Saturday, 31 March 2012

In defence of teachers

I'm just going to post this here, but if you want to see the original article, it's in the Times iPad edition today, and in the online edition as of yesterday. Apart from Sarah Ebner's introduction, all words are mine, although I suppose the copyright now lies with the Times, so I've included the link too:

Sarah Ebner

Last week I posted a guest blog post by Marium Gobol, who explained why she had turned her back on teaching. Her post attracted a number of strongly felt comments, many expressing sympathy for what is must be to teach in a secondary school today. But after posting that piece, I received an email which expressed quite a different view. Hannah Joels told me that she too had left teaching, but for other reasons. And she is keen that people see that other point of view, one which doesn't knock the profession.

So today's (moving) guest post is by Hannah. I'd be interested in what you think of her story.

"After five years in the classroom, I too have left teaching. Like Marium, I am a top graduate (I studied English at Cambridge before completing a Primary PGCE in my mid-20s) but unlike Marium, I didn't find my teaching peers to be illiterate or innumerate, but hard working, diligent individuals with a wealth of experiences.

People often forget that teaching demands intense dedication as well as skill and talent. My experience in primary schools taught me that teachers often get into school at 7am and don't leave until 6pm, run clubs in their lunch hours, take children on week-long residential trips and meet with parents at the end of most days. It's an exhausting life, but, mostly, it’s worth it. By the time I’d completed my NQT year I’d also taken on additional curriculum responsibility, unpaid, despite being on an extended temporary contract (common-practice in under-funded primary schools, despite being discouraged by the unions.)

Ever OFSTED-ready, mine and colleagues’ lessons 'engage and excite'  (as are the buzz words of education) and are full of opportunities for 'formative' assessment. At times, we are teacher, social worker, psychologist and parent rolled into one. During term time we don’t switch off. If we did, we could not muster the energy to return the following day. Every initiative the government imposes, we react. We are determined, proud professionals desperate to stay ahead. But that's the problem: There are so many initiatives, so many expectations, so many demands that it can feel like a never-ending list of changes. A friend in the process of becoming a head works (entirely necessary) 80-hour weeks. When there are 30 children in a class and every day you need to quality mark (putting a written and thoughtful comment and point for improvement on) each and every English, Maths and topic book, that's at least 2-3 additional hours work on top of the planning, preparation, not to mention teaching, required.

Thirteen weeks holiday initially feels generous, but after four years of no weekends, it doesn't feel nearly enough. The expectation from schools, too, is that you work at least some of that time.  By the end of term, it feels like you're staggering towards the finishing line. And don’t forget, according to the press, ‘anyone can teach’ - teachers’ status has been completely eroded.

How many times have people said to me; "You have a Cambridge degree? Why teach?" Where should I start? I won't even bother, because after four years of endlessly changing directives from the government, the ongoing anxiety of dangled carrots of permanent employment and no life to speak of outside of the summer break, I became so ill I was hospitalised. Suddenly everything was thrown into sharp perspective. I thought about returning to teaching for a while, but decided that to do so I'd need someone to look after me and say: "It's 6pm, you've been here since 7.30am, you've done 6 hours of intense teaching, it's time to go home and leave work at work."  But because I am, like most teachers, conscientious, and because no one in teaching would ever actually advise that, (they know how much has to be done) I decided it wasn't the right choice for me.

I now look at ex-colleagues in awe. The children they teach are incredibly lucky to have such dedicated teachers. But, for a profession that places praise as its centre, praise of the profession is almost entirely alien; it's an often thankless, brutal existence where burn-out is inevitable by July. We have a world-class education system full of world-class teachers and children who love going to school every day. But it will never be good enough. And that's why I left."

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Happy Mothering Sunday

From the very start, she has been there to guide me, to love me, and to pick me up when I fall down. She is my teacher, my role model and my friend. Without her I cannot imagine life as I know it. She has been there with me, next to me, through the good and the bad. Her patience and compassion at times seem limitless; she has found ways to nurture me when I have rejected it all. She has mopped up tears of frustration, and patiently listened to my fears, my hopes and dreams. She has never, ever, doubted me.

I have caused her worry and sleepless nights, as all children do. She has glowed with pride at my accomplishments, as all mothers do. We have grown to know each other as adult and child and later, as adult to adult. We can talk for hours, or sit in comfortable, knowing silence, as the best of friends do.

My nose and eyes are her nose and eyes. Her love for books is a love that I share. We both have moments when we snap, and without sleep we are [unanimously] a nightmare!

