When I was young I wanted to be a solicitor, arguing some crucially important human rights case. I wanted to be an MP, working tirelessly on behalf of my constituents, or a firefighter rescuing babies from burning buildings, or a ballerina pirouetting seamlessly across a stage. The idea that I might instead have the chance to shape young minds, to inspire and motivate, and at the very least to teach 11-year-olds that “because” is not spelt with a “Z”, had not yet crossed my mind.
It was my friend who wanted to be a teacher, adopting stern pretend spectacles and a no-nonsense attitude to instruct us in an alphabet she had only tenuously grasped herself (apparently, there are letters between G and M – who knew?). As it turned out, life had other plans in store for us both. I’m the one who teaches whereas she manages a small team in a bank. And we’re both pretty happy with the way things have ended up.
But there is a sense in which we still expect early passion like hers to be a good predictor for a teaching career. The idea persists that the best teachers eat, sleep and breathe the profession, working 10-hour days for the sheer love of it and cheerfully giving up evenings and weekends because teaching is their life.
Of course, teaching is a worthwhile thing to dedicate a life to. But – given that I fell into teaching rather than relentlessly pursued it, and given that even now I spend only half my week in the classroom – I’d like to make the argument that you can be a good teacher even if school is only part of your life, rather than its all-consuming beating heart.
Bringing your best self
For starters, teaching is a job that requires you to give of yourself no matter how many hours you do it for. You can’t simultaneously talk Sasha down from her spelling-related meltdown, fix Liam’s broken glasses and lead your class in a rousing version of Un kilomètre à pied without it taking its toll.
And although plenty of teachers have greater patience and resilience than I do, I have found that I can give the best parts of myself to teaching only if I’m not doing it all the time. For me, spending a couple of days a week in quieter, calmer pursuits means the children I teach deal with kind, in-possession-of-a-sense-of-humour, creative Mrs Bradford rather than the snappy, robotic version (at least except for the last week before the Christmas holidays when all bets are off).
I loathe the oft-misquoted “If you can’t do, teach”. You have to be able to “do” all sorts of things to teach. But there are benefits to having some staff who spend part of their week honing other skills. For me, freelance writing has been a fantastic tool to motivate some of my English group as I can prove that not only do the texts they are reading and writing have real-life significance, but my passion for the subject does, too.
Then there’s the fact that children need role models. Teachers can be fantastic ones, but it’s not actually that helpful for them to believe we sleep in our stock cupboards. The children I teach know I pursue different goals on the days I’m not in the classroom and I think it’s a good thing in helping them to see that the world is interlinked, not split into discrete little boxes.
Throughout my career, I’ve known part-timers who spent their non-school time in occupations as diverse as cake-baking, charity work and house renovation. In no way did this detract from their ability to be caring and devoted teachers.
Of course, it’s clearly not the case that being a part-timer is worthwhile only if you’re off trekking the Himalayas or finding a cure for cancer on your non-school-related days. The most common reason for teachers to seek out part-time posts is that they have tiny people of their own to care for. And aside from the benefit to society of teacher-reared offspring (you know they’ll do their homework on time and be able to tell you what democracy means), I suspect, from speaking to friends and colleagues, that caring for your own progeny gives you a unique perspective on your pupils.
It’s easy, especially with a difficult class, for children to merge into a 30-headed beast of recalcitrance. But when you have your own unique and vulnerable little ones at home, it is perhaps easier to remember that every member of your class is equally individual, equally vulnerable and equally struggling to make their own way.
There is the added bonus that teachers who are also stay-at-home parents rarely balk at bodily fluids, meaning there’s always someone resigned to, if not exactly happy about, clearing up the vomit on school trips.
Finally, particularly at primary school, one part-time teacher almost always means two part-time teachers. Currently my job-share partner and I bring very different things to the table. She’s a rugby player with a passion for PE, whereas I’m English-obsessed and can hardly catch a ball. She’s organised and a list-maker, whereas I’m spontaneous and fond of lastminute changes of direction. Our new class have found themselves with two perspectives and personalities this autumn, and I hope this will be a good thing for the vast majority of them (not to mention good preparation for the variety of secondary school).
It would be silly to deny that full-time teachers can offer a consistency, an ability to see the bigger school picture and a continuity that part-time staff cannot. There’s a lot to be said for a situation where children know that if they’re at school, you are too. And because schools are communities, it is important to have teachers who can throw themselves wholeheartedly into ensuring their communities are good places to be.
But there’s room for part-timers in every school. After all, ultimately it’s about the focus and passion you show when you’re there, not how many hours you work. Just as I love my husband, even when he’s not at my side, the truth is that I love my teaching job, even when I’m not doing it.
Kate Townshend is a part-time primary teacher from Cheltenham