Forgive us our absences

30th October 2015 at 00:00

Has there ever been a profession more steeped in martyred self-loathing than the exercise in herding bees along a tightrope that is teaching? When I worked in bars and restaurants, you had to leash employees to their lockers to make sure they turned up. Calling home to get them in for extra shifts was like negotiating peace in Crimea.

With many other waiters to pick up the slack, the temptation to bunk off at the first sign of inclement weather/good afternoon telly proved irresistible to many. I once had to discipline a bartender who rang in sick but later turned up live on television in the audience of Kilroy.

Turn to teaching and this paradigm is shaken like a snow globe. I’ve never known professionals more beggared by duty than the army of mavens who turn up to school and pull at the oars come what may. Some might think teachers are as partial to the odd snow day as anyone else, but I assure you it isn’t so. One pilgrim I worked with left home two hours early on train-strike days, and even earlier during big freezes, just to make it in on time.

And we’re the absolute worst when it comes to walking wounded, ferrying our bugs across town despite all sense telling us to park ourselves on the nearest sofa and pull the sympathy chain.

I’ve recently been the privileged concierge to a new baby in Bennett Mansions (and if I thought before that mothers deserved a medal for their biological gymnastics, now I’d recommend nothing less than the Victoria Cross). So I had the unusually good reason of paternity to beg off for a couple of weeks. And yet, even then, amid the joy and the gory glory of fatherhood, I’m racked and prodded by the ghosts of guilt about missing classes. It’s almost as if I feel like a father to my students. Thank God I don’t have to burp them all.

It’s partly down to the type of people drawn to education. Teaching attracts altruism, generosity and kindness more than, say, investment banking. We care disproportionately about our subjects, the children and the odd overlap between the two. It’s hard to just punch your ticket, work a shift and collect a wage packet.

This is why I can reasonably claim that teaching is more a vocation than a job. When I wiped tables for a living, I fretted not one jot for their vinyl wellbeing on my days off, but miss a minute of lessons and I feel like drowning in Hail Marys and Our Fathers.

Part of it is the acute awareness of how much it messes up your pupils’ education when you let them down. Supply teachers of the world, I salute you and the tricks you have to play to combat the shockingly poor lessons some of us leave you.

The rest of the guilt lies in what absence means for our colleagues, who have to labour twice. You feel like saying “Sorry for having a kid”. But you’re both sorry and not sorry. You feel guilty whatever you do, and that, I suspect, might be the end of it.

Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa…and please get them to finish off the work they started last lesson.

Tom Bennett is a secondary teacher in East London, director of the ResearchED conference and the government’s school behaviour expert

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