It occurred to me that in the three years of running Ladies Who Impress, I have not yet interviewed a school teacher. It’s about time I address this oversight. I spoke to a teacher, who chose to remain anonymous, and talked to me about her work, its challenges, frustrations and, of course, rewards.
I currently work purely as a teacher having spent the previous ten years of my career as a middle manager, including four as Head of Subject and six as Head of Department. My current school is an international sixth form college. It is fee paying but not academically selective.
What were you passionate about as a child?
My greatest passion was sport, but I was also fascinated by the natural world, which led me to take a biology degree.
How did you fall into teaching?
I didn’t fall into it, I actively chose it. In the summer after my first year at University I did “Camp America” and spent my summer teaching swimming. This cemented my long felt desire to become a teacher. Initially, I felt that I should do ‘something else’ before I became a teacher so that I could start the profession a little older and with a bit more life experience, but the pursuit of trying to find ‘something else’ was futile. All I actually wanted to do was teach, and so after a year of various odd jobs (including being a primary school art teacher), working in a school in Pakistan and some travel, I returned to University to do my PGCE [The Postgraduate Certificate in Education, a one-year higher education course, which provides teacher training in the UK].
What makes a good teacher?
A good teacher has many skills. Academically, teachers must be able to explain complex ideas in such a way that students can absorb the information quickly and easily and spark students’ interest and curiosity. However, I feel that the non-academic aspect of being a good teacher is much more important. A good teacher builds confidence, enabling their students to feel that they can achieve anything, regardless of their start in life. A good teacher demonstrates that he or she has time for the students and believes in them. Good teachers show that they care. They listen and respond to what their students say.
Are you a good teacher?
Yes. At least my students say that I am. Whilst I am perfectly adept at the academic side of teaching, the bit that makes my students rate me highly is the ‘other stuff’, the pastoral care side of the job. Of course, there are days when I think I’m a pretty terrible teacher, and nothing I say makes any sense – we roll with it on those days…
Can you share a story of a moment which made you feel proud of what you do?
This is quite a hard question because the moments I am most proud of are perhaps not the most obvious ones. Of course, it makes me happy when students do well in their exams, but often it’s the little things which really matter: a card which said that my teaching had made them want to study the subject further; a student performing well when previously they had been crippled with nerves; a sports team going from never having played the sport before to winning a string of matches and developing the camaraderie and ties that a good team has. These little things make every day different and make me proud to be a teacher.
Do you ever get questions from your students which make you think “I have no idea what’s the answer, I’d need to look it up.” If so, how do you deal with that?
Yes! That’s a brilliant moment. It happens more often than you might imagine. Sixth formers often come up with questions, which make me think. I have no issue with being honest when I don’t know something. I have built their trust and they are happy for me to come back to them.
We hear a lot from teachers complaining about endless paperwork. It must be de-motivating – how do you deal with it?
Administrative tasks are frustrating when they don’t seem to promote learning. Since I have to get on with them, I have to convince myself that the paperwork is important. Education these days is largely about accountability, and I find it so very wrong. If instead of spending time on proving that we had done something, we were actually teaching, our students would do a lot better!
I am very lucky that I currently work in a school where this isn’t a particular problem, but my friends and former colleagues are drowning in paperwork. Accountability is good, but there should be a greater degree of trust. Research shows that the very best form of feedback is verbal feedback. It allows you to have a dialogue about the piece of work, and it’s interactive. But verbal feedback has no evidence, so teachers are asked to indicate when verbal feedback has been given. The authorities seem to care less about students’ progress and more about the “verbal feedback given” stampers, which have become ubiquitous.
Do you agree that British schools are more about schooling than education?
Yes. It is all about getting the kids above the C grade bar. Or, if they are cleverer, getting an A*. The syllabuses are huge, time is tight and classes are large. There is no time and no encouragement to take a lesson to develop a proper answer to an interesting but slightly tangential question. We all want to get the students to think independently, but the reality is that the pressure for results is so high, that allowing students to think for themselves is ridiculously high risk. Instead, teachers spoon-feed in ever increasingly creative ways so that the students are guaranteed to do well. The wheels then fall off at University, or for some at A-level.
What do you need to vent about?
There is a lot written about the lowly position of England in the global education system. In response the government sent some people to China and Singapore to try and establish what it is that makes these countries so good. Objectively, Chinese students should not be so successful with crowded classrooms and lessons taught in an autocratic style. But the fundamental point is surely about the position of education in society and the status of educators and the school in general.
As an Oxford graduate, I am frequently asked by my students: “Why are you a school teacher if you went to Oxford?” Many parents tell me: “I was no good at x so I’m not surprised that *child’s name* isn’t either” or “I hated school myself, so I don’t like forcing my child to study.” Teachers in the UK are not ranked very highly and the school itself is often viewed as a chore.
I don’t mean to say that teachers should be automatically revered, but I do think that we need to work on improving the attitudes of the majority to education. Schools need to work with parents to be perceived as safe places. If schools and parents work together, then progress can be made.
If you were the Education Minister (and assuming you had the real power), what would you do?
Remove league tables. The league tables provide an invidious way of ranking schools based purely on attainment. Sadly, there are so many ways in which schools can inflate their results, e.g. resits or pushing subjects with very high pass rates. League tables create the pressure to get good results, and the pressure is increasing. With budget cuts student numbers are crucial, and you don’t want to be the school with the lowest results in town. This means teachers bend over backwards to get Johnny the C grade, but Johnny himself can end up being totally disengaged in the process. He would learn how to pass the exam not the subject itself. I once taught in a school that had excellent maths results. Really truly outstanding. The maths department were rightly proud of their achievements. However, when I came to the bit of my course that requires maths, I discovered that whilst the students could follow a process to answer a GCSE maths question they had absolutely no concept of what numbers meant or how to apply them to other subjects. It was frustrating, but when I raised it as a concern, I was told to leave it alone. How was that helping our students in the long term?
What is your greatest achievement?
Being selected for the Blue Boat and winning the Boat Race [the annual rowing race between the Oxford and Cambridge universities]. Not for the singular act, but due to the extended period of commitment and perseverance that it involved.
What are you good at?
Also, winning the trust of the students and forming relationships which then allows me to help them achieve more than they thought possible.
What is your weakness?
What would you advise your 15-year-old self?
Be brave and say “yes” to every opportunity offered to you.
If you could do anything, knowing that you would not fail, what would it be?
(A) an Ironman; (B) set up my own business; (C) re-train as a counsellor and (D) climb something really tall, like Kilimanjaro or something in the Andes. The list goes on…