Monday, 9 December 2019

Why Me and Teaching Need a Bit of Distance.


When I finished my degree in 2014, I had wholeheartedly enjoyed my university experience and had worked hard throughout but I still had no idea what career I wanted to pursue. I had some insecurities about my university experience, in that I often felt I took the easy option and just did what came naturally to me but it became apparent quite quickly that those who were to succeed in the media industry and get the job of their dreams were those who already knew what to pursue, had that focus and would stop at nothing to get there.

For a long time, I thought it was journalism that I wished to pursue and I'd taken mostly the right steps to make that happen but I soon realised that my own values and morals would possibly jar with what was needed to make it in that industry. I loved writing and I loved expressing creativity and passion through writing but had no intent to pry or probe and found interview situations awkward and un-natural. I saw those around me experimenting with the world of broadcast, be it TV or radio and it interested me but again, insecurities and jars with my own values and morals stopped me from pursuing anything in that field. I was nervous, I was introverted and whilst I was sure of myself in many realms, in others, I had very little confidence and a fear of failing or being judged. And so, I plodded along with the journalistic side of things and was somewhat happy, doing all the right things, getting work experience and having work published in local news outlets, starting a blog but ultimately never really pushed myself aside from that, and wasn't 100% sure if this was what I actually wanted to do. When my degree ended, I still had that passion and love of writing but as I'd not stepped out of my comfort zone enough, I didn't quite have the experience, contacts or confidence I probably should have had in order to get into that profession. And so, I found myself at a bit of a loss and having a complete re-evaluation of my skills, my desires and the things I'd learned and developed over the last few years.

One thing that had always fleetingly crossed my mind was the prospect of teaching. I loved writing and creating, I loved my chosen subject and a bunch of others alongside and I loved the whole concept of learning and had always been able to help people academically. I'd always played teachers as a kid, constantly taking registers with my family and asking them to declare if they'd require packed lunches or school dinners and relishing the opportunity to get out the whiteboard at gran's and force everyone to play along. And I was, even though I'd never admit it, labelled the bossy one in the family, despite my deeper introversion. This continued through my childhood and once computers entered our homes, it only developed as hand-written registers were a thing of the past and now I could make PowerPoints and handouts for everyone to reluctantly complete, just for fun... mine, not anyone else's! As I got older, these things naturally stopped and the prospect of teaching only crossed my mind again whilst in sixth form college. I'd evaluated the experiences I'd had with different teachers and reckoned that some of my teachers had been the second biggest influence and driving force in my life, aside from family and some had been frankly, not great. Although the former were the ones I held in such high regard and always remembered, the latter were the ones who actually made teaching a prospect for me. When inadequate experiences with teachers occurred, it led me to think, "I could do that" or "if I was teaching this, how would I do it?" I then also took part in being a sample class for prospective new teachers and loved that, loved seeing all the different personalities and techniques demonstrated by all of them and suddenly, the seed was subconsciously planted. It was buried until I'd finished my degree and had the realisation that I had no path of progression and whilst evaluating my life and abilities and thinking deeply about what I could do, the seed began to sprout again.

I looked into the possibility of teaching and it seemed more straightforward to pursue than I expected, particularly as I'd already decided that I wanted to teach in further education environments and it was simply a year's add-on to my degree in the form of a PGCE. I took this path and really enjoyed my PGCE experience and felt at this point that I had matured and realised that this was the purpose I'd been looking for and really took everything on board and relished this new, different, mature learning environment. I met great friends from all different paths, fields and generations and learnt a lot from all of them. This was now something I definitely wanted to do and I would do it. It was difficult and it was testing but alas, that was teaching and everyone who gets into this profession knows that. The reward outweighed the challenges and the job satisfaction was above anything I'd ever experienced.
For the first year or two of my teaching career I was on cloud nine. Don't get me wrong, there were still tough, stressful days but I always felt so lucky and proud to be able to call myself a teacher at the age of 23/24 because it always felt like it'd be something it would take years to get into and it was of course, an esteemed profession, held in high regard. I considered myself to have the best job in the world and felt certain that this was my forever job and I had life nailed, in the career stakes anyway.

But four years later and a very different picture has been painted. For the first few years, I was somewhat oblivious to the funding, business and financial nature of education. Obviously I knew how things worked and how the system played out but it wasn't my job to fully understand it or play a part in it and I still don't really think teachers should. However as funding has become more prominently discussed in the profession both on a micro and macro scale, it became clear that it actually was factoring into my job and that things like recruitment, retention and achievement all played a part in this and those things were actually within my remit as a teacher.
This, like many other things I'd encountered in life, began to jar with my own motives, values, morals and incentives and I started to resent this culture of business, restriction and accountability that was inherently built into the sector. As more responsibility came my way, it became harder to avoid this and found it being echoed on the news, with other teachers from other institutions and sectors and even in other industries. Funding, time and resources were at the heart of everything and these were the things that made the career so difficult and challenging, but were also quite often things that were completely out of the control of the teacher. And having experienced so many different strands of the NHS this year, I would argue that the same issues are arising there, with the lack of funding, time and resources and a culture of business, accountability and restriction taking over a sector that should be driven by care, integrity and trust and at grassroots level, it definitely is, but unfortunately, those things seem to be over-ridden by the former, from those above making all the decisions.

