I began my teaching career in 2004, and in two weeks I will be finishing my secondment in schools, effectively ending 13 years of teaching children. It feels appropriate to share a few thoughts and reflections on what I still genuinely feel is one of the most rewarding (and punishing) professions anyone can experience.
The Noble Profession
I did not start teaching because I wanted to help children. Nor did I start teaching because of a nagging dissatisfaction with being a small cog in a big corporate wheel, searching for something more meaningful. I joined because I needed a job, and at the time, teaching was offering a very attractive financial incentive – paying off my student loans over 10 years, and a ‘golden hello’ of about £5000 in my first year after qualifying. It felt like a better idea than continually applying unsuccessfully for graduate IT jobs that had seemingly dissipated after the millennium bug phenomenon.
Today the Government offers similar, but poorly structured incentives to join the profession. A large bursary that effectively salaries your training year (for shortage subjects). However, there are no strings attached. No conditions beyond ‘start training’, and no caveats should you decide to quit during your training, or after your training, or after a term of teaching. In fact, some trainees end up taking what amounts to a pay cut upon graduation.
I didn’t find my training year hard. Everyone always says it’s hard but it doesn’t have to be. It took up a lot of my energy, but the things I was being asked to do didn’t feel difficult, just time consuming. It bothers me that trainees now are often asked to do more than they need to, simply because people seemingly want them to find it as hard as they did. Encouragement seems in short supply.
A love of maths
I was not a fan of maths at all. I wasn’t even a maths teacher. I taught ICT (basically a tour of the Office Suite) which felt like a disappointment after studying programming and mathematics at University (I studied maths because it was valuable, not because I liked it). I was competing with a trainee teacher who had already established themselves in the school we applied to (he was working there), and the school ended up appointing us both because I could offer mathematics as well, despite having no formal training in teaching it. The first 5 years of my teaching career very much had maths as an aside. I was promoted quickly, and became the preposterously pretentiously titled ‘Director of ICT’ after about 4 years. Being promoted quickly was exciting and felt rewarding, but ultimately I became disillusioned, and then I quit.
I was not a good teacher
I don’t look back on my first 5 years of teaching with any particular pride over my style of pedagogy. I got on very well with my students, lessons were relaxed, behaviour was good – after I realised that being a total asshole with no time for empathy (as instructed) didn’t work well for me at all. But in hindsight, I think people thought I was a good teacher because the students behaved and we were all having a good time. I have no doubt that that’s a key part of doing the job well, and without it you’ll probably struggle, but the way in which I actually taught stuff was pretty poor. I fell foul of many IT lessons that defaulted to ‘research this, present it on a powerpoint’ or ‘get on with your GNVQ coursework’. Worse still, the fact that I was being recognised as an ‘outstanding’ teacher felt counter intuitive. I wanted to get better. To this day I question the notion of what an ‘outstanding’ teacher is. I think a lot of schools still see it as a show. Kids engaged? Tick. Teacher enthused? Tick. Books look ok? Tick. This guy’s great.
Teaching maths felt harder, and more nuanced to me. I liked that, and I always finished a lesson, no matter how well it went, thinking ‘how could I do this better?’.
As flattered as I should have felt at being promoted quickly, it left me feeling disillusioned and numb about the linearity of a teaching career. I sought a more significantly different edge to my career and applied for jobs that seemed above my station. To my surprise I ended up being an education consultant in the middle east, working with interpreters to help reshape the pedagogy of existing teachers in boys schools. It was a huge culture shock, and the most amazing experience of my life to date. It was here where I started to really invest in my own development. I began reading about the science of teaching, about the science of questioning, understanding, memory, the deeper questions around the purpose of school, and the history of education. Suddenly teaching became so much more interesting to me. It was a kind of awakening, a realisation and an appreciation of the precision, hidden depths and craft of good teaching. I felt as though I had actively rejected my former teacher self, and the very notion of what was being labelled at the time as ‘outstanding’ (*spit*).I learnt to love mathematics as I worked alongside some of the most enthused and knowledgeable people I’ve had the privalege to meet, who showed me that making sense of mathematics is so much more important than just being able to do it.
I met so many incredible people from different walks of life, all of whom helped reshape my outlook on teaching, and life in general. I saw how valuable education is, and how little we appreciate it back home. I saw the imbalance of privilege – where I could be served in a coffee shop by someone with more qualifications than me, but with the ‘wrong’ colour passport, and I heard of what people go through to be able to give their children access to any kind of education. People who moved away from their families, their countries, just to earn enough to send home to give their children a chance. Children they would see grow up only in snapshots. I thought back to the children I had taught in the UK, utterly oblivious to the enormous liberties afforded to them simply because of where and when they were born. Indeed, I was one of them.
I returned to the UK with, for the first time, a genuine zeal for the profession, which has stayed with me since, and which I try to pass on to trainee teachers embarking on their own journeys.
What we do changes lives. Some will appreciate that, some won’t. Some children would have done just fine without you, some wouldn’t. Some may fail, most won’t. The tragedy of teaching is that you often don’t see just how much impact you had on people. The occasional run-in with a former pupil, or a heart-felt letter at the end of year 11, or a parent telling you how grateful they are for what you’ve done for their child. We cling to those moments, in a time where teaching is harder than it should be. You’ll find those cards, gifts and messages stuffed away in the desks of teachers, or pinned to their departmental noticeboards. Sometimes we need to revisit them to remind us what the hard battle is for.
I’ll miss the buzz of the classroom, the joy of seeing when a concept clicks, the wonder and intrigue of young minds, the eleven year old predicting a room is “about 20 metres tall”. I’ll miss the sixteen year old who is mortified that they just calculated a perimeter as a negative number, the belief reignited in someone who aced a test, the email from a student telling me maths ‘isnt shit with you’, and the nine year old who signed my leaving card on my first school placement “Goodbye Mr Southall, thank you for teaching me, you will always be suspicious.”
Bless them all.
Here is my presentation from MathsConf9 about the etymology of words in mathematics.
There are notes for some of the slides.