As we come to the end of the autumn term 2021, the realisation has dawned on me that I am on the verge of completing my century in teaching profession – 100 terms since I walked into my Year 5 class in the London Borough of Islington, gave out the Scottish Primary Maths workbooks, and settled down to listen to someone read me the adventures of Roger Red Hat and Billy Blue Hat from the Village with Three Corners.
I loved working in schools from the first day – it was creative, fun and exciting. On reflection, I realise now that I had almost no idea what I was doing, but I was keen and well-meaning and thankfully no-one seemed to notice whether I was any good or not. Apart from someone from the Local Authority, who popped in for a chat towards the end of my probation year, nobody ever watched me teach, or did more than offer encouraging words.
We had schemes to follow for Reading and Maths, but mostly I did Topic, which basically amounted to what I was interested in at the time. The National Curriculum was around the corner, but I felt safely able to ignore it for the moment.
Some of my happiest times in school were sitting reading to my class at the end of the day, enjoying the freedom to decide what we did, and how we did it. I’ll never forget having a group of irate parents waiting outside for 20 minutes at the end of the day because we had 10 pages to go in Danny the Champion of the World and everyone refused to leave. I also loved singing with my classes, and found my guitar as indispensable then as my laptop is now.
The accountability pressures that are such a natural part of the landscape nowadays were a distant speck on the horizon. No Ofsted, no SATs or Progress 8, no league tables, no Parents’ Facebook Groups, and as a result, almost no internal scrutiny either – no lesson observations, learning walks, book scrutiny, development plans. It wasn’t clear whether we were trusted or simply ignored, but the end result was the same.
I’m sure that there are some colleagues for whom this seems like a nirvana – the perfect answer to the stress and workload that teachers struggle with today. But despite my fond memories, it wasn’t all perfect, and there are many things that are so much better today.
Firstly, these days you are far less likely to come across the mad, the bad and the dangerous to know. There were far more people teaching children who should not have been allowed within twenty miles of a classroom, who were shortchanging children with little or no consequence. We all knew they were there, but nothing ever seemed to happen.
Secondly, despite all of the issues we have regarding funding, the rights of pupils with special educational needs are given far more importance now. I’m ashamed to say that in the first classes I taught, there were children in my classes who left me unable to read and write or operate number at the most basic level. I had 30 in a class, no Teaching Assistant, no intervention programmes, no Senco or provision maps, and in fact no real way of knowing how badly they were doing and what we should do to help.
It has also become completely accepted that all children are worthy of a good education, no matter where their school is, or how active their community. Teaching in deprived areas of Tottenham and Islington at the end of the 1980s, it genuinely felt that no-one at the top really cared how our children did. No-one checked, or even asked, I received almost no constructive advice or instruction on teaching methods. I turned up every day, and my class was usually happy and busy – that seemed to be enough.
Nowadays, I’m convinced that the quality of education that children and young people receive is better, certainly more consistent (Note to the Daily Telegraph – that’s why results improve over time, not because the exams are easier). Teacher training is more rigorous, pedagogy is better understood, the curriculum has fewer gaps. There has been a price to pay for this progress, and by and large, the price has been paid by people in the teaching profession. The improvement in the quality and consistency of schooling in our country has been achieved on the back of greater and greater demands being made on teachers and their colleagues in school. Whether that’s sustainable, only time will tell, but there are some alarming warning signs.
Some things never change, of course – children are children, mostly they’re charming, eager and funny, occasionally truculent and difficult. However it shows on the surface, underneath it all, they’re looking to their teacher to care for them, give them stability, and unlock their natural curiosity and capacity to learn.
As I reach my century, I can honestly say that every term has been different, and that I have continued to learn something new. I’ve worked in Islington, Tottenham, Borehamwood, Long Eaton, Hucknall, Nottingham, Redditch, Leicestershire and now Broxtowe, in Nottinghamshire. I’ve been a class teacher in Key Stage 1 and 2, a Deputy Head, a Local Authority Adviser, and a Head four times over in Primary, Middle and Secondary schools. I’m a CEO, a job that didn’t exist in education for at least the first twenty-five years of my career.
I remember the first time I could say to a class ‘I was teaching before you were born!’. It’s now quite a few years since I was first able to say that to our newest teachers, and in fact we have teachers now who were yet to be born when I first became a Head Teacher!
In all that time, I’ve had many tricky moments and more than a few difficult days, but I don’t think I’ve ever seriously regretted my choice of career. Hopefully, I’ve got a few more terms left in me yet, but so far, it’s been a privilege and a pleasure. 100 Not Out!