I was warned of course, by a retired teacher, the father of my earliest childhood friend.
“You’re going to teach? You must be mad!” Trevor roared, in his usual jovial good manner, “They are ruining teaching you know!”
I didn’t listen. I was only 19, just leaving for college and so of course knew far better. For a long while, I really thought I had mastered it too. I was soon a successful teacher, allegedly a natural, according to the wonderful pair of ladies who mentored me in those first embryonic years. I had firm classroom control, good subject knowledge, strong relationships with parents and even managed a sense of humour on some days! I went from full contracts to supply and back again, getting a real feel for the different schools in my local area. I even took on T.A. work on occasion, and as a secret teacher, observed both fantastic and shocking practice from the sidelines. That forever gave me sympathy and respect for our over-worked and under paid T.A.s.
Eventually, responsibility beckoned and to pay for a mortgage, I settled down in one school for about 10 years. There was something comfortable about becoming part of the nearby community, knowing some lovely families, growing closer to comrades in arms and fine-tuning my teaching through years of practice. It would be unfair to discuss specific experiences from that period, but of course, like any job, there were both good and bad.
Nationally, however, the government’s attitude to teaching was becoming almost exclusively negative. The desperate search to find a scapegoat for society’s failings was coming to focus on education again. It was a probably considered a good vote catcher. “Hey parents! Your kids are doing badly at school, but it’s nothing to do with them, you, their background or constant government interference. It’s those awful teachers! Let’s go get them!” Like a horror movie mob of villagers, the government began circling teachers with metaphorical pitch forks and burning torches. The Witch Finder General, Mr. Gove, lead the assault, armed with an almost comical misunderstanding of what education was, accompanied by an infinite arsenal of personally approved innovations. Headteachers literally cowered in fear of the Ofsted goons, who would descend like Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition, seemingly creating failure criteria on the spot. Again, this would be funny if not for the awful pressures it exerted upon teachers, whose only crime was to try their best to help other people’s kids. Inspections and league tables created statistic driven schools that squashed children into numbers and hammered teachers into submissive automatons, expected to deliver the curriculum in uniform manner, regardless of personal approach.
Then they started on our pensions. An intrinsic part of the deal we signed up for was no longer safe. Schools were being pushed into becoming academies and any contract those teachers thought they had was apparently no longer valid. Monitoring staff’s work life balance became simply an unexplored option to many headteachers. And morale, well, that didn’t really matter did it? Completely non-statutory extra classroom observations were being dressed up in all kind of fancy new names and presented as useful. They certainly weren’t useful to the many teachers reduced to nervous wrecks before, during and after self-appointed experts gave out their clipboard informed pearls of wisdom, reflecting whatever current theory of education was fashionable at the time.
This hysteria was infecting all the schools and even the Unions were struggling to cope with the constant attacks upon teacher’s professionalism. Union suggestions for working to contract were undermined and discouraged, making it almost distasteful to do so in many schools. It’s sad to note that all this was made possible in schools by the collaboration of many in senior leadership structures, more bothered about school reputation and their own climb up the career ladder, than the welfare of staff and students. Education had begun to really stink.
My outlet was my art. Being art trained, I had always doodled when my mind wasn’t being particularly engaged. I was unusually productive during staff meetings and training days. I was able to both listen and draw, so it made an often dull experience far more enjoyable. As the national onslaught upon teaching began to increase, so the subject matter of my cartoons began to focus more upon what was annoying me about modern schools. It helped me to laugh at it, but only for a while.
Finally I’d had enough. I quit the job, for many of the above reasons but also due to some personal issues that made continuing as a teacher too difficult. It was not a decision I took lightly, with a young family to support and no real safety net beneath me. I just knew I could no longer stomach what was happening and it certainly wasn’t going to improve. The effect it was having on me was not worth it. Four years of teacher training and twenty years of experience in numerous schools seemed pointless. Like many who dared to make the ‘Great Escape’ from teaching, I was now faced with what to do next.
After a while I began to realise many of my cartoons may appeal to others like me, who were also disillusioned with the profession. I collected many of my doodles together, redrew some, spoke to other teachers for inspiration and then created many more. I put these into a book package and released it on Amazon as my book, ‘Who’d Be a Teacher?‘ This was a question many teachers seemed to continually ask. The book illustrated different topics such as work life balance, school inspectors, bad head teachers and questionable practices, all drawn in black and white pen and ink, just as I had originally done. It sold particularly well over the 2014 Christmas period and just afterwards and was reviewed very favourably by ‘The Teacher‘ magazine (see P38). I used Facebook and Twitter to promote the book myself, creating new colour work for the digital world and managed to reach hundreds of thousands of people.
For a book not nationally advertised, or picked up by a large publishing house yet, it’s not doing too badly. I have a sequel planned that will collate all the new colour work and a children’s novel midway through proof reading that I intend to release upon the book buying public soon. I’m loving the positive responses I get from my work because it shows me I am not alone in what I felt and equally, I hope that being able to laugh at the state of education, may offer some support to those still suffering within it.
The most common question I receive is whether anyone I’ve known throughout my career is particularly represented within the book. The answer is no. I honestly think it would be terribly unfair to show ex-colleagues in a comical light, even those I didn’t like, (to put it mildly!). Also, caricature takes a long time to do and I would rather make up my own unique characters. Sometimes elements of people have sneaked in from my subconscious mind. My late father seems to have elbowed his way into one picture for example, but I know he wouldn’t mind.
Am I done with teaching? I honestly don’t know. I didn’t quit because I wasn’t good at it and I am somewhat loathe to waste the skills I have developed, but in its current state, the classroom is not a place I want to be for long periods. Equally, the publicity I alone can give my work won’t generate enough sales to keep me in chocolate biscuits forever. But should one of those publishing houses want to snap up exclusive rights to my books, I doubt I would have to think about that decision for too long.
‘Who’d Be a Teacher?’ is available on Amazon as a paperback and for kindle.