Why I became a teacher
Had I been told when I was at school that I would become a teacher I would have jumped under the next bus. It would not have been difficult for the next bus, a 66 or a 148, would rush towards us from The George at Wanstead and swerve towards the kerb as the driver braked hard to a halt. Just a few inches, a step into oblivion, just like an older boy from the school who had fallen under a bus in Romford Market.
I couldn’t wait to leave school. There was a job lined up for me on a farm and a place at agricultural college, and for a while I felt I was getting somewhere. But getting established in farming is difficult, almost impossible unless you come from a family that already has a farm. Ten years after leaving school I needed a change of career but I had no idea what else I might try. So it was that one Saturday morning I found myself in the reference section of the county library in Chelmsford. By the end of the day I had whittled down a list of two hundred possible careers to a choice between law and teaching. How had I managed this?
As I browsed through list after list of career possibilities I realised that I had left school with a set of qualifications that would open many doors; five O-levels would get me into law, teacher training or commissioned entry into the armed forces. I had seven O-level passes, considered a good result, especially as my school had predicted only three. The important thing, I realised, was that these results opened up choices for me and I began to appreciate what my long-suffering teachers had got me to achieve. Teaching and law appealed to me because they helped us to make progress. Teachers would pass on what our communities had learned over the generations, and help us to discover more. Lawyers would help keep us in line if we did anything stupid.
I spent a day in a solicitor’s office and a day in court with a pupil barrister, both of them helpful and encouraging, then two further days in two schools, one of them inspirational. It was dawning on me, more and more, just how much I owed my teachers. Despite my disdain for them, they had kept me on track long enough to leave school with the means to get a start in a wide variety of worthwhile occupations. Theirs, it was dawning on me, theirs was the most important job in the world and my choice was made.
Not two days ago I looked at a school photograph taken fifty years ago and saw my Spanish teacher who would be pleased to learn that my Spanish is still complimented by Spaniards. Near him is the lady who thought my approach to biology was a disgrace but who still taught me well. At the end of the row my French master sits, a man who was able to hold our attention because we both liked and respected him. Near him is our geography master, shy and retiring in crowds, but who demonstrated physical geography by enthusiastically gathering up his hands with powerful energy to show how the land can be lifted up and transformed. Another geography teacher taught us an important lesson about learning when my adolescent enthusiasm for farming meant that I was able to point out something – to do with sugar beet or grain silos if I remember rightly – something that he did not understand. He accepted my correction and demonstrated that knowledge should be welcomed from any source and that a teacher’s dignity should not get in the way of this. He was teaching us about learning.
There are others, mostly good, but you can learn from all of them. Another French teacher who taught me no French at all in my first year, but put on school plays so well that for years her old pupils kept in touch and visited her regularly.
When I became a head teacher I remembered my headmaster pointing out how fortunate we were that he had appointed an excellent English teacher for us, complete with a degree from Oxford University. Six weeks later he was having to tell us that she was dead, having ridden her motor-scooter into the back of a stationary lorry. I turned to my pal – we were fourteen at the time. “She was bloody clever, wasn’t she?”
My response then was rather typical of adolescent boys, keen to dismiss an adult’s claim that he had done us a favour. However, I remembered and for years I have been able to approach young people whom I did not know with a request for help or information, or an apology for interrupting them.
My teachers’ achievement was not just a decent set of examination results for me, but the idea that there were other important things to care about, to enjoy doing things well and to see the wider picture into a future where my friends and I would have to cope without them.
Forty years later I was still learning from them. Recently I met someone who had taught with my old headmaster much later in his career and had found him a wise and helpful man to whom he turned when faced with difficulties. Perhaps he too learned something along the road. How hasty I had been when I judged the man all those years ago.
Teaching, the most important job in the world.
Why did the writer become a teacher?
Do you remember any good teachers? What was good about them?