If I had to summarise my book, How to Survive in Teaching Without Imploding, Exploding or Walking Away, it would be with these three words: “you’re not alone”. Whether you’re nearing retirement after three or more decades or are a few years in and ready for a change of context; whether you’re a leader working to balance teaching with leadership or a parent negotiating the tricky landscape of parenting and teaching: you’re not alone.
Representing the voices of almost 4,000 teachers, trainees, former teachers and educational professionals, How to Survive provided both a comfort blanket and a source of nightmares during my year of writing. From it, I can promise that you’re not alone if you have:
- Collapsed into giggles at the umpteenth filthy Shakespeare joke and been openly disapproved of by teenagers.
- Sobbed in the store cupboard after your showcase lesson went to pot.
- Spent ten extra minutes in a toilet cubicle during the school day just to enjoy some SILENCE.
- Walked away from the job but never for a moment stopped loving working with children in the classroom.
- Been surprised to the point of tears by a touching goodbye card from a student whose life you never imagined you’d touch.
- Evacuated the classroom due to an unwelcome rodent visitor.
- Evacuated the classroom due to toxic flatulence from a student.
- Progressed from wild excitement at being offered a job to crippling depression when it wasn’t what you’d hoped it would be.
- Taken five years out of teaching and decided to give it another go – and love it now.
- Thrown caution to the wind and sung and danced in appalling glory on the school stage.
- Just reached your half-century and want to give teaching a go for the first time.
- Used the words: ‘I see more of you than my own family!’ to your students in exasperation and exhaustion.
- Mourned as a community the death of a student or former student.
- Been turned down for an interview for a job you knew and felt was yours, and your professional purpose twisted on its axis.
- Then stood up and brushed yourself off and embraced new teaching opportunities.
- Taken students outside London and watched them swim in the sea for the first time.
- Hugged a teacher at the news they’re pregnant and hugged another after the loss of their baby… in the same week.
- Never got tired of ‘Vater’ and ‘Grossvater’.
- Trailed toilet paper along the corridor; worn your dress inside out; pulled out a tampon instead of a board pen; overslept and driven at law-breaking speeds; set yourself alight; hurled yourself into the middle of a fight; forgotten to check the French film before showing it to Year 9…
You’re definitely not alone in these.
You’re also not alone in the following situations either. But they can make teaching feel like the loneliest job in the world:
- If you’ve been forced to enact policies and procedures which defy your very reason for being in the job.
- If you’ve lost weight dramatically or turned to anti-depressants and alcohol.
- If you’ve broken down, physically and emotionally and had to step away for weeks or months at a time.
- If you’ve been handed a cardboard box, signed a document which says you’ll never discuss what’s happened, and left your school forever in the middle of a working week – without a chance to say goodbye.
- If you’ve sobbed in front of a class because you just can’t cope.
- If, after 20 years service, you’ve been told you’re being made redundant and that the pay you’ll get is dependent on you keeping silent about the process.
- If your family and friends tell you you’ve lost your passion for the job (and indeed life), and you’re too stubborn to admit it.
- If you’re suspended from work for weeks at a time after an allegation from a student that nobody will discuss with you.
- If you’ve been forced to go through a miscarriage at work because your boss refused you time off.
- If you’ve lost your Mum and the only call you get from school is from HR to check you’re off work for valid reasons.
Our job can feel like the best job in the world. It can also feel like the worst.
Four more words? “There is always hope.” So many of the teachers who were kind and generous and brave enough to share their stories are now flourishing. Some have walked away for reasons that are entirely valid and make me steam with fury. Others have stayed on and excelled. Others still have changed schools. I can tell you from my own experience that changing context can feel a lot like a change of career.
I’m proud to call myself a writer, but I’m even prouder to call myself a teacher. I’m still teaching full time. I’m still experiencing the giggles and the moments of blind stress and the exhaustion that has me sleeping like a teenager at weekends. I’m walking (or stumbling, or racing) the walk with the rest of us. And it’s worth every moment.
Above all of those, I’m a wife and a mother, and I want the best teachers for my own children. If you’re considering teaching and you love working with young people and are prepared for a steep learning curve, go for it! If you’ve left and are considering coming back, trust me when I say there are good places and good people out there.
If young people represent one thing, it is fresh starts, optimism and determination. And hope. Where there are children, there is hope.
Dr Emma Kell’s book How to Survive in Teaching is out now! Follow Emma on Twitter: @thosethatcan.