Why teaching is worth the hard work and criticism

If you're thinking about becoming a teacher, you need to recognise that the job won't be easy, writes Yvonne Williams

Yvonne Williams

Teacher training: Becoming a teacher? Be prepared for hard work and criticism, says Yvonne Williams

Dear aspiring teacher,

It’s been a tough few months under lockdown, completing your degree and facing challenges the like of which no generation has experienced before.

When you started university, it seemed the world was full of career possibilities. Perhaps you’ve always wanted to be a teacher. If teaching is in the family genes then you know what you’re letting yourself in for. 

Or perhaps, like me, you have happy memories of sixth-form lessons – the days of debating the causes of the English Civil War and the many interpretations of Hamlet still stay with me. More than anything else, I wanted to teach lessons like that.

Or perhaps you’re inspired by films like To Sir With Love, in which Sidney Poitier plays a teacher fighting against racism and teenage disengagement. Perhaps you dream of teaching poetry, striding confidently over desks, in the manner of Dead Poets’ Society. Or, more realistically, perhaps you’d love to have been English teacher Mr Burton, from Educating Yorkshire, whose lightbulb moment helped Year 11 pupil Musharaf to overcome his stammer.

A good time to become a teacher

Those publicity people working for the Department for Education really knew what made teachers tick when they put together the last series of recruitment adverts. Showing the education journey of a child, succeeding with her teachers’ support – and a few ups and downs along the way – was perfect.

There are other things that make teaching more attractive now than in the past decade. The security of a stable, predictable salary is a definite draw, as we approach a recession that has already taken away jobs and will swallow up more. There’s a lot to be said for stability after the uncertainties of student days.

And, with the government promising a 5.5 per cent salary increase for new teachers, to put teaching in line with other graduate openings, this could be a good time to enter the classroom. Moreover, there is career progression – not every job can offer clear paths to more responsibility and a more attractive salary.

There are so many reasons to consider teaching. One or all of these motivators may have informed your thinking so far.

Paying the rent

But, before you leap into it, there are a number of questions to ask yourself about the qualities you will need to make your career a joy rather than a burden.

A glut of applications to teacher-training programmes is a well-known phenomenon in difficult economic times. That’s understandable. You’re not mercenary if you’re attracted to the salary and career prospects – we all have to live, after all. But you need to bear in mind that teachers’ salaries are not always sufficient to pay the rent and living expenses in some affluent areas, and there are teachers who have had to take on additional work to support their families and themselves.

More importantly, there is the advice that I hear every year at a national public speaking competition: “Nobody pays you enough to be unhappy.” There is a large pool of inactive teachers in this country, and the going is tough, in the first five years particularly

This doesn’t mean that you won’t succeed, and it doesn’t mean that you won’t be happy in teaching. But you need to go into the job with your eyes open. After all, you will probably be funding a large part of your training yourself.

Extraordinarily intense

Your first experience in the classroom as a trainee will be demanding, to say the least. Just teaching a lesson is extraordinarily intense. There’s nothing like it – not even for live TV presenters. They can read their script; you have to improvise at times, and you have 30 pupils to deal with.

The preparation can take hours initially, even with the support of your mentor. Marking is equally demanding. Then there are a number of bureaucratic tasks that consume so much of your time.

As you go on, you will learn more about the workload. But, even well into your career, you should be prepared to balance as much as 50 hours a week with your personal life. It shouldn’t be this way, and there have been many attempts to rein in the excesses that exist in some establishments. 

Hopefully, the teacher shortages of recent decades will have taught us something about the need to manage workload rather better than we do at present – certainly the DfE has invested a lot of time and money in supporting reports into defining the problem and suggesting ways of minimising it.

Grow a thick skin

Putting up with criticism from all quarters is part of the territory. If you can grow a thick skin without losing your humanity, then you will be fine.

But, at the end of a hard day, there is nothing worse than coming home to a critical email or reading yet more criticism of teachers in the press or on Twitter. A recent University of York study shows the power that outsiders have to demotivate those in the classroom.

The hardest criticism to bear, however, is the voice in your head. It’s never going to be completely congratulatory or even silent, so you have to make sure you find ways of being kind to yourself.

Nonetheless, there are many compensations in teaching that come together over the years. Of course, I can’t make any promises about future finances: I’m still dependent on winning the lottery to make my fortune. But you will have great colleagues (I always chose my schools on the strength of the atmosphere in the staffroom at break). 

Even after more than 30 years in the classroom, I still get a buzz from reading new books and different materials, teaching classes and fighting the next crusade. 

Just one word of warning: don’t try the Dead Poets’ Society desk-walk teaching strategy, however much you might want to – it’s a health and safety transgression that could cost your school its inspection grade.

I wish you the very best of luck for your future.

Yvonne Williams is head of English and drama in a secondary school in the South of England. She has contributed chapters on workload and wellbeing to Mentoring English Teachers in the Secondary School, edited by Debbie Hickman (Routledge)

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