhausted teacher John Cattermole tried quitting for a nine-to-five life but it just didn't compare...

I've got the Teach-them-till-I'm-weary-Parents'-evening Don't-get-home-till-midnight-blues.

('Mrs Butler Blues', by Allan Ahlberg, Heard it in the Playground, 1989.) These were my feelings by Christmas 2001. For me, Ahlberg's "parents'

evening" could have been replaced by "relentless planning", "target-setting" or "attainment goals" and after four years in the profession, I wanted out. I calculated that I was completing an average of 60-70 hours a week. Less than half of these were spent joyfully guiding, teaching, supporting and extending children; the rest involved what felt like a treadmill of paperwork.

I had had enough. Our second baby, Ruby, was a few months away from entering the world. I had become increasingly angered by having my time restricted with my first child, Liam. I didn't want to repeat that.

I decided to see if life existed outside the classroom, and so I applied for a "nine-to-five". Fortunately, I acquired a job at a local educational publisher, and in the summer of 2002, joined the 40 per cent of graduates who leave the profession within five years of qualifying.

I felt liberated: seven-hour working days, and whole weekends free with my family. I found I could now stay up late rather than fall asleep on the settee until the EastEnders theme tune normally woke me up. Office life was very different. Strangely, my desk in the morning was the same as I had left it. Gone were the post-its, photocopies, letters, photos, balls, pens and myriad objects that seem to find their way on to the desk of a teacher within five minutes of arriving.

I was more relaxed and organised. I was able to pass on my curriculum knowledge, and think about how children learned with a clear mind. No last-minute meetings. No dashing along the corridor, sandwich in mouth, papers flying, to answer a phone call. I learnt editorial skills, met sales consultants and teachers and helped to oversee projects, and at the end of the day, that was it.

Unfortunately, as I learnt more about developing resources, I found myself thinking: "What would it be like to teach with this?" or "How would children respond to that?" On school visits, I found myself beginning to long for my classroom, to see the smiling faces again. After a few months, the memories of stress and exhaustion began to give way to an appreciation of the opportunities I had. Nostalgic thoughts began to creep into my mind, but then we're all guilty of that.

The "problem" with teaching is that, once you've tried it, you always look back on it with affection. Those who have taught that I have met, often become misty-eyed when talking about it.

To those who have always worked in the profession, I can only say that it's when you leave that you realise what you've lost. Karen, my wife, asks me what I have done at the end of my office day, and I tell her, but it doesn't take long. I can't talk about a PE lesson where a boy with dyspraxia has learnt to catch a ball, or someone learning to swim, or best of all, a reluctant reader becoming a lover of books.

So I have decided to go back.

I am aware that the paperwork won't go away, but nor will the joy of inspiring young minds. I know what I am letting myself in for. I am trading in my seven hours a day for probably 12, my relaxed lunches for action-packed ones and my trips to the cinema for nights spent marking.

But not quite; I aim to achieve a modicum of work-life balance and if the choice is ever between form-filling and four-year-old Liam, or 20-month Ruby, then it will be my kids first, I'm afraid. And it's young people at school and their thoughts that are drawing me back. I'm returning, with excitement, anticipation, a certain amount of fear, but a good deal of hope. As Allan Ahlberg also wrote: We're looking for an answer We're searching high and low We're doing what we can, Sir - We really want to know.

(from "The Answer", Heard it in the Playground) John Cattermole begins his new job as a primary teacher in Cambridgeshire in January

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