I remember once trying to explain to my dad what it was like to be a teacher. It was around the time of the introduction of the Literacy and Numeracy Hours, they had maybe been in full swing for a year or two, and I was young and tired. “It’s like being a hamster on a wheel,” I said, “only it goes faster and faster and faster; it never stops and I can’t get off.” It wasn’t long before I had thrown in the towel, sinking into years of motherhood and domesticity with the determination (much to R’s despair) never to wear a watch again. I suppose what I was trying to say, with my clumsy description of a job I enjoyed, but which was wearing me out at the same time, was the strange sense of powerless you experience when you are a classroom teacher.
I’ve found myself caught in the teaching trap many times, before and since that moment. For all the appearance of consultation, I have been subject to new curricula, testing regimes, changes to school structure, pay and conditions, all of them without my consent. And, then there are the school-, rather than nation-wide policies. The marking, the planning, the behaviour, the way we do things here, all policed by observations, pop-ins, book and planning scrutinies, the subtle and not so subtle undermining of professional autonomy. Unless you are higher up the management (sorry Leadership) rungs you have very little chance of influence.
And, of course, the power that the Management holds over you extends even when you leave. Find yourself on the receiving end of a boss who doesn’t like you, for whatever reason, and, given that they have to write you a reference before you’re even asked to interview, the chances of you walking into a new job if you found yourself in the wrong job are depressing. You can find yourself in the position of starting from scratch, working your way through the supply list (if it still exists) to give yourself a new start, or calculating just how long it will be before you can hand in your notice, for fear of being trapped til Christmas. You could, when you think about it, quite easily persuade yourself that you were a victim, as powerless as a fly caught in a spider’s web.
But. And here’s the thing. I think about the children I have taught over the years. Children who sat, spellbound, as they listened to a story. Children who gave me leaving cards and cuddles, little notes and gifts, a bookmark, a pen I still have tucked away in a drawer somewhere (the countless mugs with ‘World’s Best Teacher’ and adorned with kittens are presumably in a number of staffrooms I have frequented over the years). Notes from parents, the reply slip for the school report, filled in and resting in the far reaches of my memory. Those moments when I realised that I was the one who stood between joy and tears.
I look on my years of motherhood, the ups and downs the road to school, in and out of favour with the teachers who hold that same old power over my own children. I think about the power we hold even though we no longer serve our time at the front of class, flowing from our fingertips into the digital world. I remember the echoes of the power teachers held over me, over my child, their disbelief or belief in him – or me – making the year – or not.
And I think about how lucky I am that I have friends and colleagues who will tell me the truth. That when I said what I said, or did what I did, or the way I acted or wrote and indulged myself in my weakness for hyperbole and long, fine sounding words, that I forgot my power. That as well as having the power to help, to heal, to teach, I also have the power to hurt and harm. That despite my self-perceived helplessness I have a voice – and my voice is heard.