The End of Term, the Brontës and Easy Spring Afternoons

IMG_2729It’s my second Spring in Oxford. It’s been a week of clear blue skies, with a slight chill in the air – but that’s how I like it. I’ve walked along the Thames, I’ve flitted from coffee shop to coffee shop. Alone, because it’s the first week of my Easter break. Part of me misses company and conversation during the day… but part of me loves it. Actually, it might just be the perfect detox to a busy, noisy term at school. I feel very relaxed, and as it’s not state school holidays yet, the city does, too. The streets are quiet. I walked into town yesterday, and didn’t see a soul for a good twenty minutes. I was even pleased when my Podcast cut out (low battery again), because then I noticed the birds singing. No traffic noises. Just wildflowers, buds on trees, perfect reflections on the water. The daffodils and blossom coloured in the grey spots where winter used to be.

I always thought I liked summer best, but perhaps that was the allure of the much needed six week break. Now work is easier, and it feels like this is the first Spring I’ve fully appreciated in years.

The end of term felt so different this time. I wasn’t exhausted. I wasn’t gasping for air. Instead, I still had the energy to enjoy the end of term rituals – a house music competition, poetry recitals, and short performances for the school by my drama classes (my directorial debut – and I was proud). I went into school on my day off to see the GCSE Drama performances – not out of obligation, but because I wanted to learn, and I felt I had the energy to do it. When school finished at 12 on Friday, I didn’t collapse in a heap on the sofa – I went to a talk on Volcanoes at the Bodliean Library. I still had the brain power to engage with this – and I even got a cool idea for a new YA series out of it (more on that later).

The_Brontë_Sisters_by_Patrick_Branwell_Brontë_restoredOn Saturday, I went to see my friend in a play about the Brontes. That was pretty wonderful. Performed in the reading room of St. Mary’s Church, there was a wonderful atmosphere. It was a wonderful script, a clever script – in fact you’d get a lot from it even if you’d never read Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre. What I took from it was a reflection on writing, on why we write. Those three women lived tragic lives, imprisoned by their position of as women, by their alcoholic brother, and by relative poverty. There must have been thousands of women like Jane, Emily and Anne, but we remember them because of their writing. They wrote as a survival mechanism, I think. It was an escape. Emily didn’t want her poetry to be published: she saw this as an intrusion. I can understand this entirely. Writing is a weirdly private thing. Yes, ironic, to say that on a public blog. Yet I still feel a bit weird when someone tells me they’ve read something of mine… even a blog post like this. Writing is a record of your thoughts, sometimes very private thoughts. Sometimes you don’t even realise what you’re revealing about yourself – and there’s a strange thrill in that.

It perhaps goes without saying that I left the play full of inspiration and ready to write. All in all, it’s been a rather perfect start to the holiday.

 

An Education in Music

Wonderful Illustrations by DestinyBlue http://www.cruzine.com/2013/12/02/wonderful-illustrations-destinyblue/:
Did I give up on music too easily? Where was my ‘growth-mindset’?

Yesterday was open morning at my lovely school. As much as I like my new job, there’s never going to be much appeal to going to work for three Saturdays a year, even when we’re bribed with top-notch French patisserie at 9.30 AM. I was in the drama department for the morning, and was prepared for lots of repetitive conversations with prospective parents about drama provision, school plays, how we support kids with less confidence, and all that jazz. I still feel a bit of a fraud giving the spiel, considering I’m so new at the school, I’m comparatively inexperienced at teaching drama, and none of the department’s achievements thus far have anything to do with me. Still, I gave the spiel. That wasn’t the memorable part of the morning, though. The unexpected joy was watching upper-sixth students rehearse for the school musical.

I’m not a performer, I have no desire to be a performer, and even when I did play an instrument and sing in the choir at school, I was never any good. I do love music, though, and especially musical theatre. The kids were preparing a particularly intricate and brilliant Stephen Sondheim number – and three weeks away from performance, they’re already brilliant. I teach the two leads, and because they’re clearly such good friends, their rapport on stage was perfect. They got the dark humour and the energy of the piece, seemingly effortlessly, though of course they’ve already been rehearsing for months. I felt weirdly jealous, not really of their talent, but of the fun they were having with it.

