Notes from a small island

30th July 2004 at 01:00
In the first of a summer series about teachers who take a break from their job, Jennifer Baker tells how she ended up in the idyllic Hebrides

I have spent the last eight years of my teaching career heading the English faculty of one of the biggest schools in Lancashire. I loved it, but it was my life.

I left home at eight every morning and returned 10 hours later fit only for sleeping in front of the television. At weekends, when we were not too tired to communicate, my husband (also a teacher) and I used to dream about The Good Life.

I had always wanted to write and he had a dream of running a market garden.

We used to talk for hours about how our lives could be and, when we went on holiday, we would look at likely properties and dream.

Then, on holiday in the Hebrides in the summer of 2000 we suddenly decided - why not? In truth, the decision was more or less made for us (we're not good at decisions). As we were doing our usual moseying around old properties and saying "What if?" our neighbour and holiday landlord said that, if we were serious, he could sell us "a lump of land". He then showed us a piece of paradise.

We returned home full of excitement and trepidation. Now it was serious: we had to put money on the table, literally. We hauled out bank statements, incomings, outgoings, insurances, endowments. They didn't amount to much (we have five children and five university degrees don't come cheap).

We decided, however, that we could at least buy the land, thus deferring the decision to cut the ties. But it snowballed. Once the land was bought - that took two years, what with decrofting, outline planning, rights of access, rights to bring utilities across other people's land and so on - we were desperate to go.

The property boom meant we would get a decent sum for our house and so, on the strength of that, some savings and a mortgage we handed in our resignations, sold our home, put our furniture into storage and set off.

We arrived in the first week of the summer holidays last year, just in time to see the components of our new home arriving on a barge. The foundations were started the next day.

It was a glorious summer and work went on apace. We were staying in the holiday cottage from where we had first discovered this beautiful island.

Every day we visited the building site but we also walked, swam, sailed and read our books - just like any normal holiday. Only this wasn't. It didn't end.

Colleagues went back to school in September and we didn't - for the first time we could remember. Envious emails arrived in flurries from ex-colleagues still at the chalkface and it felt very strange not to be doing a conventional job alongside them. We could organise our days as we wanted.

It all felt very alien, and then, at the end of September, there was no cheque. That felt alien too! I decided that, until my writing took off, I needed the security of regular money so I looked around to see what I could do.

It felt strange peddling my skills but I applied for exam marking, supply teaching and tutoring while still trying to sell my writing. My first taste of supply teaching was a four-month stretch during the winter.

The house building continued - but much more slowly. It takes no time for a house to go up, but an eternity for the inside to get done.

I was sailing back and forth to the mainland, teaching. Although it was all very different from being a head of faculty, it was not what I had come to do. The fear of not having a regular cheque had to be overcome.

Being freelance involves a different mind-set - one that I think I have achieved - but it has taken a year. I have saleable skills and I am selling them.

Some jobs are tedious, such as exam marking, but some are great and I have control over my time, which is the greatest thing of all.

What I have at last realised is that I won't go hungry. There is plenty of work for jobbing educators - the biggest problem is having the willpower not to accept every offer that lands on my desk.

I still work long hours but they are my long hours; if I want to take a day off and go wandering in the hills, I do.

I am not a teacher any more and that feels strange, but I am still in education and probably will be forever. It's in the bones.

Next week: a year off

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