We are sane. Really we are

29th October 1999 at 01:00
Feeling undervalued? Never mind, says Gemma Warren, because you're about to land on Planet Pedagogue

Since I've become a teacher, I've developed this rather worrying obsession with horoscopes. I'm taking classes in tarot and my form room is feng shui designed.

Alongside the pupils names in my register, I have their summer exam results, their national asessment scores and their star signs. Granted, it's not the most conventional form of assessment but, recently, I've been attracted by anything alternative. It's easy to see the reason: quite simply, once you become a teacher, everyone thinks you're mad. Pretty soon you begin to believe them.

I never used to be like this. I'd never even had a casual flirtation with the "far side". When I decided to become a teacher, all of a sudden I became Ms Unconventional.

"You'll be having your eyebrow pierced, next," sniffed my mum. Teaching was just another adolescent whim. "You were a Vegan for three weeks when you were 16," my dad pointed out, "and now look what happens." The support was overwhelming.

"Who's going to pay your bills?" pointed out my brother. "My local education authority?" I ventured. "Typical," he said. "She always has to have the last word. She's talking like a teacher already."

The crisis deepened when I visited my university's careers office and asked for information about teaching. The advisor looked confused. "But you're on for a really good degree." She shuffled some papers nervously. "You say you're an English student? Did you get turned down by the BBC?" "No." "A journalism course?" "No." "The civil service? The prison service? The armed services?" By the time they finally fished the PGCE information out of the "rarely used" section (underneath Pest Control) - I felt like I was trying to get access to state secrets. And it is a secret, really, to anyone not involved in education. So why do we do it? There's only one obvious answer: we must be mad.

I think it's only fair to warn you about this now, because if you've just started your PGCE, it's going to be a difficult year. Many times, you will question your own sanity, and it doesn't help if everyone around you is questioning it as well. Just think about teaching from the outside, and you begin to get an idea of how it must look. Even undertakers get to deal with people who don't answer back. Think back to your school career nights. I bet you don't remember ever seeing one brave person from the Teacher Training Agency. They were too busy having their palms read.

To be honest, this year you'll have to develop some pretty weird habits. A love of food that takes less than 15 seconds to prepare. An attachment to TV programmes that allow you to go to bed before 9.30pm. The next time you see a condom will be in a personal and social education lesson.

Dust down your sense of humour. Develop a thick skin, because you're about to travel to Planet Pedagogue, a lonely place inhabited only by people who share your beliefs.

Which brings me back to my horoscopes. Sometimes you feel as if you need a bit of outside help. "Where are all the teachers?" screamed one headline when I was training. I looked around my brilliant tutor group of 25. Here, I thought. "Quality of teaching is falling," one paper told me recently. Look around your colleagues and think about that. "Pathological teachers harm their pupils," wrote one highly-respected columnist. "Do I harm you?" I asked my form. "No, you make us laugh, Miss," they assured me. You can understand why I'd rather take advice from Russell Grant.

I was discussing this with my friends the other day. "I mean, who knows what normal is anyway? Maybe I'm normal and everyone else is mad." They shrieked with victory: "Only crazy people ever say things like that." You can see how tarot comes in handy.

So don't lose heart when all your friends are earning shedloads more than you and you're splashing out on a range of red pens. Don't feel inadequate when they jet off to executive training courses around the world and you're shivering with 40 kids in Skegness. Remember: they can keep their crevices - you've found your niche. Take a tip from the astrologers and surround yourself with hundreds of little stars.

Maybe you do go a little mad sometimes. When you're teaching, you have to join people who have faith in the things you can't necessarily see. Agree when you're told you're only a teacher because you failed in something else. You have failed. You've failed to conform.

If someone tries to tell you that you've only chosen teaching for a safer option, point them in the direction of your Year 11s first thing on a Monday. "Those who can, do," said a friend triumphantly when I signed up for my PGCE. "And those who can't, teach."

Turn away and open your paper on the horoscope page. If you're still reading a paper after school that's too intellectual for horoscopes, then I don't think you're working hard enough. Then take it from someone who knows. Those who can teach as well.

Gemma Warren trained at the London University Institute of Education and teaches at Latymer School, Edmonton, north London. She is a regular contributor to the TES First Encounters column

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