I went to a school where there were no school plays, just lots of (quite boring) concerts. Annoyingly, when I was in sixth form and it was too late for me to properly feel involved in it, the school got ‘arts college status’ and suddenly started doing loads of drama and musical theatre. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I were a few years younger, and I’d got the benefit of that. Would I have studied A Level Theatre Studies? Been brave enough to audition for school plays? There’s no way of knowing. It’s kind of weird that I accidentally became a drama teacher anyway. I suppose it would just be nice to have that experience as background to what I do now. It’s assumed that if you have background in English, there’s a natural link with Drama… but the subjects are so wildly different. In some ways, a background in Music is more beneficial. Sometimes, the physicality of Drama makes it more like teaching PE. I love teaching Drama, but I don’t know if I’ll ever feel like I know enough, or feel that ease and confidence that I feel about teaching writing and literature. I watched the rehearsal yesterday with wonder and enjoyment, not quite understanding how it all works, and how on earth you get kids to bring the intricacies of a Stephen Sondheim score to life like that. It’s a wonderful mystery to me.

The interest in drama and music was always there. I watched old MGM movies with my sister religiously. As bored kids on a rainy day in the summer holiday, we’d happily watch three films in a row. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, On The Town, Summer Stock, Singin’ in the Rain, as well as British ones like Oliver! and Half a Sixpence. Dad recorded us loads of films on video off the telly, sometimes three on one tape – sometimes with the first five minutes missing because he’s just caught them being broadcast and snapped the VCR into action. There’d be a weird mix of not just MGM stuff, but Elvis films, animated stuff, and our favourite – the Beatles film Help! I have the Blu-Ray now, but somehow it seems wrong that the end credits don’t cut to the opening of Home Alone.

So it’s fair to say that my education in musicals was pretty informal. I’ve never had a singing lesson, and I’ve never even been in the chorus of a musical… but I could give you a fairly accurate timeline of MGM thorough the 40s and 50s, of the impact of the war, of the tragedy of Judy Garland’s career.

The first cassette albums I owned were the soundtracks to The Wizard of Oz and Beauty and the Beast.  I have a vivid memory of my Mum taking me to WH Smith in Telford, and helping me spend some money I’d had for birthday and Christmas. I was six, or maybe seven. I don’t ever remember not having something in my room to play tapes on. When I was about ten, I’d inherited a huge 80’s style music centre from my grandparents – no CD player – but a double tape deck so I could make my own tapes. I suppose I’ve pretty much always felt out of kilter with contemporary music, but there’s a brief period, say ’97 to ’02, when I listened to the top 40… a period of which which I still hold weirdly encyclopaedic knowledge. It was a golden age: the tale-end of Britpop, the Spice Girls, so many boybands and then the more grown-up indie I listened to in sixth form. Go on, ask me about All Saints album tracks, or that time I saw B*Witched in Stafford town centre. Oh, and Billie Piper. Remember when she was a pop star?

A constant from about the age of six has been the music of Elvis, Abba… and the Beatles. My sister collected all the Beatles albums on CD. We both listened obsessively  – not due to our parents, because even they were too young to remember 60s music firsthand – but perhaps because we felt we were discovering something important. There were no downloads yet, no Spotify, and the only way to access the mammoth double album The White Album was to buy it in HMV for £29.99. When I saw the recent film, The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years, the cinema was packed with grey-haired baby boomers. Still, I felt like this was a nostalgia trip for me, too, and it made me cry.

It seems my own music education and been an informal hotpotch, a self education… mostly. Yesterday I found myself thinking back to being 14, and what it felt like to consider doing GCSE Music, and where that might have led. As I said, I was not talented – but I was a good student, and I could have worked at it, if I’d wanted to. At my school, they had a policy that every child was given the opportunity of one-to-one tuition in an instrument. You just didn’t necessarily get to pick which instrument. I’d fancied a flute or clarinet. Something elegant. Instead, a got a bassoon that came in a huge suitcase that eleven-year-old me struggled to carry, and felt ashamed to take on the school bus. Because I was tall for my age, and I had naturally long fingers, my musical education took a weird turn. I ended up hating that cumbersome instrument. It was so heavy, and didn’t sound nice on its own. If you’ve never heard one played solo – and let’s face it, why would you – it’s supposed to sound like an oboe in bass clef, but also, when played badly, resembles a fog horn. We were forced to do solos in Y8 – in front of the whole year group, and our parents. It was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. I remember my sweaty fingers sliding on the keys. The imperfect sound, because a good sound on a double reed instrument needs you to be relaxed. I hated it, hated it.

