It took me a while to get the hang of teaching, it has to be said. At twenty-two, I hadn’t really done anything work-wise, apart from the odd Saturday and summer job, selling ice-creams and working behind the bar. I wasn’t exactly ready for the demands of the workplace, no matter how intense the training course (I did a nine-month PGCE).
I’d gone from school to college to uni and back to school again, and through a stage of getting the sack (or at least, not being asked back to temporary office work or shop jobs – and the less said about my waitressing the better). Even getting my first permanent job as a teacher was a bit of a trial (if you live in a pleasant place where there is a teacher training college, there is LOTS of competition), after figuring out that a job with a bit of creativity and autonomy suited me better. It took me the whole of my PGCE to turn myself away from being a student, and I reckon another two years on top of that to get the hang of working as a teacher.
Apart from one horrible experience, it was OK, though. I may not have walked into a permanent position straight out of college, but along the way I had the opportunity to work alongside a series of older and more experienced teachers who took me under their wings. They supported me through my various Seemed Like Good Idea at the Times – and told me when I needed to go home and not come back in until I was feeling better too.
It helped (and kept me working, no doubt) to know that I was on an extraordinarily steep learning curve. I wasn’t supposed to be fantastic at all times. I’d never heard of Outstanding; instead, I used to wonder if I would ever turn into a Swan Teacher (probably not). I was allowed to be young and make mistakes. It was OK not to know it all (apart from at the Bad Experience School), to ask for help and advice. Seventeen years later, I still write to Rose at Christmas, my colleague who retired and then kept on teaching into her 70s, whose good ideas I used to steal shamelessly and whose brain I regularly picked.
Sometimes, when I read the discourse around new teachers (I like to call them baby teachers, especially as, at twenty-two, they could easily have been my baby), I feel sorry for them. Labelled on a scale of 1-4, graded from the moment they entered the school system as a child themselves, I am sad that there seems to be an element of resentment towards their educators; that they didn’t pop out the other end of the education system fully formed.
It seems to me to be one thing to ‘hit the ground running’, but altogether another to expect either yourself or someone else to be perfect. Maybe, if we stopped expecting new teachers, or even more experienced ones – or parents, come to that – to know it all at all times, that there should be more, somehow, than being on a journey to good enough, then those moments when we are forced to eat a slice of humble pie wouldn’t be so difficult.
I wrote a book about how to be a great, inclusive teacher, a part of which is learning from our mistakes – because we all make them.