Talkback

12th January 2001 at 00:00
In June, when I put in my application to cross the pay threshold, I was a reasonably hard-working, reasonably stressed, middle-aged English teacher who regarded teaching as a career. I planned to continue until retirement. I enjoyed working with colleagues and most of my students. I felt I was doing a valuable job.

In common with all teachers I have spoken to, I was opposed to performance-related pay, but the thought of a pound;2,000 rise was impossible to resist. I swallowed my principles, played the game and filled in the form as best I could. Senior staff helped me and I took a melancholy pride in the finished article.

I knew the threshold system would be divisive and cause hurt to those who would necessarily fail, but I also knew that the vast majority would get through. I smugly planned ways of spending the windfall that was going to come my way.

The months passed. Then, just before Christmas, my world was changed. I was told in the kindest way by the headteacher that I had failed to cross the threshold. The reason? The head felt that I met the criteria, but the assessor, after his lightning visit, had failed me.

I suddenly realised I had been one of a sample of applicants, eight out of 25, who had been asked at short notice to provide evidence to back specified sections of the applications. Mine were to do with classroom management and the improvement of teaching and learning. I had thought little of this at the time, assuming it was just a formality, and had scrabbled around and rapidly filled a plastic bag with labelled bits and pieces which I left ready for the assessor. I thought the sample was just to check the accuracy of the head's judgment, in the same way that exam coursework is sampled to verify the accuracy of a centre's marking.

The thrown-together items in that plastic carrier bag were used to fail me. The head, who had known me for 12 years, felt I met the standards. The assessor condemned me because of what I had blithely stuffed together in 10 minutes.

All 18 applications where evidence had not been called for passed automatically. ad I not been part of the sample, I would have gone through on the nod. It had been a lottery and I had drawn a losing ticket.

Nearly everyone else in my school crossed. I know, and colleagues assure me, that I am no better or worse than any other teacher.

Everything in my professional life has changed. Colleagues are supportive, as if I have had a bereavement. But they cannot know how I feel. Teaching has become a job I do for the money. I am angry and I know I will have to use this anger in my appeal against the decision.

I always knew performance-related pay was wrong, that it was no way of fairly judging a teacher's performance. Now I am experiencing this knowledge, and it is bitter.

How I would love to be on solid ground, across the threshold, to complain about the silliness of the system but carrying on with my career. I cannot. I find myself combing through Department for Education and Employment rules and regulations, consulting union reps, talking ad nauseam about my case. I have to use my anger to fight off the label of failure, of being the one who is not good enough.

I like a quiet life. But it is no longer an option. It was difficult to teach on the afternoon I was told I had failed. It has been a torment going to work each day feeling angry and hurt. I have started to write a stream of letters that I guess I shall be sending off for the time being, to protest, to vindicate myself, to save my self-respect. These letters are the first shots in a war I have to fight. I am now utterly demotivated as a teacher. The system that few of us respect has told me I am no good. I feel I have to prove it wrong. That is my motivation now.

And after my fight is ended, whether or not it succeeds, the damage has been done. I see no long-term future for me in the profession. If my appeal fails, I shall never apply again. One rejection is enough. If I succeed, I will merely have struggled to stand still, to stand on the ground over the threshold where my colleagues stand, sympathetic but distant.

The writer teaches English in north London


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