When I was interviewing for staff as a headteacher and when I am interviewing prospective entrants into the profession for ITE providers, I ask what on the surface is a relatively simple question; “What was the significant event that persuaded you that you could be a teacher?” This allows the interviewee to reflect on their past, but also to develop the theme through significant skills that they bring to bear on their role. This tipping point can be important to explore, especially where the candidate is a mature trainee, changing career course.
I have a vivid memory of one trainee who described how she had been involved in a summer residential scheme with a group of physically disabled children and supported them individually to overcome fears to be able to attempt to tackle a climbing wall. Another told of how he had worked in a refugee camp and learned that he could find innovative ways to help children learn without expensive resources. The insights and the obvious enjoyment of the experience came through and they both went on to become a very high-grade prospective teachers.
While some get into teaching through their interactions with children, discovering that they can communicate effectively and make relationships, enabling their charges to attempt challenge, others love their subject and sharing their knowledge. Marrying the two creates a whole, which is the purpose of teacher training; the what and the how.
Why did I become a teacher?
I had a job with ICI, in a biological research station, nestled into an old quarry beside Brixham fishing harbour. Becoming a “scientist” had been my lifelong ambition. The reality, of counting bivalves and worms in bottom samples that we sourced from the North Sea off Teeside and Whitby, palled after several months, partly because of the horrendous effects of sea-sickness and partly the counting. Finish one tray, record, start another. When looking at colleagues who had progressed to Experimental Officer, it became clear that I’d be doing the same for years to come. I loved the outdoors, the environment, entomology, history, geography; in fact I was interested in the world around me. Ok, I was probably a bit geeky, in that respect.
A mature team colleague at Paignton Cricket Club had just finished his teaching course at St Lukes College, in Exeter. After talking with him, he suggested taking the train to chat to someone about the possibility of training. There was a significant shortage of teachers, as the generation that had trained before or after WW2 were coming, en masse, to retirement.
As it was June, the campus was empty, but a kind receptionist tracked the head of science to his room and sent me along. We chatted broadly, across science, but also sport (St Lukes was a PE college) and after half an hour asked if I wanted this to be an official interview. Fifteen minutes later, I was sent to fill in the application forms and started that September. That is a decision that I have never regretted, even when the going has got really tough. I found my natural niche.
I did change course after the first year, moving from pure science to Environmental Studies, which was a brand-new course designed by the previous head of science to enable Primary teachers to be able to teach the breadth of the curriculum.
Teaching practices in Totnes, year one, and Torquay, year three, meant digs for the first, during a winter of power cuts, so planning and marking by candle-light. For the second, I had a lift from two PE specialists, both of whom were on their way to international status, so the hour or so each way passed quickly.
The second-year experience was an extended study practice, where the entire teaching group was twinned with a school in Sidmouth. We would be paired with a small group of children, plan for learning, enact it, evaluate the outcomes and make subsequent decisions for learning. Getting to know the children also meant home visits. This entailed staying on in Sidmouth, walking to the family homes, having a scripted chat, then a long bus trip back to halls, which were six miles out of Exeter, unless someone with a car was around.
It became clear during 1974 that the teacher shortage was coming to an end. At the same time, the James Report was considering the potential for offering teachers sabbatical time after a period of service. It was envisaged that this would support further training, perhaps to Masters level.
Both had an influence on deciding to get a job for September 1974. Even as a probationary teacher, I had a class of 39 mixed ability children. There was no such thing as a teaching assistant, nor technology. Resources were very limited, but there was a pleasure in creating learning opportunities from little, using the local environment as a significant resource, eg taking the class to the local graveyard to read the first chapter of Great Expectations…
Becoming a teacher was never designed to make me rich; perhaps comfortable was the best that could be hoped, and it was a career, which, in 1974, was still considered an asset. I started teaching in the year of the Houghton award, where teacher pay was enhanced after many years of very low pay rises. Four times that income, plus a small borrowed deposit, was enough for the mortgage that bought the first house; I could aspire.
Today, a teacher in similar position would need a mortgage ten times their income and a large deposit. That cultural shift will have a huge impact on life plans.
Teaching is teaching and of it’s time. It has always had to adapt to changing needs, but, over the past thirty years, we have seen revolution from politicians that have put pressures on the system, such that successful, experienced people left. This inevitably reduces the core of knowledge available, with new people having to learn from scratch how to make things work for them.
The fact that you are teaching one approach while a “new” version has to be developed and embedded is stressful and an additional burden.
Change has rarely been handled in an evolutionary fashion, apart from the first iterations of the National Curriculum, which largely described what my local schools were doing, with 95% correspondence. Managing “improvement” would reduce the stress burdens of people who are, at the core of their role, paid to think.
Governments often see change as synonymous with improvement and then have to twist and turn as consequences become apparent to everyone. It can be analogous to the cowboy builder; who put this up like this…?
I’d still encourage someone with aptitude to become a teacher, and also, in time to develop themselves towards headship. Both are great jobs and they are very much and always will be needed.
I sometimes think we need Governments to step back and let teachers get on with the job and to become the advisers in the system. Children, in every classroom, deserve teachers who enjoy their jobs, know that they are doing a good job and that their efforts are appreciated.
Leaders, at every level, from Government down, only achieve if each classroom is a space for learning.