In most of my working experiences I have been welcomed quite warmly by the boss. In the first couple of weeks of my job the boss would typically offer a reassuring smile and enquire as to how I was settling in. I believe this is standard practice in most civilised work places; it’s certainly something that I have always done with the new employees who have joined me. The Curriculum Manager at Manchester Adult Education Service (MAES) was a towering, upright, scruffy, Northern Irishman who for all the world looked like an old, bitter, greying version of Beaker from the Muppets. He was as welcoming as herpes. If being dour was an Olympic sport then this man would be the Usain Bolt of dourness; but it isn’t, and it shouldn’t be an attribute of anyone in a management position whose role should be to not only effectively organise, but also to motivate and inspire. This man was the antithesis of both of those things. This man could deflate the enthusiasm of a children’s TV presenter on MDMA.
Having worked for local authorities before in one capacity or another I do understand how bureaucratic and frustrating those organisations can be to work in. I also understood that under the austerity conditions imposed during a recession due to the greed of banks and the failings of government, it was even more difficult for those heading departments within the public sector. However my understanding comes from what I like to think of as the capacity to empathise. This capacity to empathise is something that helps engender good relations with staff in difficult working situations – any half decent leader would know this. So whilst I don’t really want to just slag off the boss, as that is all too easy, I can’t help but resent a man who offers not a jot of motivational support to a new employee who is new to a profession and has just been thrown – neigh, tossed, like some cheap cut of meat – into a meat grinder of a working environment without an induction or formal easing in period of any sort. A man who instead just highlights understandable deficiencies in what he well knows to be a very difficult and thankless task. The closest utterance of any note that would constitute ‘understanding’ was, “Look, it is what it is and we [you] just have to deal with it”. So with those wonderful words of support I proceeded to go from confident, enthusiastic, graduate teacher, to exhausted, insecure, failure.
Not a great deal worked at MAES. We had four photocopiers between two floors servicing approximately 35 staff. These photocopiers were also used as printers and fax machines. With the voracious appetite of a teaching department for copying, these machines frequently broke. There were another two printers in the teacher’s room, but only one of those was in use – when it wasn’t broken. The other printer spent the entire six months of my employment sat on top of a cabinet, unplugged. I started to see this printer as an ornament of mockery, smiling at me as I panicked and scrambled around when its overworked colleagues failed to perform. To make things even more difficult, when the copier ran out of paper, teachers were required to walk the 50 or so metres down the corridor to ask for a key and fill in a form to get a refresh from the stock room.
Modern teaching relies quite a lot on I.T. The computers at MAES were as old as the teaching materials and just as shit. They took almost ten minutes to boot up and then would often not connect to the network or the external devices. We shared an office where teachers would ‘hot seat’ – which sounds exciting, but really just means you have to grab whatever space was available because there isn’t enough room for people to have their own desk. This meant that you never really had too many options if the computer you were using wasn’t working properly. There were computers in all of the classrooms, but for some reason these were not connected to printers – that would have made too much logical sense I guess. Our technical support consisted of two people who were expected to service all the old computers and other technical equipment in five centres spread around the city. These technicians also had to be booked in advance! It was a joke.
Everything in the teaching department at MAES was set up like an obstacle course to make the job just that little bit harder. For example, there were two floors of classrooms and those that were on the upper floor were easily accessible by a flight of stairs that were right outside of the teacher’s room. However that would have been too easy, so those stairs were declared unusable due to ‘health and safety’. What particular aspect of health and safety was being breached by using these stairs was never explained. Apparently it was something to do with them being a fire exit stairway. Yet for several weeks this stairway was the home of pots of paint and at one point a trolley full of decorating equipment. What was even more puzzling was how that stairway wasn’t used when we actually had a fire drill, and we had a few of those during my time there. So, with these stairs out of bounds, we had to make our way through around 100 metres of corridor separated by 10 sets of doors in order to get into our upstairs classrooms.
Between the malfunctioning computers, malfunctioning photocopiers, malfunctioning printers and interactive whiteboards, manoeuvering through doorways and along lengthy corridors in a building under refurbishment, actually starting a class on time was a feat in itself. Watching teachers get to their rooms for each session was like a cheap, school version of Wipe Out. Add to the maelstrom of malfunction a timetable from hell and manager with all the charisma of a haemorrhoid, I became as deflated as a dead mans scrotum. I completely lost my mojo and my ability to consistently perform my teaching duties to a standard that either the school or I were satisfied with. Furthermore, I was so miserable and depressed, I had no enthusiasm to do anything in the little time I had to socialise – and that really isn’t me.
Soon it came time for my first observation with the curriculum manager. This did not go badly, but it didn’t go too well either. There was little that the Tall Grey Man liked about the lesson, but plenty of things that he found to criticise; his perception of the glass was very much half empty. By the time my second observation came, I already hated going into work and had started to count down the days until the end of my contract (there were a lot of days left to count). However, I still wanted to have a good observation. That was made impossible when the interactive whiteboard failed to play any sound – sound is important for a language lesson focusing on listening. I had stored a CD player in the cupboard for back up but that was no longer there when I looked. So with 19 students and the observing teacher all staring at me, drained of confidence, I proceeded to wing a lesson without so much as a feather in my cap. Suffice to say the lesson crashed.
