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27th October 2000 at 01:00
Teachers are a race apart, says Gemma Warren - they have much bigger bags under their eyes

When you start teaching, you'll quickly begin to realise that you have two different types of friends: the ones who are teachers, and the ones who aren't.

The ones who are will pat you on the head sympathetically as you fall asleep into your pint at the staff social. They will view the bags underneath your eyes as the fashion accessory of the moment, rather than point at them, shrieking in horror, and insisting that you take a week off work immediately. Yeah right.

They know that holidays aren't always holidays and that children are not always adorable. Spending time with your teaching friends is, let's be honest, a blessed relief.

Your non-teaching friends have a problem. However many happy years you have spent with them, however many experiences and memories you share, they cannot grasp one single, vital concept about your new career. Teaching is unlike any other job.

Now, I've had arguments about this. I've had major rows and falling outs. In one case, a friendship has even been unceremoniously severed. But I'm determined to stick to my guns on this one. If you're a teacher, you're different, and that's all there is to it.

If you were sitting in the pub now, trying feebly to advance your argument, you'd have been shouted down and told to take a reality check. Of course you're tired. Of course you're stressed. Of course you're hard pressed to find the money for rent. But all that, you'll be told by your outraged non-teaching friends, is a necessary fact of working life.

It's the 21st century. We're working harder than ever, we're bombarded on all sides by technology and innovation, and the fundamental structure of our working lives is changing. Our biological clocks have been suspended. That's nothing to do with teaching. It's common to all jobs, and teachers had better wise up and stop whingeing.

At this point, I generally give up, partly because I don't want to lose any more friends and partly because I'm too tired to try to describe my working life to a group of people who still think I'm on some idealistic fantasy trip and that, sooner or later, I'm going to wise up and go into banking. In private, I'm still rebelling. Your job is different. And it's not just a matter of the pay you receive at the end of the month, or the amount of sleep you need at the end of the day.

The choics you made opting to become a teacher have put you on a different path from the rest. From now on, you'll go through life seeing a teaching opportunity in everything. You're no longer frightened when you pass a bus stop full of loads of jeering kids because you know that's only Darren who you're helping with spelling every break, and who desperately wants to be like his older brother and make it on to the football team.

You innately acquire the capacity to take on 50 different roles in as many different seconds and, while your friends might talk about multi-tasking and cascading, you put it into practice every single day of your working life, without having to go on a week-long staff bonding course before you understand it.

It's a different world. Unlike computers, you can't turn your kids off at the end of the day, and even when they've all gone home at night, they have this uncanny ability to follow you in your head, and pop up in the most inconvenient places.

It took me a while to get used to the way my life was going. At times, I longed for an office environment where I could spend my time sending emails and going shopping in my lunch hour. At times, I'd go out with my friends and feel I had nothing worth contributing to the conversation. Sometimes I'd envy them, sometimes I'd be high on smug superiority. Sometimes I'd find it a relief not be talking about school.

I still maintain that when you enter teaching, you have an expectation that your life will be different. Be clear in your mind that you're happy with that or I think you'll struggle to be a happy teacher. I spent far too long trying to make my career something it wasn't before I realised that teaching is different.

It can be a balancing act, with your teaching and non-teaching friends pulling you in opposite directions. As in school, you make the best of what you've got. Remember, you're an expert in compromise and negotiation.

I always find it strange that we're never sure what's normal, but somehow we're always sure what's different. If you entered teaching because you wanted to be challenged, upset, fascinated and confused, then you've come to right place. And I still don't think that you'd get that anywhere else.

Gemma Warren teaches at the Latymer School, north London. She is also a columnist in Friday magazine and has written a "survival guide" for new teachers which The TES will publish later this year


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