The first lesson is always the worst. Never what you expected. You leave it feeling emptied, sullied, compromised and cheap.
The second isn’t much better. Nor the third.
To be honest, it can be pretty crappy for a long time.
I have worked as a paperboy, a bookseller, a call-centre drudgeon, a content development manager, a product marketing manager, and I briefly played lead guitar in The Disposable Bic-razors of Bestiality. I also appeared, as a child, in an advert for British Pork. As you can see, I am eminently qualified to comment on teaching in relation to a range of other professions.
Unlike pork promotion and book-peddling, teaching is bloody difficult and reveals you in ways that you will not always appreciate.
Teaching is bloody difficult because, unlike working for a large corporation, where you can disappear to Costa every other minute and disguise loafing as synergising, teaching exposes you. Not of course in a nudey way – I’ve been on enough child protection INSETs to be warned off that malarkey. But teaching hazes you. Like the military, it forces you through exhaustion out to the other side, where you find out who you are and the limits of what you can (or are prepared to) do.
In my first couple of years as a primary school teacher, I would be spat out at year’s end like something Madam Pomfrey would have trouble putting back together. Indeed, it would take me a good four or five weeks to recombobulate, by which time the whole rigmarole would start again.
Cobbling together worksheets; trying in vain to stay awake after midnight whilst navigating the Primary Literacy units; sometimes so knackered that I would be reduced to stroking the semi-gloss cover of the Literacy Strategy ring-binder.
God, those were crazy days. OfSTED inspections; colleagues sobbing in adjacent classrooms as inspectors urged them to continue (“Don’t mind me.”). Marking, marking, marking. Incessant scribbling in children’s books, completely oblivious to the purpose of the act. “Good work” written so quickly that it sailed perilously close to “Good w%nk”.
Slowly, over the years, I gained perspective. I eased back on some silly practices (like planning every lesson in pain-staking detail) and began to focus on what it was that I was teaching. What does it mean to be literate? Why are we sometimes driven to write poetry? What makes some writing good, and other writing Chris Moyles’?
From my current vantage point, the life of a teacher is pretty good. I feel competent; I enjoy being with children and, by and large, I think they like being with me. We have a laugh and they sometimes remember the things that I want them to remember.
But, by God, it took a long time to get to this point and I’m nowhere near as measured and mild as I want to be. I’m still here, at the beginning of the holidays, spat out and discombobulated – hair like the Bride of Frankenstein and skin tingling with cortisone.
It takes a long time for a new teacher to rise above the bureaucracy of the profession. The average NQT is dropped, like an ill-prepared and ill-equipped paratrooper, into a blizzard of standards, procedures and documentation. They may obey the letter, but struggle to meet the spirit of our expectations.
So, if you mentor a new teacher, please let them fail for a good long time. Yes, from time to time, they might accidentally turn up to work in the nude. And yes, they might write streams of expletives in your pupils’ exercise books. Prod them awake as they snooze with a planning resource on their face. Scrutinize their books and by all means joke that they have written “Good w%nk”. But do it all with humour and, above all, give them the space and support to become a great teacher. And give them time. Because it takes a bloody lot of it to become good, let alone great.