At the end of my second observation the observing teacher – who also happened to be the area manager and the person who had employed me at interview – passive-aggressively ripped it to pieces, blaming my lack of preparation as the reason for its numerous failings (it’s the teacher’s responsibility to check all the equipment in the classroom before a lesson). I decided that I would take the opportunity at that time to express some of my frustrations with my job in general. In hindsight I think that was a bad move. The area manager’s only response to my grievances was that I should count myself lucky that I had been offered a full time position. Here was me thinking that it was my skills, abilities and a sterling interview that got me the job, when all this time it was just luck. That kind of burst the tiny little bubble of confidence I had left in my teaching abilities.
Having failed a second time, my third observation was ‘last chance saloon’ and I was told it would have to be a perfect performance or I would not have my contract extended – no pressure then! I had all but lost all my confidence in my ability to teach and I didn’t really know what I should or shouldn’t do in my lessons anymore. So when the time came I had got to the point where I didn’t really care. I hated the fucking job and I just didn’t want to be there any more. So it went that on a day when I had rushed into work because I had a personal problem to deal with at home, I arrived unprepared and as luck would have it I was informed approximately one minute before entering a lesson for absolute beginners (a group which I am not the best with) I was told that I would be observed – by two people.
To cut what has been a very long story short, my last observation was the worst of the lot according to the observers’ report. In fact, it was too bad to be true. It read like a report that was taking no chances in ensuring that I would not stay beyond my probationary period. I don’t think a random person dragged off the street would have got such a bad review. But I was exhausted, deflated, and despite disagreeing with much of what was said, I didn’t want to argue. To be honest, I think I had lost all perspective as well as confidence, so even I couldn’t tell what was right or wrong with my teaching anymore. After the area manager’s response to some of the views I aired about my job after my second observation, I knew I was already doomed at MAES.
I pointed out earlier in this story that part of my problem in my first job was that I came to teaching late on the back of a lengthy career as a freelancer and a lot of working experience. I think that had contributed to my failure, because I was not exactly silent about the shortcomings of the facilities and my introduction to MAES. However, I am now slowly learning that when you’re working for other people it’s probably wiser to keep your mouth shut.
My time at MAES had been the worst working experience of my life (well, perhaps on a par with that time I worked in a call centre for British Gas). There is more to any job than just grinding away like a machine. Motivation and confidence are needed to perform well; you only have to listen to any elite sportsman or woman to know that. If your management or your organisation fail in motivating you and sap you of your confidence, then they need to consider reviewing their own performance. Fortunately for me I didn’t remain down in the dumps for too long. I soon found some part-time work at a private school and regained my teaching mojo. They had a small staff team who were friendly and supportive and were more than happy with how I was going about my work. So much so, that they were sad to see me go after I took up the offer of a full-time teaching role elsewhere. My new job would take me 8000 miles away to work in Jakarta in Indonesia. That should be interesting.
Anybody who has opted for a career in teaching knows it can be quite difficult to get your first full-time job after graduating. Teaching is not a job for the faint hearted and statistics don’t make good reading for newbies staying the course in their first year, which I’m sure doesn’t go unnoticed by Human Resource departments in schools and colleges. Hiring a graduate teacher may cost less in terms of wages, but if they can’t perform then their employer has to go through the whole process of recruitment again. This is unsettling for the students and a time consuming and costly process for the school or college. The safe option would be to hire someone with experience in the first place. So when I got offered a full-time job just weeks after receiving my teaching diploma, I was a very happy man.
Less than two weeks into the job and I hated it. A month in and I was seriously questioning whether I had made the right choice in becoming a teacher. I don’t recall too many things in life that I’ve given up on, but after two months I was considering throwing in the towel and returning to self-employment in the arts. There’s not much long-term security, but at least you have a social life and wake up relatively happy most mornings. Since I had started working for Manchester Adult Education Service (MAES) I woke up every morning with a groan and launched myself out of bed with the words “I hate this fucking job”. Long-term security is no good if your life is going to be miserable.