This year for me, has been a whirlwind of traumatic and upsetting instances, all of which have only helped alter my perspective on life and this profession and my future on the whole. This very week last year, I received a call to say that my grandfather, who I lived with had been given a diagnosis of terminal cancer. On the very same day, an Ofsted call also came. That week alone was one of the hardest weeks of my life, I don't think a single day occurred where I didn't cry my eyes out at one thing or the other, or indeed both. Unfortunately, for me, those two things seemed to set the tone for the entire next 12 months in terms of the resilience, empathy and emotional integrity required.

Teaching is not just a profession, in order to do it well and do it right, in the current climate of education, it's a lifestyle. The confidence and enthusiasm required to teach a class of students everyday is gargantuan and whilst it comes naturally for some, others, like myself, often need to dig deep to find it. And when you have your own personal struggles and commitments, that is especially hard to do. If you said to any person outside the profession, "here's a bunch of resources, just bob in there and teach those students for an hour and a half or two hours", it would fill a lot of people with absolute dread. It is, inherently a performance, day in, day out and often requires a damn good poker face and a lot of tongue biting as well as what I was once told is sacred to a good teacher, the classroom presence. That alone is difficult to deliver but it is part and parcel of the job and so, you crack on. What really drives that out of you though, is when the energy and effort you need for that part of the job is slowly eaten up by administrative tasks, the financial burdens of the sector, the meetings, emails, phone-calls. And each of these then unearthing further tasks within tasks. And of course, ultimately the resilience and thick skin required to do a job where you are a source of support for so many people. Those things for me, were leaving me numb, devoid of energy and I was getting home constantly feeling exhausted and either with no energy to socialise whatsoever or being volatile and irritable, often about things completely out of my control and just generally feeling like I'd given the whole of my personality for that day, or even the full week. And in a year of personal trauma, I didn't want to exhaust all my stores and give the best version of myself to my career. I wanted to exhaust those stores and give the best version of myself to family, to friends and selfishly but not selfishly, to myself. My mental health was taking a turn for the worse, with me getting anxious and irritable about things I never used to and it was very noticeable to me and those around me, my physical health was also showing signs that enough was enough and my whole mindset and perspective just started to alter. What saddens me is that I've spoken to so many people in the profession who feel much the same. What saddens me is the amount of amazing people I've met on my teaching rollercoaster and how much I hope things alter for those still on the ride and for those to be taught by them in the years to come.

I don't know what's next for me, but I need to rebuild, regain some focus and purpose and re-evaluate what's best for me and what I want to do. I love expression. I love writing, learning, drawing, creativity and generation of ideas. I always have. I have always been at my happiest when creating. Teaching gave me a little kick of creativity but the time and space for personal growth and creativity was being eaten up by other things, other tasks, other priorities. And it didn't always allow that expression. We enable others to be creative and express themselves but didn't want to do the same so as to not sway their interests or opinions and let them fully take control of these for themselves.

The moral of the story is that teaching needs some serious TLC because education is rife with stories like mine and these are often from damn good teachers who quite probably had a lot to offer when allowed to uphold their own priorities and perform within the right parameters for them. I can't stress enough that teaching is not all 9-3 and an abundance of holidays. My days were nearly 12 hours and that doesn't account for the time left thinking about or worrying about it. And my holidays were no different from the standard 4/5 weeks most professions get, only they were restricted to outside term time. Not many jobs require such confidence, resilience, hard-work, enthusiasm and passion and the ones that do are feeling the same pressures and struggles. Things that look good on paper aren't often things that matter to actual people. Wellbeing is about differentiation, something teachers know more about than most.

So this, is essentially me laying myself on the line, highlighting this and asking those who can change it, to change it and actually change it, not just make it look like you are, on paper.

Stop the cuts.
Stop the rigorous judgement and inspection or at least the manner in which it's done.
Stop trying to shoe-horn people into things that simply don't fit them.
Stop scrimping on things that require huge investment to prevent traumatic experiences like with mental health, and special needs support.
Stop zero hours or unreliable contracts for jobs that require people to give every ounce of themselves and commit fully when the same treatment and commitment clearly can't be given back to them.
Stop the culture of presenteeism.
Stop the culture of contradiction, stop the culture of having to do everything, twice.
Start consulting grassroots people when making decisions and policies that directly affect them and the things they deal with day in, day out.
Start giving the trust and respect back to these people.
Start remembering what it's really all about and who is at the heart of it all.

What's very telling is how many of those above points can apply to other sectors at the moment, other sectors also in dire need of TLC.

I need some distance from teaching, it may not be forever, because I know, I'm damn good at it (it's rare I'll big myself up, so let's go with it). But I will always fight the teacher corner, because I've been there and I know exactly what it entails.
A year has passed since that diagnosis for my grandad and a year has passed since that Ofsted call. And so much has now changed. Grandad fought for a year and is now at peace and missed by us all.
And I've left my profession and am now doing all I can to shake the anxiety, volatility and loss of confidence and purpose I seem to have experienced over the last 12 months.
I hope the next year brings more positive change and I really hope this is a blog post that opens people's eyes and one that people can relate with. I'm not a political genius by any stretch of the imagination, but I know my own experiences and I've said it so many times but something's seriously got to alter.

In the meantime, if anyone needs a writer or illustrator or anything I can creatively set my mind to... give me a shout!

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