Smile, you're a teacher now

7th September 2001 at 01:00
Why do people become teachers? The hours are ridiculous, gratitude is in short supply, and the pay is still a joke. But despite the poor image of the teaching profession, every year thousands of NQTs join up. Wendy Wallace meets six of this year's new entrants to find out why.

Teaching continues to be a profession in crisis. Drowning in initiative overload, alienated by criticism from on high and the undermining of individual autonomy, many teachers are looking for a way out or remaining in post simply because they have no alternative. Senior managers work among the longest hours in Europe and starting salaries are still appreciably lower than in other graduate professions.

But government incentives such as the pound;6,000 training salary for PGCE students and "golden hellos" for those teaching shortage subjects have made a difference, with applications for teacher training up last year. A comparable grant for BEd students has been mooted, and increasing numbers of local authorities are offering help with housing.

More fundamentally perhaps, teaching as a vocation continues to have the power to inspire both young and mature candidates, as our interviews with six people beginning their teaching lives this autumn make clear. While recognising the practical usefulness of financial incentives, our interviewees are motivated chiefly by the desire to make a difference to children.

The Government's promise of 10,000 new teachers in schools by 2006 depends not just on recruiting trainees but on keeping them in schools. A high drop-out rate from teacher training courses, combined with 25 per cent of those who embark upon teaching leaving the profession within three years, is cause for continuing concern, says the chief inspector of schools, Mike Tomlinson. Professor Alan Smithers, of Liverpool University, adds: "It looks as though twice as many are trained as make their careers in teaching."

Most of this autumn's 18,000 new teachers have high hopes of navigating a path between the requirements of education laid down by government and the inspiration they carry within. Over the next year, we will be staying in touch with our class of 2001, to find out how their hopes for their new working lives match the reality of the classroom.

KATIE GONZALEZ

Twenty-two-year-old Katie Gonzalez is following in the footsteps of her mother. "My mum's a teacher, so as a child I was always setting up displays and explaining things. I'm so much like my mum, and I just love children. I seem to communicate with them, and I'm fascinated by their development."

After taking a degree in psychology from Portsmouth, Katie went on to do the PGCE at the Institute of Education, London University. She found the teaching exciting. "We did a lot of workshops focusing on the kind of experiences a child might have. In dance and music we actively did things and went through routines as the teacher would do with children in her class. In science we made and did things. It sticks in your mind then."

Katie trained in three London primary schools, one of which she says "is viewed internally and externally as one of the worst schools in London in terms of catchment area and behavioural problems". The class teacher told her to "forget strategies for the first two weeks and just manage the children". "I went in saying children shouldn't be rewarded for sitting quietly, but she said 'these children need rewards'. I really laid on thick the positive re-enforcements and I did start noticing ripple effects. I've been very lucky with the three teachers I've worked with."

After applying for the Croydon teaching pool, Katie was interviewed by two headteachers from the borough. Her first job is teaching reception at Roke primary, a two-form entry school with a mixed catchment area, on a salary of pound;17,500 (including pound;1,500 London weighting). Her ambition is to become a headteacher, or an expert in special needs.

Muttered warnings from the staffroom have not deterred her. "I just sort of smile and agree with them," she says. "I know it's going to be hard. I know I'm not going to go to work and forget about it. But I wouldn't want a job like that anyway."

NICCI JOHNSTON

Nicci Johnston, 22, has wanted to be a teacher since she was 10. "I was inspired by my teachers," she says. "We were renowned for being the worst class in the school, then we had a fantastic new teacher who came in and turned us round. We left school better people, and I aspire to be like she was."

She graduated from Newman College, Birmingham, last summer with a BEd and takes up a job this term at Dorrington school in Perry Barr, an inner-city Birmingham primary where she will have a Year 1 class of 29 children. "It's in a very poor socio-economic area," she says, "and a lot of the children don't have the backing from the parents that we'd like them to have. It will be a challenge, but that's what I want. I want to make a difference, to put my own positive stamp on the school and the class."

Dorrington was Nicci Johnston's first teaching practice school; she spent one day a week there in her first year at college, then a two-month block. Once she put her details in the pool system in Birmingham - she was rated an A* employee after her interview with a panel of two headteachers and an LEA adviser - job offers started coming in "thick and fast".

"Schools were saying 'we know we want you more than you want us, but please think about us'." None offered financial or other incentives, but she knew and liked Dorrington.