Whether teaching me to hop on my left leg, or consoling me after a failed driving test, she knows without me saying how I feel. Our bond is, like all mother-daughter bonds, unique. Without it I would not be who I am.

So this post is dedicated to my mum, my precious, wonderful, beautiful, one and only mum. Whom I couldn't love more than I do.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Coming out of hibernation

I have been reminded by a fellow blogger that spring is sprung, or indeed, in the process of springing, across the Northern hemisphere. The days are getting longer, the light is a little brighter, and all around there are signs that we're emerging from another cold winter. Daffodils and tulips are beginning to grace the buckets at the front of supermarkets and florists, and the first flowers are poking their heads through the still-cold earth, straining to share in the little sunlight we have.

I love this time of year: leaving the house in the morning, the air feels less icy, less cruel; some mornings the sun even offers some warmth. The expression March comes in like a lion, out like a lamb is bearing true in many tiny yet significant ways. Before long the gentle sound of children playing out after school will filter through the air into my tiny house, the sound of mowers will hum softly through my weekends, reminding me why, although I don't have the city-lifestyle I once thought I wanted, that I love where I live.

Spring is a time when senses reawaken, when we remember the delicate aroma of freshly cut grass or newly blossomed flowers, or the sound of the dawn chorus. But, it's also a time when, particularly in colder countries, people seem to come out of hibernation. We connect more. We stop hiding in our little boxes, and venture into the parks and streets, and we converse, we play, we communicate. It's as though, as the cold lifts, so too do our comfort blankets, and we begin to remember what it's like to be human again. Less driven by the cold we wander and meander, we look at, instead of through, one another. Relationships are kindled and rekindled in the parks and cities as people notice one another. After the harsh survival required of us by winter, Spring seems so wonderful, nurturing and full of possibility.

Even at the March wedding we went to there were
signs of summer on their way
For me this year, Spring feels more momentous than usual because, despite the relatively mild UK winter, it feels like I'm emerging from nearly a year in the deep freeze. Slowly but steadily, there have been tiny shifts in my perspective, some of which I'm barely even aware of, but they are there none the less. The metaphor of the winter thaw is prosaic but true: I feel like I'm moving slowly from icy brittleness to a gentler, warmer place: there's the occasional ground frost still to contend with, but generally, I'm happier to embrace the new season and build connections, poke my head out of from beneath my blanket and feel both the warmth of the sun and the dampness of the rain. Just like the season, Spring, it's not all sunshine and roses, but on the days that the sun shines and her warmth penetrates our being, it reminds me of the promise that lies ahead. And I intend to make the most of it.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012


Mr B and I have just returned from a lovely break to Helsinki. It was cold. Freezing cold. But it was lovely. The city is compact and beautiful and has, to me, more the feeling of a Southern European city than one of the most Northern capital cities in the world.

Although it was cold, it didn't bother me as much as the cold damp in the UK; the Finns really know how to make the most of existing in such a cold climate. So there's snow everywhere? Everyone wears snow boots - even those attending posh, society weddings at Helsinki cathedral (no kidding, we saw a whole family in finery and snow boots!) The streets are slippery, so the Finns don their cross country skis and ski poles and adapt. The transport doesn't grind to a halt and even the fact that it's dark for so much of the day doesn't darken the mood of the people in the city: there are twinkly fairy lights everywhere, and unlike the English who like to cocoon themselves in tiny, dark rooms as a way of keeping warm, the Finns epitomise Ikea living - wide open, light spaces, filled with as much light (natural and artificial) as possible. Instead of feeling constrained by the cold and depressed by the dark, I felt uplifted by the lightness and like I wanted to go outside and make the most of the crisp and beautiful snow.
The view from our hotel room over the frozen sea!

The strangest thing was that from our lovely, bright, light and open hotel room, the panoramic window looked out over one of the many coastal inlets of the Baltic sea. But this was like no sea I have ever seen before. It was entirely frozen over. Not just fragments of ice floating on the waves, but TOTALLY frozen over. So frozen over that it was difficult to see where the sea ended and the land began. So frozen over that we were able to walk on it and not fall in. So frozen over that there was at least a foot of snow compacted on top of the ice. People were cross country skiing and ski-sailing across it. It was breath taking! And so beautiful. And oh so strange.
That's Mr. B 'on the beach' - really!

One day I'd love to go back to Finland. I loved the humour of the people, the family-friendliness of the city and its surroundings, but most of all how the people seemed to embrace the great outdoors with gusto!