Growing up, the only thing I ever wanted to do was to be a teacher. I loved my subject, English, and knew I wanted a career which gave me the opportunity to continue to read and discuss, think and learn, and also to convey my enthusiasm for my subject to others. As a child I had played ‘school’ with dolls, and with friends, and had always taken the teacher role. Following my English degree I completed a PGCE, found teaching practice challenging but stimulating, and was thrilled to secure a job teaching English in a very good comprehensive school in the north west where I worked for a great Head of Department within a supportive team.
And I found the first year really tough. I seemed to be working so hard, and yet didn’t find the job as satisfying and rewarding as I expected. I had so much to learn, I made mistakes, I felt exhausted. I wasted a lot of time on unproductive marking, I think – see this – and worried that one day I would wake up and find I had completely run out of ideas. In those days – pre-National Curriculum, pre-GCSE and coursework, it seemed that teachers generally worked in isolation. My Head of Department was great, but she pretty much left me to it. There was little observation or feedback, and I don’t remember observing anyone else teach in that first year. Someone from the Local Authority came in to see me teach twice, just to make sure the pupils weren’t swinging from the light fittings I think, but no one contributed to my professional learning. CPD wasn’t ‘a thing’ at that stage. This was even prior to Inset Days. The first day of each term was the day the students came back.
Suddenly I had to examine whether this really was the job I was cut out for. I had never seriously considered anything else. But I couldn’t imagine staying in this profession for forty years if this is how much it took out of me and how little it seemed to be giving back. So at Christmas I made a decision. If I felt exactly the same by Easter, I would hand in my resignation then and spend time in the summer term finding a different job for the autumn. I didn’t know what else was out there, but I would have to find out. As soon as I decided this, I felt better – there was light at the end of the tunnel and I wasn’t going to go on feeling tired and miserable for ever. I had a choice.
In fact, as the year progressed I did feel better – a little more confident, a little more relaxed. I had some successes with my more challenging classes and that was reassuring. The days grew longer and the sun shone. I became involved in the extra-curricular life of the school (going on D of E weekends, helping at the school disco, supporting my House in the swimming gala) and enjoyed that. By Easter I decided I needed at least to stay into my second year, and my second year was considerably easier than my first – for one thing, my new classes didn’t seem to try to ‘test’ me – as if they had heard from other pupils that I was OK. My self-belief grew as my experience built.
I stayed in teaching for thirty years, working in six schools. I was internally promoted in my first school to a pastoral role, from which I learnt a huge amount, and then I moved to become second in English, then Head of English, Head of Sixth Form, Deputy Head and finally Head. I had a great career and loved all my jobs and all my schools – there were far more good days than difficult ones, and far more positive experiences than negative ones. But I still remember vividly how I felt in that first term, and how close I came to walking away from the profession at that early stage.
So I would never be dismissive of teachers who have doubts that teaching is for them, or that they are cut out for the job, but I would advise this:
- Set yourself a time limit, as I did, and make a decision about the point at which you will definitely decide whether to stay in your current role, or to leave it.
- Consider, before you leave the profession, trying a change of school. A fresh start in a new place, with a little more experience behind you, may be all you need to make a more positive beginning. Sometimes you need to experience a different style of leadership, too.
- Think also about a change of context. What about a change of phase? I know a number of teachers who have moved between primary, secondary and Further Education, and found a different phase suits them better. (There is an interesting TES piece about moving from secondary to primary for example, here). I know others who have changed sectors, or changed countries, and rediscovered their enthusiasm for teaching and their faith in their capacity to make a success of it.
I am very pleased that I did stick with it – I found my thirty years in schools energising and rewarding, and especially enjoyed my ten years as a head. I have loved the ten years since I finished as a head, too: still involved in the world of education but with a different balance in my life now I am in my seventh decade…
I hope this post may be helpful to some of you. Thanks for reading.
Photo credit: John Berry. We loved San Diego….
9 thoughts on “Making a choice”
I think I shared all those motivations, Kristian. I just underestimated how tough & tiring it would be in the first months. I managed to find an appropriate personal/professional balance eventually (most of the time….) Thank for your comment.
Really interesting article – working in the areas I do, both careers and education it strikes me that you could exchange the word teacher here for almost any other profession. There is it seems a professional restlessness nowadays that means that outside of education people move not just companies but actually roles, retraining as they go, much more often and with greater ease than previously possible. That teachers are under pressure and facing increasing pressure political and practical from inside and out must make it harder to try and stay the course and that greener grass must seem plenty alluring. Change isn’t always as good as a rest longer term though, it’s simply swapping the known for the unknown and once the unknown becomes known it can be every bit as stale and unappealing as the previous known.
I think your advice on trying new things within your ‘known’ is spot on, sometimes that change is as good as rest as there’s a weight of knowledge based expectation behind it rather than the hope that anything might be better than your current situation. To develop a career requires dedication to a discipline and moving around within that discipline rather than flitting between things. The progression you enjoyed in your career was through demonstrable commitment and ‘time served’ as it were and from a careers perspective that’s precisely the right thing, but of course not everyone is lucky enough to know what they want to do!
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Many thanks for your comment. I think in schools so much comes from the overall leadership which sets the culture/ethos – it’s possible to be unhappy in one context but to move to another school which is better led and where ‘the way we do things here’ suits you much better, so you find the job much more fulfilling. We have a recruitment and retention challenge in teaching at the moment, and I’m very much hoping that some teachers consider a change of school before a change of profession – it might work, and it would be good for them and for education generally.
Absolutely agree that the grass isn’t always greener, though, and so we do have to think carefully about why and where we’re moving and not just leap recklessly!
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Quite right, sometimes it’s hard to see the wood for the trees and the urge to simply get out can overwhelm the desire to explore different options within the field. Which is a real shame and why articles like this are useful to remind people who are thinking of doing something drastic to pause and take stock.
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