Unlike PGCE students, undergraduate teachers have not, so far, been offered help with training costs from the government. Nicci Johnston lives with her parents and has used an inheritance to pay for her three-year degree course; she estimates the cost at pound;6,000 to pound;7,000. "It is one of the axes I have to grind," she says. "Compare my experience with that of a nurse, who doesn't have to pay fees and is paid while learning. Not everyone has the backing I've had and they don't want to start out that much in debt."

In her probationary year in the profession, Nicci - like other incoming teachers - will have an 80 per cent timetable, a mentor in school, and top-up training. "I feel positive," she says. "We shouldn't be thrown in at the deep end; we need the support. We perhaps need an even shorter timetable. But it's positive and should encourage more people to join. The starting salary has risen from pound;14,000 to pound;17,000 while I've been at university."

Nicci begins her new career in good heart. "I know it's right for me and I know I'll make the best of it," she says. "The only fear is of not having my own life. The hours are so long, with the planning, the evaluation, the records. I do worry about getting bogged down in it, especially in my first year, without a bank of resources. I don't have a boyfriend, which will probably help."

MARION MULCAHY

Marion Mulcahy left Homerton College, Cambridge, last summer with a PGCE in secondary education specialising in biology. Aged 38, she has a PhD in molecular biology from Dundee and previously worked for the agricultural research institute at Harpenden. She is returning to work after a spell raising her family; she has four children aged between four and 10.

She got into teaching "by accident", after responding to an advertisement in the local press for someone to teach maths at the local FE college. "It was quite challenging," she says, "given that I knew nothing about the education system. But I enjoyed it so much. I had kids in the maths class who were bright but had fallen through the net at school. I thought, 'I'd like to be part of the net'."

The response of friends and family to her decision to retrain as a teacher was "almost unequivocally negative", she says. One friend who had already done what she planned to do warned her categorically not to enter teaching; others said "do you know how hard it is?" Only her husband was positive. "He knows me, and knew I wouldn't fall at the first fence."

Marion begins teaching this week at Longsands community college, an 11-18 comprehensive in St Neots, Cambridgeshire, with 1,600 pupils. Having entered her details in the pool after a recruitment morning held by the local authority, she was invited to go to Longsands for an interview which began with the words, "we've done our homework and before we start we'd like to offer you a job". She will be paid on point 4 of the pay scale, nearly pound;19,000, which she believes is "fair".

The PGCE was challenging - "It was hard work, particularly with the family. But if you were organised, it was fine" - and the teaching practice provided both the best and the worst experiences of the year-long course. "I particularly loved it once we were teaching. But the most difficult thing was having a rowdy class and not knowing how to calm them down."

With the training behind her, Marion is looking forward to extending her own teaching and classroom management skills in post. "I find it hard to challenge the more able children. You've got to extend them laterally otherwise they'll be bored next year. It's a weakness that I'm aware of in myself, although no one has mentioned it. And I'm not cross enough. Sometimes a bit of sternness might not go amiss."

Her ambitions are currently confined to the job ahead. "For me, the step back into full-time employment is a huge one. I don't have a burning desire to become a head of department. I want to be the best teacher that I can be and, at the moment, that's as far as I'm looking. I don't want to be one of those teachers for whom teaching takes over their whole life. My big focus is organisation. That's how I did the PGCE year, and my children still recognise me."

Marion begins school this week in the company of her oldest daughter, who joins Year 7 at Longsands.

DAVID KUSSEL

David Kussel, 28, graduated from Rolle School of Education at the University of Plymouth this summer with a PGCE in maths. Before enrolling for the course, David - who has a BA in business studies from Oxford Brookes University - worked for the Inland Revenue and a language centre. He was studying accountancy when he decided to change horses and enter teaching. "In my social life, I had volunteered in the community, coached children in squash, helped children with problems. I just thought, 'that's what I really enjoy doing': number work, plus a lot of interaction with people. I've never looked back, and it's the first time I've really enjoyed my job."

David was one of only a half a dozen men in the 50-strong PGCE student body at Rolle, but says he did not feel isolated. "You are in a minority as a man, but you take people for who they are. I haven't found it intimidating."

He put in extra teaching practice in his last half-term break - coaching fellow students through the skills test. "I basically spent the week teaching people numeracy; I had one fail out of five. It was blood, sweat and tears. I found a lot of them to be good at maths but struggling with mental arithmetic because they're out of practice. I don't think the tests give a fair view."

