I try to keep a very clear dividing line between my professional and personal life, and therefore over the years I have rarely, if ever, spoken about my professional life on this site, which is very much a personal blog. However, not only is the line between the professional and personal becoming ever more blurred in these times of being jumped on by a small child whilst interviewing possible employees over Microsoft Teams, but there has been so much in the news recently about teachers that I cannot resist adding my two cents worth. Not because I want to trumpet this or that political viewpoint, or make a case for whether it is or is not right to re-open schools more widely in the current circumstances, but because I have some theories about teachers, and about why we often seem to be fair game for criticism in a way that other professions are not.
The thing is, they think they know us. And by “They,” I mean “Everyone.”
Everyone thinks they know us. Everyone knows what teachers do, right? We all went to school. Some of us loved it, some of us hated it, but whoever we were, whether we were the studious kid who came top in everything or the one who spent the whole of Year 11 smoking behind the bike sheds, at some point we all sat at a desk, in a classroom, with a teacher in front of us. And not only that, but we did it every day, for YEARS.
What other profession can claim to be so intimately known by so large a percentage of the population? The people who collect your bins pass by briefly once week, probably while you’re out at work. The police officer is only well known by those who frequently find themselves on the wrong side of one. Even the NHS staff that we dutifully clap every week are, for most of us, no more than the occasional hospital visit or appointment with the GP.
But us teachers, we are different. For better or worse, we are the ones that everyone gets to have an opinion on, because everyone is an expert on What We Do All Day. Why? Because we were all there-five, ten, thirty or fifty years ago, we all watched teachers going about their day.
And what do we do all day? Well, that’s easy, right? We teach lessons, and let’s be honest, how you feel about that now probably depends largely on how your memory recalls the feelings that you had at the time when you were in those lessons. Is it easy to teach lessons? Well, it may have seemed a lot easier to you at the time than being a student in them was. But then, you were a child at the time, with the thoughts and feelings of a child, and the selective memories of a grown up recalling events that may have taken place in the quite distant past.
We teachers are the ones who, for some, tormented them daily with the reminder-probably unintentional, but it felt like a rebuke all the same-that they weren’t the clever kid. The one who put them in detention that time in 1992 when it wasn’t their fault. The one who flung that board rubber at them in 1970 (I heard this used to happen, but who really knows? I wasn’t there). We are the ones holding the residual hostility to the profession from an entire population’s childhood trauma. It always seems to be the bad that we remember. Even I, someone who loved school so much she went back there as an adult and stayed, still remember the tellings off much more vividly than the heaps of praise I also received.
Yet even if you loved school and your teachers inspired you, changed your life, made you feel as though you were respected, cared for, that you mattered, the chances are that you still thought that teacher spent most of their time socialising in the staff room you weren’t allowed into and spent more time on holiday than they ever did working. I have family members who have expressed shock that I don’t actually clock off at 3.30pm and head off home for a relaxing evening of Netflix, because teachers don’t have to do homework, do they? That’s just for the pupils.
What people forget is that unless they really know one of us intimately, and by that I mean they are one of us (we are large in number) or have a close family member or partner who is, and witness our daily lives-in and out of school-at close quarters, they are only really seeing us through the eyes of the child they were when they last sat at that desk in front of us.
Friends of mine who aren’t teachers are sure that they know what I do. They don’t, unlike some of the more objectionable sections of the UK media, think that I am lazy, or that I only care about my long holidays and to hell with my students, but they do think they know what I do. I work hard marking and planning lessons, apparently, and this is not untrue, but it isn’t the whole truth. After fourteen years in the profession I now spend more time on administrative tasks and in meetings-with colleagues, parents and other professionals-than I do planning and marking, and in the evenings, on top of my usual duties I am also doing a postgraduate course related to my particular role in the school. I am also currently trying, like many other teachers in the current climate, to do all of this whilst being a single parent to a five year old who has not, I might add, done any homeschooling, a fact that I am forced to shamefully admit to his teacher every two weeks when she calls him to check that he is OK, being cared for and has not totally lost the plot, because I have been too busy doing my own full time teaching job, for my own students.
Now my experience is but one among many thousands, and I cannot speak for all teachers. I do not claim to know whether my workload is any greater or any less than those in other professions, because teaching is the only one I know. I also believe that as teaching is a vocation for many in its ranks, it lends itself to a certain perfectionism. There is a culture that I have witnessed of brilliant teachers working themselves into the ground, because we can never do too much for the students, and to be less than perfect is to let down those whose futures rely on us. This is an attitude that I have never felt is helpful to teachers or their students, but I understand how it can happen, and I also understand that by speaking about it-as individuals or collectively-it can be perceived by those outside the profession as “whingeing.” Never more so than when those who are listening still hold the belief that we leave at 3.30pm every day and spend six weeks sunning ourselves on a beach every summer.
So my final message is this. I have nothing to say to the Daily Mail. That would require a whole different blog post. But I do wish to say this to everyone else. You don’t really know teachers. Unless you are one or live with one, you probably don’t know exactly what we do all day, and that’s fine. I have a vague idea of what it might be like to be a refuse collector, or a nurse, or an investment banker (OK maybe not the latter. What do they do?) but it’s not the full story, and I’m not going to slag them off on Twitter because they once forgot to empty my bin, or gave me an injection that hurt, or crashed the entire banking system. All I ask is that you get over that detention, remember you were only nine and frankly quite emotionally immature at the time, and let us do our jobs, OK?