Friday, 23 December 2016

It's still a wonderful job

It’s still a wonderful job

I usually have a Christmas ritual: I republish a post I wrote a few years ago called ‘It’s a wonderful job.’ It was a Winter rumination about why teaching was still one of the best jobs you could do, despite the aggro and the paperwork and rats carrying lasers*. It was a sentimental meditation, me on my rocking chair smoking a pipe and chuckling as I read Christmas cards from cherubic children.

Love, Actually says at Christmas you have to tell the truth. This year it would feel insincere to regurgitate so straightforward a love letter to the profession- mainly because since September, and for the first time in 13 years I’m not teaching. Three years ago I started researchED as a kitchen table project, and I ran it on top of full time teaching for 18 months until the banjo string of my psyche threatened to snap. So I went part time. researchED grew and grew, more and more conferences in more and more countries and continents, but my kitchen table stayed the same size and once again my head started to feel like the Jumanji box. Nikki Morgan asked me to lead a behaviour review. The day stubbornly refused to expand past 24 hours.

I knew something had to give when I returned from running researchED Melbourne, stepped off the plane at Heathrow and cabbed it to school for my period one class in Dagenham like Act Three of a Richard Curtis caper. I’m amazed by how much you can achieve when you really boot it, but there comes a point when you’re spreading your jam too thin and all you can taste is toast (which is what I was rapidly becoming- this year, after 3 years of researchEDing, I hit a wall, and a virus robbed me of the use of my hands for a few days- exacerbated, I was told by a specialist, by overwork. Who knew?)

So I made a decision to reign in the breadth and focus on doing less things better. It was undoubtedly the right thing to do, the sensible thing and already I’ve been able to bring in another behaviour report, and rebuild researchED from the core in ways I’ll reveal next year when we relaunch with…well, when we relaunch.

So why do I still miss it? Why is there this phantom limb of a job that I have to remind myself I no longer do? That’s easy to answer.

Teaching saved me. I don’t exaggerate. I changed careers late- from running night clubs to student whispering at 30. I had lost my way so comprehensively in my 20s that I no longer even conceived of a straight path through the crooked places in which I worked. Never underestimate the damnably slow dissolution by attrition that desperation and lack of purpose can have on a busy mind. Waking up every day with the feeling that there was something I was supposed to be doing, but undone.

As Henry David Thoreau is often misquoted, ‘Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and die with their song still inside them.’ That echoes. So does Chandler with his ‘Somebody get me off this frozen star.’ Through no one’s fault but my own, and squandering my launch pad of good schooling and family, I meandered for so long I ended up barely managing; existing, not living. I do not believe this to be uncommon.

Now I have a purpose HO HO HO

And then came teaching. It was as if, undeserved, Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket had landed on my mat. Suddenly, meaning, purpose, challenge and the chance to serve an end greater than oneself. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs lit up for me like a fairground try-your-strength hit by a giant’s mallet. The job was maddening at first, and so hard it nearly broke me. But giving up was inconceivable, because I was home, doing the thing I knew I should have been doing. The universe is indifferent to our petty melodrama, but if it wasn’t I would say that I was where the universe needed me to be- and when. I claim no expertise or proficiency, just the intuitive certainty of being in the right place at the right time, like John McClane’s luckier cousin.

And I’ve never doubted that. Life’s aim isn’t to be happy- heroin will serve just as well- but to flourish, as the Greeks would put it; to be usefully engaged with integrity, and fulfil your own conception of destiny in a community. Teaching frequently made me unhappy, with its turbulence and drudgery and melodrama, but it fed a hunger that could be sated in no other way.

And it is a hard job. Too many teachers still steer with difficulty past the gnashing, clashing Scylla and Charybdises of difficult behaviour and the Sisyphean problem of workload. Policy churn, syllabuses that strobe past in succession, gimmick-learning, illiteracy…the list of bear traps and pitfalls to the perfect classroom can be summoned in an instant.

But it is still a wonderful job. There are few other roles where you can intersect so meaningfully with another’s life; where you can be a small but significant link in a chain that leads to the benefit of others. Where you can give them a gift that really does go on forever, that never runs out, never needs new batteries, and can’t be returned: an education. To some children it can seem like finding a tangerine in their stocking, but it’s not: it’s stardust. Where else can you help children become adults, and students become scholars?  

I said this in my previous blog post:

‘…. It isn't a job where you punch out at five o'clock; this is a vocation, like the priesthood or the circus. You have to love your subject, love working with kids, and love teaching them. If you don't, you won't ever be truly happy doing it. But if you do, then diamonds and rubies.

You might never transform every child's life, but that's not the benchmark of good teaching. You do your best, and you give them the best damn education you can. You provide them with safety, support, and discipline and tough love. You do your best. And mark this: your best will not always be enough and you will fail, and children will pass through your care and fall off the map, seemingly no better for having encountered you. But many of them will be helped, and some of them will be helped a lot. We play the odds. We play a long game.

…As supporting characters in the melodramas of the lives of others, we are required to ask one simple question: do we want to help, or harm? Everything else follows from that. Like George Bailey after his illumination, I am grateful every day for the chance to play the smallest part in the lives of other humans. That, dear friends, is why… I feel like running down the High Street of Anytown, America, wishing everyone a Merry Christmas and laughing in the face of Mr Potter.’

Come in, and know me better

I don’t know if I’m on a sabbatical or a one way night flight to Venus, never to know staff party and dinner queues again. But education gets in your blood; that’s why you see so many families with three generations or more of teachers. Scientists in the future will probably discover a gene. Right now I think I’m where the Universe needs me to be.

And the universe needs a lot more teachers far better than I to fill the gap and more besides. Recruitment is in a mess, and it won’t get any better if the only message people hear is how difficult it is. I mean, it is, and these things need to be said. But these violent delights have violent ends. It has become dangerously fashionable to forget that, amongst the struggle and the strife in the classroom, it really, really is a wonderful job too.  

Merry Christmas, actually.


(*Is that just me?)