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.