I’ve come to teaching pretty late in life. Prior to teaching I had a pretty diverse and creative range of work – graphic design, performing arts, theatre, independent community filmmaking, even djing and club promotion. I’ve very much followed what I enjoy doing. But whilst many may commend or even envy a career path of such freewheeling creativity, I ultimately failed to secure a foothold in any one thing. I didn’t become an established screen or TV writer. I didn’t establish myself in the world of theatre. I’m not a superstar Dj and I don’t have a branded club night that is in demand at big venues, dance events and festivals all over the world. And even though I once designed a range of t-shirts for a clothing company, that sold so well, it transformed Ringspun into a global success and made the owner a millionaire – I myself was never more than just a jobbing freelance designer. That said, unlike many of my peers over the years, I did do well enough to secure some financial assets, and I didn’t exactly endure the life of an impoverished, suffering artist, only to find myself with grey hairs, emerging wrinkles and nothing else to show for my art at the end of it. I’ve done my fair share of partying, travelled extensively, and I’ve had some wonderful working experiences. All of that experience has given me a great range of creative skills, skills that helped me in my work as a creative project manager, which is what I did for several years prior to teaching. I managed people, budgets and collaborated in partnership with other agencies and organisations, so I was not the graduate in his mid-twenties arriving at the start of his career with no prior experience. This I think was part of the problem in my first job, but certainly not the cause.
Whatever academic course you undertake to become a professional teacher is difficult. Whether it’s a PGCE, Diploma or Cert Ed, it involves intensive study and very hard work. You learn every aspect of the profession and there is a lot to learn. It’s a profession that is always changing and developing with advancements in educational philosophies and policies. Having spent many years working with young people, I knew enough about myself and British teenagers to know that I didn’t want to teach in high school, so I opted to pursue the route of teaching in further education. Adult learners are more motivated and less inclined to the psychopathic tendencies inherent in developing adolescents. However, whilst you may not have as many difficult behaviour issues to deal with, it’s still a hard job.
Whilst lawyers have legal secretaries and doctors have nurses and teams of medical staff to support their work, the teacher has nobody but themselves to plan, monitor, review and assess students on top of the actual work of effectively teaching and all that entails – and it entails a lot more than just standing in front of a group of people talking, believe me. Yet somehow we aren’t as valued as much as lawyers or doctors. Despite the fact that teachers transform the minds of men and women to help them elevate beyond the status of eating, sleeping and excreting beasts, the teacher is the professional that is taken for granted the most. The lawyer or the doctor would never have the ability to practice without first being taught by the teacher. Yet whilst most people would willingly part with £100 plus an hour for the services of a lawyer, or accept the meaty annual wage of a doctor as deserved, the teacher is somehow considered the runt of the professional litter and seldom given the respect of those other senior professionals in society.
When you start your first full-time teaching job, it is standard practice to be eased in slowly. Your first week or so should be an induction week where you shadow other teachers in the educational establishment you have joined and maybe only teach half your timetable. You would meet the supporting staff, be given time to familiarise yourself with the school or college the resources and your work colleagues. Modern colleges tend to utilise a networked intranet that is supported by a technical team. This intranet system itself would easily require a half-day training session to get to grips with its basic functionality and content. The very, very least you would expect before you even entered a classroom would be a health and safety briefing. A couple of days before starting my first full-time job with MAES I received an email inviting me to meet the staff before I started. This was not mandatory, but an informal invitation; ‘If you have some free time’. I had the free time so I decided to go and see where I would be working, and it was a good thing I did because if I hadn’t have done I would have been absolutely fucked the following Monday!
I had been emailed my timetable a few days before my start date and it didn’t seem like my first week was an induction week, it was a very full timetable of classes. I was entering a department that was still in the process of relocating into a building that was still undergoing redevelopment work. Even the existing staff – who had all started a couple of weeks earlier – were still settling in. Yet despite this being my first full-time teaching role, despite no formal induction, I was expected to simply start on a full timetable upon walking through the door – a door attached to a doorway that led into a building that was still under construction. The timetable itself consisted of 9 sessions, each of which lasted two and a half hours. Within these 9 sessions were 7 different classes consisting of around 20 students. These classes covered every ESOL level from absolute beginner to intermediate and I shared 6 of those classes with 5 different teachers who I had never met, all of which I had to liaise with to ensure that we didn’t duplicate our lessons. When I showed my timetable to the team leader, a veteran of over 25 years, I think her words were, “Oh you poor thing!” The first couple of days of my job teaching at a language summer school experience left me thinking “WTF!” The first day of my full-time job with MAES simply had me thinking, “I can’t do this!”
In most EFL schools the teachers work from an English language learning book. You have chapters which you follow each day and there are supporting materials and teacher’s notes for you to work from. MAES were working with the materials from Skills for Life, an ESOL resource pack created by the government in 2006 that is now so referentially obsolete as to be almost useless. There was always the option of creating your own material, and of course planning is a large part of an ESL teacher’s job. However, with each hour of teaching requiring anything between one to two hours of preparation, it helps to have a single piece of reference material to work from. Filtering through a yard sale pile of old books and being expected to prepare work for a week of two-and-a-half hour lessons without any formal induction was an utterly ridiculous expectation. But what was I going to do, complain before I even started? Of course not; so I just carried on regardless. But deep down the weight of the task and the fear of failure in my first job felt like a black hole of burden. A burden I believed and hoped was just a teething anxiety that would go away; it didn’t. By Thursday I had developed a tortuous knot between my neck and shoulder that remained there for the entire six-month duration of the job.