The toughest audience in the world

27th July 2012 at 01:00
Comedian Carrie Quinlan found plenty of food for thought when she turned to teaching

It's a tricky skill, dealing with individuals who don't yet truly know who they are, who are trying out personas on a world they don't always understand, who are learning that they aren't the centre of the universe and that other people have feelings and needs too. A devilishly tricky skill.

Which is why I'm leaving the entertainment industry. Turning my back on the business we call show, and embracing the business we call early years education foundationkey stage 1. It's less catchy and harder to rhyme in a song, but in numerous ways more important, more rewarding, harder work and, dare I whisper it, more fun.

The first major issue was getting experience observing and helping in a school for two or three weeks. A delicate business, as it happens, when one realises that what one is doing, essentially, is presenting oneself to schools as a total stranger without a Criminal Records Bureau check who'd like to watch some small children for a few weeks, please. There is no way of doing this without appearing creepy, I have found.

I have also found that when you do get work experience, making a joke about the fact that you don't have a CRB check does not go down well in the staffroom. Know your audience, as a wise comic once said.

Thankfully, my search for work experience was aided by the fact that over the past couple of years my writing has become less jovial and more furious. As good luck would have it, that nice Mr Gove decided a couple of years ago to overturn the previous government's plan to extend free school meals to all primary school pupils living below the poverty line. Cue angry Guardian column from me, followed by burgeoning friendships with other dangerous Communists who believe that feeding poor children is A Good Thing. And so, thanks to the good offices of one of the mightiest school dinner champions in all the land, I secured several weeks' work experience in a rather super London primary.

I suspect that my final interview for a PGCE place next week will be a breeze compared with the grilling I received on my first day of observation from the young spokesman for Reception. It's certainly not going to finish with the words, "because you look like a teenager ... but you sound like a boy". Turns out there's no answer to that. I think I managed, "Right".

I had three-and-a-bit extraordinary weeks. There were some surprises. It's very easy to overlook the fact that in most jobs there's a good deal of what can best be described as scratching-your-arse time. Time spent at a computer screen farting about on Facebook, Twitter and World of Warcraft. The monotony broken up by tea-making, biscuit-choosing and staring out of the window.

Clearly there's a place for the latter three in teaching, but the timing of such things is very clearly prescribed. There is no place for the first lot, it turns out. No sneaky following of celebrities, crushing of orcs or liking of things when your boss is 30 eagle-eyed five-year-olds who will definitely ask you awkward questions about what you're doing in that photograph someone's just tagged you in.

My experience of school and the people in it are so far overwhelmingly positive, which is both pleasing and a relief, given that I'm changing my life entirely. My experience of policy and government expectations is less so. I have met brilliant teachers with ridiculous things being asked of them, and fantastic children with ridiculous things being asked of them.

I was observing around the time that literacy and numeracy assessments were being done for Year 1. The teachers made it as painless and unnoticeable as possible, but two things struck me. First, the time involved in individually assessing 30 small people means that teachers aren't actually teaching for significant chunks of time. Second, and rather more importantly, THEY'RE 5! They should be running around until they're sick and eating Play-Doh until they're likewise. They shouldn't be doing bloody vivas.

One of my more vague and idealistic motives for first thinking about going into teaching was the opportunity to protect small folk from the worst excesses of stupid government policy. It is now no longer vague. Michael Gove can have the fun bit of being 6 when he prizes it out of my cold, dead hand.

This is going to be awesome.

Carrie Quinlan was an award-winning writer, comedian and actor before turning her hand to teaching.

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