Playing in orchestra and concert band was better, and because I played an unusual instrument, I was guaranteed a place. The downfall of this was I had to do it before I was properly good enough, and the music was really hard. Not good for your self esteem. I carried on playing until Y11, though more out of a sense of duty than actual enjoyment. I didn’t practice much at home. I did a couple of grade exams – again, two of the most frightening experiences of my life. So I suppose it’s no surprise that I didn’t do GCSE Music.

I did Art GCSE instead. I was good at painting, and it came easily to me. I did painting and drawing lots in my spare time – practically every day – and of course I became better and better at it. I remained mediocre at music and eventually gave up playing bassoon because it was assumed that all sixth formers did solos at the annual school concert, and there was no way I was putting myself through that shame. If I’d had a different personality type – a so-called ‘growth mindset’, as it’s called in teacher-speak – maybe I would have kept Art as a hobby, and picked Music as a challenge instead. Maybe I would have matured more quickly, and gained confidence from it. Or maybe I’d just have miserable from the failure that can be so obvious when you’re performing music.

Then there’s another question. What if I’d attended a fee-paying school like the one I work in now? What if I’d had free pick of instruments, and played something less embarrassing – a guitar, or the piano. I’ve never been much of a singer, but a fee-paying school would offer one-to-one lessons in singing. I could have got better. What if I’d had the chance to be in a school play or musical every year? What then?

Well, there’s no way of knowing, of course. I’d still have been shy about performing. I’d still have the same mediocre ability. Maybe I’d still have drifted towards what came easily – taken Art GCSE, and given up the instrument. Still, I feel a bit sad about it. When I read a book or go to an art gallery, I feel inspired, knowing I can give it a go myself. When I go to the theatre or watch someone singing, it’s an entirely different experience, because I know I can’t do it – I can only watch. And I do love music.

[Image (C) Destiny Blue. http://www.cruzine.com/2013/12/02/wonderful-illustrations-destinyblue/]

“Most enjoyable activities are not natural; they demand an effort that initially one is reluctant to make. But once the interaction starts to provide feedback to the person’s skills, it usually begins to be intrinsically rewarding.”
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

Freedom Thursdays and Why I Don’t Envy 20-Something Hipsters

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Hipster girls in coffee shops… I no longer envy your youth, your hair, your fancy laptops. Fact.

