The unmistakable smell of teach spirit

4th December 2015 at 00:00

The day they fish me out of the Thames, my pockets heavy with hole-punches, they’ll know I’m a teacher. One look at the knuckles on the last three fingers of my right hand and the game will be up. “Dry-wipe marker pen,” they’ll say. “Time of death: approximately period 4.”

There are many ways to spot a teacher, not just post-mortem (although another would be to scan the brain and map the shrinkage in all areas connected to “having an outside life”). Being a teacher changes you. When you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes back; lie with dragons, and become one; spend time in a cardigan, get used to corduroy burn.

The first time I noticed something was different was a few months into my training tour of duty. On the London Underground one day, I was body-slammed by a man with a grudge against courtesy. Years of not making eye contact were cast to the ether as I burst into a string of expletives so ferocious that I surprised myself.

This was change, but not the good sort. My first few months (OK, years) of teaching were not good ones, and I became more anxious and unpredictable before I got better. You see this in a lot of teachers. I was lucky: I worked through it until the classroom went from my panic room to my safe space. Others aren’t so lucky: you can see the years of stress taking their toll month by month, turning them to stone with every insult and humiliation. I hear that the life expectancy for a retired teacher is about five years. Sometimes it’s easy to see why.

Another way to identify teachers: they’re bloody everywhere. There are roughly 500,000 in the UK today, which means you can’t escape them.

You see them at parties, avoiding each other, because who wants to talk about teaching all evening apart from the bloggers and tweeters? You see them at weddings, where non-teachers steer them together. “Oh, you’ll love Ephraim,” they say. “He’s a teacher too!” As if this is something that might get you excited, instead of the matchmaking equivalent of offering a pot of honey to a beekeeper.

Still, we have nowhere else to go, so we marry in-caste frequently. And our children learn the craft of their parents at the anvil of our marking piles. “One day,” we say to our young apprentices, “all this will be yours.”

Other telltale signs: a tendency to interrupt and correct. We’re so used to being listened to – at least in theory – that, for many of us, parading to an audience is the factory default. We rarely shy from public speaking and we always, always have a pen.

They say you can always tell a cop; I say you can always tell a teacher. Primary teachers are almost without exception kind and tolerant. Come the Rapture, they and only they will be taken up. Secondary teachers are more cynical souls. We don’t use smiley emoticons so much; we unwind with manhattans and tequila more than spritzers and screwdrivers. Like breeds of dog, we can all mate with each other, but it’s rare to see a dachshund and a Dobermann make much of a fist of it. Still, we all bark the same way.

The easiest way to tell if someone is a teacher is, of course, to confuse “their” with “there” in an email. That or set a bell off near them and watch them jump.

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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