Here’s a list of just a few things that occurred during my PGCE (training year of becoming, in my case, a secondary school English teacher):
- I spent five hours cutting out butterfly templates for a series of lessons on Ray Bradbury’s ‘A Sound Of Thunder’. They were utilised for about 20 minutes of a lesson before being abandoned.
- I dressed up as an alien called Lady Stardust so students could help ‘send me home’ by asking me questions, as they had social & communication difficulties.
- I had a two month stint as head of media, setting up the subject as the school had never taught it before.
- Had a three month spell of crippling depression where I lived, quite literally, on a day-to-day basis.
- Got bullied by a class of year 7 students. There were only 12 in the class. Words cannot do them justice.
- Had the loveliest year 8 class who I taught story writing to. They wrote wonderful stories which I compiled in an anthology I still have tucked away in my memories box
- Helped a new student settle in during a school merger where the school population increased by a 1/3. He then surprised me with a bee shaped thank you card that said ‘You’re the bees knees’. I cried in front of the aforementioned year 8 class. Not the year 7 class, they would have eaten me alive – even more than they already had done.
During my NQT year, the adventures continued. Ask me some day about the attack of the GIANT bee that sprayed liquid at the class during my first ever lesson as a ‘proper’ teacher. Or the fight that occurred between two year ten girls bigger than me (I’m 6ft – have a think about that) but they both separately snuck out of internal exclusion to apologise and they became my total favourites for the remaining 18 months I taught them. Or the day my year 7 boys spent a week planning and then performing film pitches to their visiting head of key stage who posed as a famous film director.
I’ve got 9 years worth of stories that I wish I had compiled more formally than snatched memories that come in waves. Ask any teacher to tell you a story and they’ll have so many you’ll most likely regret asking. Stories that will make you laugh, stories that will make you wince and stories that will break your heart.
Quinta Brunson, creator and star of Abbott Elementary has managed to capture the bittersweet insanity of schools so wonderfully. In fact, it might, quite possibly, be the most accurate depiction of the bittersweet joys of being a teacher. Which I don’t write, or throw my total seal of approval at, lightly.
When I share some of these anecdotes with loved ones, quite often I get the response ‘I don’t know how you do it!’ Occasionally, ‘Why do you keep doing this?’ Lately I’ve found myself struggling to answer either question. I’ve continued to know it in my bones but had difficulty getting the words to string together and articulate it. Because, when you think about it, it’s pretty mad isn’t it? We work silly hours, for silly money following the mindless dictations of government officials who really have no idea. We’re overworked, overstretched and underfunded. Yes, we might get those long holidays but most of us work those and when we’re not working them we’re desperately trying to refuel our batteries before the next cycle begins. We’re running a marathon at the pace of a sprint. We’re working with young people, the only thing that is predictable about that is how notoriously unpredictable they and it can be. We work a job where the good is fantastic. Phenomenal. Brilliant. Effervescent. Magical. But the bad can be soul-destroying. Heart-wrenching. Devastating. Demoralising. Hopeless.
But we keep on doing it.
I reckon you need to watch Abbott Elementary, now on Disney+, to get it. Within those 13 x 22 minute episodes, you will see why we keep on doing it – laid on in the most accessible, universal and properly hilarious way possible. We do it for those smiles, the recurring in-jokes, the comradery, the joy of helping young people learn something new and seeing them believe in themselves. We are cheerleaders, coaches, parents, social workers, police officers and allies all wrapped-in-one. We are sages on stages, guides on sides and *ahems* at the fronts…
We do this oft-beautiful, sometimes-awful, job because we are compelled. Something has drawn us to it. That want to help. To make a difference. To encourage, support, nurture and instil in our young people wonder and joy and hope and kindness. To make a building strong you need to make sure it has strong foundations. To ensure ‘good bones’ as that brilliant Maggie Smith (not that one) poem says. That’s where we come in. We do this job as we continue to believe in countless possibilities and want to be that helping hand along the ladder to whatever comes next.
No tv or film deception has ever shown our profession so earnestly, with neither cynicism or cloying melodrama. With an estimated 50% of teachers in the UK saying they plan to leave the profession within the next five years, maybe this extraordinary can serve as a reminder of why we do it but perhaps, most importantly, this can serve as a timely callout of how greatly our educational institutions and practitioners need supporting.