It’s been a while since I’ve sat in public with my laptop out, like some pretentious would-be hipster (but I’m too old and nowhere near cool enough). It’s a Thursday, my day off, my indulgent day off. I’m 31, I have no children, and I work part-time by choice. Why? Well, because I’ve learned that I’m 1000% happier when I have breathing space in my week to be by myself. It’s costing me a painful 20% of my salary, and if I think about that too much I start to feel very tense and guilty about it. I could really use that money. But then, I would be sacrificing more than just a day off once a week.
2016 was a tumultuous year, and not just because of the insanity of UK and US politics, or the number of celebrity deaths. On a personal level, the year started very, very badly for me. I was stuck in a job I hated, a job I knew was not going to get any better, and was really messing up my mental health. I took time off for stress – twice – and still felt there was very little support there for me. Every day was an onslaught of terribly behaved classes, hours added onto my usual working day because of inspections and the absence of an official Head of Department. For the first two months of 2016, I was at home, off sick, feeling very sad and scared for my future. I didn’t think I wanted to be a teacher any more. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and we’d just moved to Oxford, the most expensive city outside of London in the whole of the UK.
So I signed up for supply teaching, and things got slowly better. I was reminded that I’m actually a highly competent teacher, and I have actually built up a huge amount of knowledge since qualifying in 2008. I thought everyone hated supply teachers, but it turns out that’s not the case when you really know your stuff. I enjoyed turning up each day having done no planning, because that’s how supply work rolls. I couldn’t build up any sense of apprehension for the day ahead. I worked with some really difficult kids in an FE college with a distinct lack of funding and resources – in some ways as challenging as my previous school – but I was enjoying it. Perhaps because I was no longer in a middle management position, and I could concentrate on lessons alone; perhaps because there wasn’t the pressure of results that you feel as a permanent member of staff, especially since the introduction of performance related pay. Plus, supply work can actually be really rewarding. You can fly in to a kid’s life for a few weeks, build a relationship, and give them that extra kick right before their exams. Long term, though,I realised it was not going to work. I would be permanently teaching kids who were retaking English and held a very negative view of my subject, and that’s not why I became a teacher.
Almost on a whim, I applied to a private school that I assumed was way out of my league. I don’t know why I thought this, in retrospect. Was it a class thing? Probably. Was it low self esteem? Yes, probably. Anyway, I got the job, even though I was up against five other interviewees – and that was a huge confidence boost. In fact, getting this job has been one of the best things that’s happened to me. Ever.
2016 started out terribly, but by the end of it, I was doing a job I genuinely enjoyed and felt fulfilled by. I realised I’d never gone to work before without a feeling an unreasonable level of dread and stress. At this new school, a tiny school with a wonderful ethos and wonderful kids, I felt relaxed. I felt a sense of belonging almost instantly. I loved teaching my lessons. I was teaching 50% drama again, which has its own challenges, but has less marking, and less pressure than a core subject like English. AND I got a day off mid-week to take the pressure off.
Why did it take me until I was 30 to find this gig? A job I love, a job that gives me genuine happiness? I suppose some people never find that, actually. I am truly blessed.
So it’s Thursday, and I’m feeling very uncool in a branch of Leon, surrounded by twenty-somethings, most with Apple Macs and lattes. Two very young, very beautiful black girls were in the queue for breakfast muffins, and I was stunned with jealousy at their beautiful clothes – both in fur-trimmed vintage style coats, thick-heeled Mary Jane shoes, floral midi skirts. One had a 40s style red hair net over her natural afro. Both just gorgeous, fully made up with winged eyeliner and statement jewellery. It’s like they’d walked straight out of an Instragram filtered pic, or a street style page in a magazine. The jealousy lingered for a while, and I was suddenly very conscious of my slightly dowdy raincoat (well, it was raining) and my bare face (I associate make up with work and rarely wear it on days off). Still, I found the strength to silence my self criticism. Yes, those girls were gorgeous, but they probably spent hours getting dressed in the morning. They’re younger than me, probably students, and while the blissful naivety of student life is certainly fun, I thought about all the shit they still have to learn. And I don’t mean academically. Sure, you look good in your 20s, but it’s such a painful, stressful time – establishing relationships, scraping by on crappy entry-level jobs, or going through the torture of professional training and making all the inevitable mistakes you make when you’re new at something. This is why I’d never agree to go back in time and be 21 again: there’s no way in hell I’d repeat my PGCE, or even the toil of my first three years of teaching.
OK, I don’t look as pretty as they do, but I have more than they do. I have the confidence that comes with being in a career for nine years. I’ve learned the self awareness that I lacked so badly at their age. I’m very happily married, and because I’ve been with the same lovely man for ten years, I’m lucky enough to have completely missed the tyranny of the Tinder era. I’m also old enough to know it’s ridiculous to have your life dictated by the need to post perfect selfies, or to ensure you fit inside a size 8 pair of Topshop skinnies. I’m lucky in so many ways. Maybe it’s not luck, though: maybe what I have is the wisdom and rewards of 31 years on this planet. OK, I don’t have Mary Jane shoes as cute as theirs, but I have a nice job, I HAVE A DAY OFF, and today I can do whatever I like, and if that’s not a fucking glorious luxury, I don’t know what is.

Wonderful Summer Optimism

I’m starting to feel so much better. I feel healthy. I’m not getting icky spots between my eyebrows, as I always do in bouts of stress and tiredness. I’m sleeping well (save the epic Week of Three Job Interviews – but that’s over with now). I’m eating lots of green things and waltzing around the city like I own the bloody place, because I’m feeling optimistic. The sun’s out, and the streets look beautiful. There are frickin’ bluebells sprouting up in our front garden – even the weeds look good!

The chirpy mood is partly down to the time of year – I feel so much better when the weather’s warm, and the days are long – but for another exciting one, too.

I have a new job.