David got a job offer on his second interview, from Coombeshead college, a 1,500-pupil 11-18 comprehensive in Newton Abbot, Devon, where he joins the maths department this week. But some of his fellow students have had several interviews without success. "They're still quite picky down here in the south-west," he says. "It's not like in the south-east. But it was quite easy for me because I've been for so many interviews before. I did 40 for my work placement for my first degree."

David starts his teaching life on point 2, earning around pound;17,000 a year. "I would really like to buy a house and start my life," he says, "but I can only borrow up to pound;68,000, which is a very small house. It's a struggle to get by on that salary, which I think is unfair when we're doing a very professional job." He hopes to spend two or three years teaching in the Gulf - to save money for a deposit - once he has some UK experience.

LEE-ANNE McCLURE

Twenty-three-year-old Lee-Anne McClure comes from Northern Ireland but did her PGCE in secondary education, specialising in religious education, at Canterbury Christchurch University College in Kent. Her first degree, in theology, is from Queen's University, Belfast. England, she says, is a "whole different world, and one I much prefer. I can be who I want to be without watching my words in case I'm offending someone."

Teaching, for her, is an obvious career choice. "I've always loved kids and wanted to do teaching. It's the challenge, and wanting to give something back, and impart my knowledge. Religion is underestimated as a subject. People say 'oh, I don't believe in God'. But RE can help them find out who they are."

Education is viewed rather differently in Northern Ireland, says Lee-Anne, with teachers likely to be more concerned about job security than burn-out. "My friends were very pleased and admired me for going into teaching. My father is a joiner and my mother works in a residential home, so for them to have a daughter who went to university and became a teacher made them extremely proud."

Lee-Anne embarks on her career this term at Mascalls school, an 1,100-pupil 11-18 comprehensive in Paddock Wood, Kent, where she has already done a teaching placement. Her starting salary is pound;17,000. "I thought I'd be going home but I realised I prefer to work here because RE is more accepted and a lot broader. And colleagues at the school have welcomed me with open arms from the beginning. I've been able to share the ups and downs quite openly with different people. They've taught me how to relax and enjoy myself and not take things too personally if a lesson doesn't go well."

Her main fear as she starts teaching is how parents will respond to her. "I'm 23 but some people say I only look 17 or 18. Hopefully my professionalism will carry me through, but I won't be surprised if there's a slight look of shock on some parents' faces when they meet me for the first time."

LYDIA TOUMAZOU

Lydia Toumazou, 24, graduated last summer from Homerton College, Cambridge, with a PGCE - and as holder of the university's Charles Fox prize of excellence for all-round achievement. Lydia has a first-class degree in drama and education from Central School of Speech and Drama, and had spent two years working, including teaching dance in the United States and a spell in the learning zone of the Dome.

Unlike most trainee teachers, Lydia began the one-year PGCE course - specialising in lower primary - with a job already secured as education liaison officer for the Big Fish Theatre Company, based in Greenwich. The Government's pound;6,000 training salary was key to her decision to train as a teacher, she says. "It was the perfect time and opportunity to secure my post through the training and, with the salary the Government offered, it was feasible to do it. I wouldn't have done it otherwise. I couldn't have afforded to put myself in debt like that, and it took the stress out of studying. I was able to focus completely on becoming a good teacher rather than thinking 'oh my God, how am I going to pay the rent?'" One of five children, Lydia's interest in performing goes back "as long as I can remember"; her mother took her to dance classes from the age of six. Studying GCSE drama at the "very tough" Preston Manor high school in the London borough of Brent sparked the passion she now exhibits for her subject. "I'm interested in taking the artistic approach, channelling PSHE issues for children using music, dance and theatre. We're looking at things that mainstream teachers find it hard to find time to deal with, and the issues go down a storm with children."

The training at Homerton was a positive experience, she says. "They are very pro-active in terms of imagination, creativity and positive reinforcement. I've definitely been trained and steered in the direction of hope, and what it really means to influence a child's learning."

At approximately pound;17,000, Lydia's salary with the theatre in education company is in line with what she could have expected in school, although grant funding may lead to a pay rise more quickly. She is not motivated by money, however. "The gratification doesn't come in a financial form, and probably never will," she says. "I think it's done for the love of children."

She is hopeful that, despite the battened-down educational climate, she will be able to use the arts with children usefully. "I've got lots of dreams. My first is to throw myself heart and soul into the education post, and use the power of the arts in bridging social barriers. I don't like injustice, and if you're going to eradicate injustice the best place to start is in the education system." She hopes one day to start her own theatre in education company.

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