Returners to the fray

4th November 1994 at 00:00
Wendy Beatty left teaching this summer, six years after re-entering the profession. She was, she says, battered by adolescent abuse and peer neglect.

In January 1988 I became a returner to secondary school teaching but retired early this summer. The intervening six years and two terms have been a constant struggle to maintain both commitment and morale against a barrage of adolescent abuse.

The report of the Teachers' Review Body, 1994 points out that about 50 per cent of entrants to teaching in a given year are, in fact, returners, coming back to the profession after a career break. The report recommends that much greater support should be available to them as their needs are distinct from those of newly-qualified teachers - needs which are often neglected.

My experience could serve as a case study to illustrate how not to treat your returner. It is not - I hope - written in a spirit of whingeing; whatever the defects of the system in terms of failing to offer structured support and personal encouragement, over the years I have been grateful to many individuals, both staff and children, for their help and affirmation. Life back in school was not all bad, by any means.

My career history will make familiar reading to many women. My first four years as a newly-qualified teacher in the early 1960s passed smoothly enough in a girls' selective school. I made mistakes, learnt from them, experienced successes, and after three years was awarded a scale two post as teacher in charge of German within a modern languages department. After a further year I left to have my own family.

Like many female secondary teachers in similar circumstances, I became interested in the education of young children. I also became absorbed in the issues of disadvantage and inequality in education, and did a postgraduate diploma course to equip myself to do something about it.

Between 1973 and 1988 I worked in a succession of part-time posts, fixed-term contracts and full-time posts as playgroup leader, primary school supply teacher, education social worker and teacher trainer.

In 1986 and '87 I was working part-time in a teacher training institution. At that time there was a growing emphasis on the need for trainers to have "recent and relevant experience" in schools. In principle, I was in full agreement with this requirement; in practice, as a part-timer, I was not eligible for the rolling programme of secondments to schools which the institution had set up. For the sake of my own credibility , I decided to get myself back into secondary teaching .

The task was daunting. I had not taught modern languages nor secondary age pupils for 21 years; I had never taught in a fully comprehensive secondary school, let alone a comprehensive in a disadvantaged urban area. Yet this was the kind of school I chose.

As preparation, I gave private tuition in French and German to re-establish fluency, studied contemporary methods of teaching modern languages, and acquainted myself with the recently-introduced GCSE. I accepted a two-term temporary contract initially, to leave myself an exit route.

In fact after two terms of intense humiliation, I almost left teaching for good. I had expected to find the post challenging and to make some mistakes; I was prepared to work with intense dedication. What I had not anticipated was the unremitting onslaught on my self-image dealt, on the one hand, by the insulting behaviour of the pupils; on the other by the gloating satisfaction at my failures by those I should have been able to turn to for support.

The school was in a depressed area where the single industry had gone bust and where unemployment was high. It drew from a catchment area of council estates and urban terraces. Disaffection and disorder amongst pupils was, in the opinion of staff, increasing. Corporal punishment had just become illegal and the school had not devised alternative strategies. Staff morale was low.

My first encounter with my head of department was not calculated to instil confidence. His welcome was expressed something like this: he had not wanted to appoint me, but there had been no choice; he did not like women and did not get on well with his female colleagues; he envied me all the things I had done with my life, while he had been stuck in the same school for years trying in vain to get out. I tried to reassure him that whatever else I had done, I would need the benefit of his long experience in school.

But for the next two terms he looked on with unconcealed pleasure while both my morale and my classroom management accelerated downhill.

He tried to avoid notifying me of departmental meetings, on the grounds that I wouldn't find them relevant since I was on a temporary contract. Although teaching just along the corridor from me, he distanced himself while I was besieged in my own classroom by pupils whom I did not teach, but who thought it fun to persecute a new member of staff.

Although I was offered support by the headteacher and deputy head, in the event it was not forthcoming when needed. The deputy head was unwilling, he said, to risk raising his blood pressure through constant shouting at the children. I received the clear message that what went on inside and even outside my classroom was solely my affair.

Just before my contract was due to end I flipped and slapped a child. The head's response was that had I done that sooner, I might have saved myself a lot of trouble.

After that incident I was on the point of quitting teaching altogether - what was I doing working in a school if I could be reduced to such a level of behaviour? But I did not quit. I taught for six more years in two other schools.

I have never found it easy. There have been further humiliations, but there have been successes as well as failures. However, the experience of those two terms and the feeling of utter helplessness and rejection has coloured - contaminated - my professional responses since, making me defensive and too quickly confrontational.

I have witnessed the same hurt and growing despair in others: students on school placement, newly-qualified teachers, returners. However well-trained and appropriately prepared, however thoroughly they understand, in theory, the reasons for bad behaviour, they do not yet have the robust self-confidence to withstand the emotional battering they receive from pupils. They need the back-up of a structured support system to which they can have recourse without this being seen as an admission of failure. Unless support is available from other adults, as well as personal encouragement, inexperienced teachers cannot relax sufficiently in the situation to respond appropriately to pupils' misbehaviour.

Nor is it just a problem for the inexperienced. I heard recently of an experienced infant teacher who had taken premature retirement because she couldn't stand being verbally abused by seven-year-olds any longer.

As for me, I have grown weary of being called grandma, old biddy, stupid old cow, fucking bitch, and of trying - sometimes failing - to keep control of myself.

Wendy Beatty is a pseudonym.

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