I applied for a post at an amazing private school, thinking I’d never get it because I’m not clever or posh enough, and I’d never get that lucky. Then I got an interview… and it went really well. The interviewers seemed genuinely interested in me as a person, asking about my degree, my hobbies – not my ‘strategies for making progress’ and my classes’ GCSE results. The children were an absolute delight: eager to learn, sweet and earnest. They made me wait a week to find out if I got the gig, and I spent seven days thinking there’s no way – there’s no way I’ll get it. (Even though they interviewed me first. Even though they invited me to interview before the deadline passed. Even though everything went really well. Why do I beat myself up so much?)

Well, I got the job. From September, I’ll work four days a week at this lovely, tiny little school in the prettiest part of the city. I’ll teach lovely children Drama and English. I’ll get a free lunch every day, longer holidays… and I’ll feel valued and respected by my employers. I’ll say it again: they didn’t ask me about results, they asked me about me. That’s got to count for something.

I always felt uncomfortable about the idea of private education, because I come from a family that couldn’t even consider paying for school – as is true for the majority. I’m not happy with the idea that your parents’ wealth should be able to pay for a hugely advantageous start in life. But then, I’m not happy with what’s happening in state schools either. I’m afraid the government has largely ruined it for me, what with the circus of testing and brutal, pointless bureaucracy of constantly covering backs in case Ofsted show up. It’s change for change’s sake, constantly. I feel teachers are suffering at the hands of the DfE’s ambition and misunderstandings.

Of course there’ll be high standards at this fee-paying school, and of course I’ll have to work hard. I’m OK with that. I’m looking forward to looking forward to work. Feeling purposeful, and secure in my work – because I know the school is managed well, and free to make their own decisions. I’m looking forward to knowing happy children who want to be taught and are hungry to know more. It feels a selfish move to abandon ordinary kids for a cushy job with free lunch (yes! literally free lunch!), but I feel I’ve done my time in the state sector. I’ve worked hard for so many kids who didn’t want to work for themselves, and at times it was truly gruelling. It feels good to be moving on. Yes, summer optimism is flooding through me.

The New Me: Freelance Teacher

I feel like I’ve smashed through a few frontiers in my teaching career this week: my first time as a one-to-one A Level tutor, my first venture into private sector education, and my first professional steps into an Oxford College. A few months ago, I wouldn’t have believed it possible. I thought I was quitting teaching for good – but I’m now glad I gave this career a second chance.

After seven years working in state secondary schools (or should I say academies), I’d had enough of the workload and pressure. I’d worked in two schools that were very unhappy places due to the pressure of inspections, the constant merry-go-round of government changes and increasingly brutal target-setting culture.  I loved my subject, and I knew I was a good practitioner… but my job made me sad and anxious. Back in January, I had to take some time out. I’ve always been a worrier, but I was starting to get ill from the constant demands of my job. Even over the two week Christmas break, I hadn’t been able to switch off. My 30th birthday was on New Year’s Eve, and while I had a lovely day, I crept off to bed swiftly after midnight, tearful and miserable that now I had just a few days before term began again, and I had so much to do. I worked hard. I managed three days at work before I was full of cold, with a terrible headache. I had to take a day off sick, and then another. Before long, it was the anxiety of returning to work that was the real problem. I got dressed for work on the third day, and then cried, because I felt so incapable of going back. I got signed off, and after a few weeks, full of guilt, I asked to be released early from my contract.

Once I knew I was leaving that job, I felt instantly better. I applied for lots of different types of jobs, feeling free, and excited about trying something new. I applied for admin roles, school librarian jobs, and a tutoring job at a university. I didn’t get much of a response, so I resolved that my back up would be signing up with a teaching agency. I put my CV online and it suddenly felt like my phone exploded: so many voicemails, emails, missed calls. I genuinely had no idea there were so many agencies out there. There was lots of work, too.

My first supply role, which I will return to next week when the Easter break ends, is in an FE college. It’s been a great experience so far. I work four days a week, and I have very little planning to do, as all the classes are GCSE retake students, studying the same skills. These kids missed out on their magic ‘C’ at school, and many are disillusioned, frustrated or simply struggle. But they’re interesting kids. I’ve seen some challenging behaviour, but nothing worse than I’ve experienced in secondary schools. The pace of the day is easier – longer lessons, but longer breaks, too. I don’t feel exhausted at the end of the day.

