Could do better: my first half term as a maths teacher

by Lucy Kellaway

As featured in the FT

Seven weeks ago today, on my first day as a trainee maths teacher, a lost 11-year-old in a brand new, oversized  blazer approached me. “Miss,” he said, “where’s room 211?”  I had no idea where the room was – or what I was doing standing there in a school corridor.  I felt as if I’d been snatched from my comfortable life as an FT columnist and dropped into the alien territory of  Mossbourne Community Academy in Hackney. I shook my head helplessly and he looked as if he might cry. I  felt inclined to join him.

Half a term later I know the answer to his question.  I  strut around the school wearing my red lanyard that says “staff” on it, and the word  no longer feels like a lie.  On an open evening in my third week, prospective parents took one look at my grey hair and assumed I had been teaching for decades rather than days.  I saw no reason to disabuse them.

Yet there is another question that still floors me. It is one I get asked by almost everyone I meet : How’s teaching?  Are you enjoying it?

A lot seems to hang on my answer. Nearly a year ago I co-founded Now Teach to convince  other middle aged professionals to ditch their cushy jobs and retrain as teachers. Nearly four dozen are now training alongside me in assorted London secondary schools  teaching mainly maths and science. Now we have started recruiting again, aiming to persuade an even larger group to  join this noble profession next year.

Unfortunately, the word “enjoy” fails to describe  how I feel about my new job. Since September I’ve lost half a stone in weight and live in constant  fear of making an  idiot of myself. It is not enjoyable to get in such a muddle  you start writing on the electronic white board with a felt pen – as I’ve done on various occasions. Neither is it enjoyable when you are trying so hard to remember names and be vigilant for any sign of inattention, that you get your own sums wrong on the board and a student points it out.

A word that better describes my early classroom experience  is obsession. It is a bit like being at the beginning of a tumultuous love affair. I feel euphoria one moment – when I have successfully explained how to turn a recurring decimal into a fraction – and despair the next.   Even at the weekend, when I don’t have to stumble out of bed for pre-school meetings, I wake before dawn with my head full of snatches of lesson plans and the faces of my new charges.

One of my fellow Now Teach trainees, who in a previous life was a top civil servant,  says  teaching is a bit like having a baby – it is more shattering, more difficult – but also more rewarding – than anyone can prepare you for.

For me, it’s like having a baby in a different way.  When my first child was born 26 years ago an unlooked-for bonus was that for the first time in my life I had something more pressing to think about than myself.  Becoming a teacher has performed the same miracle professionally – teaching is no longer about me. It’s about the students – and more precisely about getting them to learn some maths.

The second unexpected pleasure comes from being the most inept novice in the school. I had expected to find this humbling, but instead feel weirdly liberated by it.  No one expects me to be good straight away –  I’m a trainee.  All I have to do is to get better – and given how bad I was to start with this is quite easy. My learning curve is vertical.

Already, I know how to give clear instructions.  I know the most efficient way of handing out sheets. I am learning  not to talk so much – or so fast.  I still see the electronic white board as my sworn enemy, but I am sometimes able to make it bend to my wishes.

Each of my lessons is taught with the door open so that any teacher in the school can wander in and tell where I’m going wrong. This is a shock, as I come from a world where feedback is spasmodic, belated and generally unwelcome, but now I have to get used to being told in precise terms what I’m getting wrong – and how to put it right.

While I teach,  my mentor – a formidable maths teacher who is a quarter of a century my junior and takes no nonsense from anyone, including me – stations herself  at the back of the classroom frowning and ominously taking notes. After one lesson, she presented me with a list of 18 Ts, each with a circle around it. T stands  for target, but it might as well as been for terrible.

In my old life if I had been told that there were even two things wrong with a column, I would have taken it amiss.  Now, even though I don’t adore being presented with 18 “targets” the better part of me is grateful. I know it’s the only way I’ll get better.

An even more radical change in my workplace persona is that in just a few weeks I have come to love rules. Pre-teaching my life had been almost entirely rule-free. I was educated at a liberal school which viewed rules as an impediment to creativity. Later as a journalist I made a point of disregarding the few rules there were. It was my job to mock corporate rigidity;  I even wrote a column once boasting about how I’d never read my own  company’s code of conduct.

Now I live in a world where rules rule.  Mossbourne is famous for its strict ways  – uniform is worn perfectly and students move around the school in silence. “No excuses” is one of the school’s two values (the other being excellence) and that applies to the staff as much as to the students.

There are rules governing where I need to be,  what I wear and how I comport myself.  Bells ring every 55 minutes, and as students move between lessons I station myself on the staircase and try to bark “hands out of pockets!” as authoritatively as my colleagues.

These rules, and the punctilious way in which they are upheld, daily save my bacon. It is   thanks to them that no one has thrown furniture at me. That no one has sworn at me. That instead students come to lessons ready to learn.

I welcome the rules in another, less obvious, way. They have  freed me from the ambiguity that has dogged my professional  life. For the first time I know precisely what is expected of me – with the result that I feel oddly calm. The school has rules for what a lesson should be like, but within those I am  free to find my own way of doing it. That is all the freedom I want – or need.

From my first half term have come two other minor surprises. The first is how much I love school dinners. By lunchtime I am so ravenously hungry that I fall on a plastic tub of soft pasta in orange tomato sauce as if were the best food I’d ever eaten.

The second is how agreeable it is, at the age of 58, to be called Miss. Indeed,  last Friday as I prepared to go to the pub with my delightful 20-something colleagues, I thought fondly to myself that teaching has knocked thirty years off me. Alas not everyone seems to agree: that very day one of my fellow maths teachers cheerfully told me I reminded her of her grandmother.

I have survived the first half term, but I suspect the hard part is yet to come.  My school has started me off lightly – I only teach 7 hours a week –  but after half term I  will be given more classes. I don’t expect to enjoy it.   But with every week that passes I’m feeling more confident that one day, when I know what I’m doing, I will reply to the question “how’s teaching?” by saying: I love it.