The life of a teacher – an oxymoron?

School life may be unpredictable and anti-social, but it’s worth it says Frances Mwale

We are led to believe that teachers are either leaving the profession after just a few years or else being attracted overseas by large, tax-free salaries; those remaining struggle with the work-life balance. There are certainly major shortages in many schools, but is the life of a teacher here really so bad?

I was once presented with a wooden plaque by a colleague –  written on it was: ‘Three great things about teaching – Christmas, Easter and summer holidays!’ As a young teacher, a wise Deputy Head told me that long holidays are primarily for the children to rest, recuperate and grow as individuals and not so much for their teachers. I must say that upon reaching the end of any term, each one being flat-out busy, teachers also need time to re-gather strength; but much holiday time is spent in planning, catching up and innovating new and better ways of educating and motivating young learners. Holidays afford teachers prime time and opportunity for reflection, visits and developing their own learning and understanding and at a gentler pace.

The thing with teaching is that you can never guarantee what each day will bring forth. So much cannot be anticipated; but this is also one of the joys –constant variety, evaluation and refinement to give the pupils of the very best. The downside is the unforeseen problem, the disagreement to sort out or pressures of looming deadlines: these can work against a sense of achievement and lengthen the ‘to do’ list. The relational matters, however, are also vital as teachers are not dealing with a commodity, but with precious young lives. In order to make learning as stimulating as possible, an injection of creativity is required: late night runs to buy fruits for printing or purchasing wrapping paper to make board games, spring to mind as examples for the dedicated primary school teacher.

At worst, the life of a teacher can be rather isolated, even anti-social. During ‘working’ weeks (term time), as is the case for many professions, there seems little else but work. Evenings of marking, report writing and, these days, managing emails, take over from the domestic routine or longed-for social life. Then when school holidays come along, friends are away on vacation and regular events –evening classes and social groups –often cease. Perhaps this is why teachers tend to be friends mainly with other teachers; even marrying other teachers! Teaching used to be considered a fabulous profession for working parents: you have holidays when they do and therefore avoid the astronomical childcare costs that many others incur. To a degree this still holds true, but this is rarely the central reason for entering the profession.

The thing with teaching is that you can never guarantee what each day will bring forth 

Any young teacher asking for advice about whether they should teach abroad should be told emphatically to ‘go for it’: maybe not to stay overseas for good, but to seize this wonderful opportunity to experience new horizons, cultures and different approaches to teaching. It can be life-changing. It is often suggested that in working overseas, the work-life balance can be better maintained. So what is really making the difference?

The pace of life in the UK is certainly rapid but so has been the pace of educational change. At an Early Years conference I attended last year, we pored over the twelve – yes, twelve – government booklets that deal with legislative change to Special Educational Needs alone. Barely is there time to digest what is new, let alone put it all into practice and evaluate the impact. If governments are serious about recruiting more and better equipped teachers in this country, they should not simply look to first class honours graduates, but ensure that directives are less frequent, with much more consultation and debate.

Teachers become teachers because they are passionate about learning and have the ability, often almost innately, to convey this to others. It is a job that never ends: you can always do more; always try something different; always alter your focus a little to home in on a new issue. It is also a profession that brings with it immense rewards; the satisfaction that comes from making a significant difference in the lives of others and spending your career finding out more about the subjects you love.

So does a teacher have a life of their own? The answer to this is possibly not, but then we are all managed to a degree by the career paths we choose. So long as the rewards of the job outweigh the negatives, talented graduates will train to teach. Retention of great teachers is always in the hands of politicians and local governments and schools who must ensure that change is well managed, its expectations reasonable and achievable in a feasible time frame.

Frances Mwale is Prep Headmistress at Farlington School

www.farlingtonschool.net

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