This week, I’ve signed up with a tutorial college to teach A Level revision. It’s well paid, and the students are paying a lot for an intensive course, so I’ve definitely felt the pressure. Fortunately I’m teaching subject matter I know well, and I can rely on resources I’ve used before. I have two students, both lovely, and very appreciative of my efforts – which feels great. I’m teaching in a beautiful room in an Oxford college with views of daffodils and the quad, complete with obligatory ‘keep off the grass’ sign. I’m enjoying it, but I’m also pleased I don’t have to work this hard every week.

I’ve also been invited to work for an education publisher on a text book, which is a privilege, and something I’d never have time for if I was still a full-time secondary school teacher. It’s work I can do at home, though I’ve been asked to go into the office too and help out. It’s flattering that my skills and experience are valued, and I’m grateful to develop another string to my bow. It gives me hope that I can continue to teach part-time, and find other ways of making money.

I’ve been an examiner before, and I signed up for the summer exams as back up in case I didn’t get enough work. I’ve been offered so much, that I won’t have time to examine as well – but again, it’s another source of income if I need it. I don’t particularly enjoy marking dozens of papers, especially under immense time pressure – so it’s not the kind of work I’d choose. But it’s an option, and something I know I can do well.

All in all, I think I now qualify as a freelance teacher. It’s a new way of thinking about my career, and I like it. I feel like I’ve got a bit of breathing space. I don’t feel trapped, waiting for the next half term holiday. It’s giving me time to write, too, which is of course what I really want to do (as is the case for so many teachers, I’m realising). I think it’s opened my eyes to see working life in a different way… something to fit around my own well-being, perhaps. I do miss the relationship you can build up with classes over time, and there might be a time when I want to go back to more full-on teaching. Maybe when the government stop messing about with everything (will this ever happen?). Until then, I’m content with part-time work, and going freelance.

My first day teaching FE

Well, it wasn’t much like life in Channel 4’s Skins

 

Today was my first day in the world of supply teaching, and it began in an FE college, teaching IGCSE English to students on vocational courses. It seems that FE is crying out for more English and Maths teachers after change in legislation in 2013 means that student who do not achieve the magic ‘C’ grade will have to continue studying both core subjects until they do, or until they turn 18. I’m not sure on the fairness of such a scheme, as it seems punishing for students to be forced to study GCSE past 16, regardless of their ability; on the other hand, nobody can argue that gaining GCSE English and Maths is really beneficial to all.

I hadn’t really recognised the scale of the problem until today: over a thousand students at the college are on the exam retake treadmill. As you’d expect, some are disaffected, don’t turn up to lessons, or when forced to, do very little. These are young people on vocational courses like health and beauty, travel and tourism and health and social care. Many are committed to the practical ,work-based aspect of their college lives and don’t see the point in being forced to study a subject that they’ve hated all their lives. Others are more optimistic, and appreciate the opportunity of a second chance to gain really valuable qualifications. One girl today seemed to light up when I told her I’d noticed she writes sentences with strange syntax, and she should try to express things more simply. She was EAL, and I would assume that her teachers over the years would have told her the same thing. Perhaps they didn’t. It seemed a bit of a lightbulb moment for her – she really did take on the criticism with a smile. ‘That’s why I fail in English!’ she said, and I felt sad. It’s difficult, because knowledge of that particular grammar quirk isn’t necessarily going to help her. It might even make her write even more strange sentences as she tries to conquer it. With the exam just two months away, is it realistic for her to take on the natural syntax of the English language? Not really. Especially not on one hour’s tuition a week.

I wonder if I’m going to like working in FE. So far, I do. The students have been fairly amenable, genuinely appreciating my help, though of course there’s the same old issue of phones out in class, and headphones barely hidden beneath long teenage hair. Those kids who haven’t been quite so amenable were not rude. They all did a fair amount of work, and didn’t seem to have the attitude that I should mark it over night, else there was no point. They seemed to understand the the experience of writing for an exam was useful in itself, and the verbal feedback I gave them was valuable. This was refreshing – as in a secondary setting, kids seem to be obsessed with my marking of their work.

