Teaching is bending us out of shape — in a good way

by Lucy Kellaway

As featured in the FT
April 9th, 2018

Six months into a new career, the former FT columnist grades her performance

“Everyone hates you, Miss” said the 11-year-old boy I had been teaching for a few weeks. “We’re so happy you’re going. We want Mr Diplos back.”

After two terms as a trainee teacher I am pretty used to frank feedback, but this still hurt.

For a second I contemplated crying. Teacher training is so tough it is meant to make blubbers of almost everyone — yet I have so far remained dry-eyed and was keen to keep it that way. I swallowed and tried to see it from the boy’s point of view.

Hate is a strong word, but if I were him I would also rather have Mr Diplos, a 26-year-old dynamo of a maths teacher, than Miss Kellaway, a dithering, grey-haired trainee with a voice so posh one student asked: “Miss, where are you from?”

Though some pupils may be rejoicing to see the back of me, I am sad to be leaving my second placement school. Trainee teachers work in two different schools and my second has been a delightful place where in just six weeks I have made firm friends with the young staff and liked the spirited kids more than was reciprocated.

I am now two-thirds of the way through my training year and my report card to myself remains mixed. The good news is that I am surviving. Although I quite often go to bed at 8.30pm feeling half dead, during waking hours I am more alive than I have felt in decades.

The profession is known to be exhausting, but is so in a peculiar way. The hours are no worse than in most professional jobs but every second is at full tilt. In my old life I would waste hours cyber skiving, which left me restive and grumpy. Now I view a spare five minutes before a lesson as an oasis of free time — long enough to do some printing, go to the loo and enter half a dozen behaviour points into the system. The reward for such intensity is that the day appears to be over 20 minutes after it began.

As well as surviving (which I count as a victory) I’m also positively good (or at least improving) at various things. I learn names easily and talk to students nicely. I am making my peace with technology, with the vagaries of the photocopier, the whiteboard and the snipping tool no longer defeating me.

Equally my workings on the board have gone from catastrophic to rather good. The way I lay out a simultaneous equation is a thing of beauty.

The disappointing news is that overall I am nowhere near the good teacher I want to be — or thought I would be. I continue to defy those FT readers who emailed 18 months ago when I announced I was leaving journalism to say: lucky kids, you’ll be a marvellous teacher.

Back then I privately agreed with them. I reasoned I would be a natural because I like performing. I’m resilient. I like teenagers. I like maths. I care about social mobility. I like the routine of schools. And I am frightening, so discipline would not be a problem. What else was there?

It turns out there is a great deal else. For a start keeping order is far harder than I had thought. At my first school, rules were so strict that hands in pockets constituted bad behaviour. At the second, the kids had more freedom. And some of them use it in the time-honoured way — by giving trainee teachers the runaround.

A low point came after a chaotic lesson during which I had written a long list of names on the board of students who had most flagrantly ignored my instructions. On leaving the class one of them rubbed the board clean when I was not looking, meaning none of them got the detentions they deserved.

I am endlessly told to be consistent. But this is not easy. What happens is that I say: “Work in silence!” only to crack down in an arbitrary and entirely unfair manner on chatterers who disregard the order. With half my mind on taking the register, or helping students who get stuck, it is hard to see who the ringleaders are. In any case, consistency is alien to me. I never managed it as a mother, and was always saying: no, no, no, no — oh for God’s sake all right then. I was not consistent as a columnist either. I did not see consistency as a virtue; unpredictability was far more interesting.

Now I am learning the value of using exactly the same words and making a point of saying “Pens down in five, four, three, two and one” rather than: “In five, four, three, two and one, pens down” lest the kids get confused.

I am also far too scatty. I sometimes turn up with the wrong worksheets, or having forgotten to supply answers to the classwork. The truth is that somewhere deep in my character, I am sloppy. I could hide it as a journalist — but not as a teacher.

Each day offers an astonishing range of highs and lows. A couple of hours before my painful encounter with the 11-year-old I gave a lesson on ratio to my year 10 class. They all did what I told them! They all seemed to grasp what I was teaching them! They worked in silence! They got through all the work I had planned! My modelling on the board was neat!

Hallelujah, I thought afterwards. I have really cracked teaching.

I am trying to learn that both highs and lows are mere noise around a long-term trend that is improving, very slowly. And this makes sense. We do not expect trainee doctors to be any good after seven months. So why should we expect teachers to be?

I have just re-read the article I wrote for the FT after my first half term. I said I felt as if I was at the beginning of an obsessive love affair waking at 5am and thinking about teaching every minute of the day. That early stage is over. I do not wake at 5am any more. My adrenal gland is under control. It still secretes agreeably during lessons, but leaves me alone otherwise. I do not think about teaching every waking moment. I can even switch off and watch telly.

Best of all is how well my Now Teach colleagues are faring. As the whole thing was my idea — to found the charity which turns older professionals into trainee teachers in challenging schools — I feel responsible for all of them.

As a group they are resoundingly surviving. When I met them for a drink two weeks ago I could almost read the resilience on their faces. Teaching is bending us out of shape but mainly in a good way. One competitive former corporate lawyer said he thought the humiliation that new teachers face had made him a nicer person. Another woman says that for the first time in her working life, no matter how tired she was in the evening she basked in the unfamiliar feeling of having done an honest day’s work.

Four of the original 46 have quit, mostly for the excellent reason that they found they did not like teaching enough to suffer its depredations. One said that after a long corporate life built around teamwork, he felt lonely in a classroom.

I wonder if it is this more than anything else that sorts out the people who are suited to teaching from those who are not. When I am in a classroom of 30 teenagers I sometimes feel overwhelmed. Sometimes under siege. Sometimes exalted. The one thing I have never felt for a single second is lonely.

There is only one big disappointment so far. I had hoped that somehow I would be able to bring my experience of the outside world to my students. Alas I have found that teaching cumulative frequency charts is so demanding it leaves little room for reminiscing about the corporate world.

My one achievement has been teaching a class of 15 year-olds how to shake hands properly — I lined them up outside the classroom and made them come in shaking my hand with the right amount of pressure. Those too firm or too floppy had to rejoin the queue and do it again.

I also took part in a careers fair at my first school, and set up stall as an (ex) journalist in competition with lawyers, architects, and doctors. Fifteen-year-olds milled about finding out about different professions. Almost no one came to see me.

This was sad given the racial mix of the school — mostly non-white — and of journalism — overwhelmingly white.

A few stragglers eventually came to talk, and I told them what fun I had had interviewing famous people over lunch in smart restaurants and what it was like meeting Russell Brand. At the end of which one said to me: “so why are you a teacher now, Miss?”.

Because, I said, I want to be useful. I like learning new things. And I like spending my time with people like you.

The girl looked at me in frank disbelief. I do not think I succeeded in persuading her to be a journalist. I merely persuaded her I had quite lost my mind.

Lucy Kellaway is an FT contributing editor and co-founder of Now Teach