I taught the same lesson three times, and I suspect I’m teaching the same lesson all week, which is a weird concept. As a secondary school teacher, I was used to holding five plans for five very different lessons in my head in one single day: ‘A’ Level linguistic theories one hour, following by spelling quizzes with bottom set Y7. Having to switch gear and juggle so many demands was exhausting. Teaching the same thing all day every day might be a bit dull, but it’s not stressful. It means it doesn’t bother me when I have to spend extra time with a student who’s very weak, or needs motivating. It also means I have evenings free of marking and planning, which is bliss. I was home by four, and had chopped all the veg for dinner by five. Now I’m happily typing away while homemade spag bol bubbles away on the stove, chock-full of four different kinds of vegetable. My body’s going to like this new routine. I might even have the time and energy to, you know, do exercise, and have hobbies again.

I’m working at the college four days a week, yet I’m earning the same per week as I did as a full-time secondary school teacher with department responsibility. I know the counterpoint is that I’m not getting proper holiday pay, and it’s temporary. But it’s pretty great. It feels so liberating to get through a working day without feeling heavy with stress. I’m actually excited by the thought of where supply teaching might take me next.

 

 

Two Months Away from Teaching: What I’ve Learned

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I quit teaching in January. It wasn’t a neatly planned exit: it began as a run-of-the-mill start of term bout of flu, and became a state of stress-induced panic. A few weeks of headaches and sleepless nights later, I’d firmly decided that my teaching days were over.

It was scary. Teaching has become a gruelling profession, but it was still a well-paid and secure one, and I had rent to pay. Expensive rent.

So I applied for dozens of jobs: admin roles at universities (I’m lucky to live in a city that has two of them), librarian jobs, retail jobs. I didn’t get a very good response. I was probably competing with dozens – perhaps hundreds – of applicants who had more direct experience for the role. So the first thing I learnt was that switching career paths is far from straightforward. I kind of expected it, but part of me was also thinking, I have two degrees. I have management experience, albeit in a school. I am EMPLOYABLE.

Perhaps if I kept going with the applications, or acquired some sort of admin qualification, I could make the change. A steady job in an office environment has an appeal it never held when I was at university and trying to make my very first career decisions. Offices seemed soulless and boring to me then. I wanted the intellectual challenge and lively day-to-day of the classroom, and I got what I asked for. Nine years later, I may have had a little too much ‘challenge’, a little too much of ‘lively’. Now a nice little role at a desk inputting data and organising emails sounds quite pleasant and peaceful.

Then, just to see, I put my CV online to say I was interested in doing teaching supply. It was back-up, and not really what I wanted to do. Then my email inbox went INSANE. I was contacted by twelve recruitment agencies within the space of about forty minutes. I couldn’t keep up with the voicemails.

Then I realised I could get paid pretty well for supply work, and my attitude changed. There was high demand, and it felt really nice to be wanted. I liked the idea of not being tied down by a permanent contract, too – if I didn’t like the school, or I got stressed again, I didn’t have to stay. I had five real-life job offers in one week.

I learned the earning power of my PGCE and eight years’ worth of teaching experience, especially since I teach English, a core subject that is struggling to recruit new teachers. I worked out I could earn the same money teaching four days a week as I did in full-time work with a TLR. I could pay the rent after all! Success! Not only that, I secured work at a private sixth form college where I’d be teaching one-to-one. Previously, I’d taught an A Level class of 25 students, and the marking had sent me slightly insane. One student, though? Really? I only have to mark one essay?!

I have work lined up until exam time, and then I’m going to mark for an exam board, working at home, picking up odd days of supply if I feel like it. I’ve also had an offer of work from a publishers, writing and reviewing teachers’ resources and content for a student text book. I might have to work August (shock horror!) – I’m considering signing up for more tutoring – but it’s nice to feel in control and to make my own choices. After all, I could go on holiday in July instead, and find a cheap deal for the first time in my life.

I’ve learned that it’s harder to quit teaching than I thought. It’s difficult to leave what you know. However, I feel more in control of my own destiny now, and much happier. I might seek a permanent role for September, but I don’t want to work full-time again, and I don’t want a TLR. I’d rather find other ways of making that extra money, because I know now that it’s possible.

The best thing about the last two months has been feeling like myself again. It took a while, but I’m writing again – lots – and painting, and being creative. I feel calm and happy, and I’m going to work hard to stay that way.