The end of the first term at school is always a time of reflection for me. It’s the hardest time in the school year and the one which really requires you to dig deep and keep going when the evenings are dark, the marking is piling up and the students only want to talk excitedly about Christmas plans.
This year has certainly been a challenge and a learning curve for me but I think I’ve managed to face things head on and think about solutions rather than worrying about problems. I’ve seen the importance of positivity in the face of adversity; the need to keep a team together and just how wonderful teachers are. I’ve been thinking more and more about why I became a teacher in the first place and what has kept me here when so many are moving on and choosing a new vocation.
Despite what the media may have you believe, becoming a teacher is an active choice and one I am extremely proud of. Teaching is a profession which requires incredible resilience, dedication, hard work and passion.
When my teenage years were distinctly lacking in positive role models, I found those in my teachers. My teachers inspired me, supported me and shared their passion for their subject. I saw the value in what they did (although perhaps I didn’t always appreciate it!) and I respected their knowledge.
Now, I don’t want to create the impression that I was a completely disenchanted teenager who hated school. I didn’t. I have always loved learning and have vivid memories from about three years of age of trying to read anything that was put in front of me. I would sit for hours looking at catalogues or anything with words on. I was regularly read to and enjoyed writing long stories or poems in the summer holidays. You could argue that I was easier to engage in education than many students and you would probably be right but keeping someone engaged throughout their education is a difficult task.
I was lucky to have some amazing teachers who influenced me and changed my life. I don’t say this lightly. They showed me that teaching requires expertise, patience and a sense of humour. I would leave lessons wanting to know more and to ask further questions. That, to me, is the sign of a great teacher.
Mr O’Hanlon taught me to see the beauty in language as we examined symbolism and how writers create meaning. Lessons weren’t whizzy with millions of resources. We read Lord of the Flies, we discussed, we analysed and we felt empowered to have opinions and ask questions. He indulged us in the summer months when a wasp repeatedly visited the classroom and was named Cyril; he taught iambic pentameter by doing a John Cleese style walk across the classroom and he showed us that poetry was an exploration of thoughts and feelings. We looked at Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney and we learnt more than just what they had written – we considered them as people who wrote because they felt something and because they wanted to communicate an important message. Our lessons were in a large classroom with a giant painted glass window and a pulpit which we would sit in for discussions or debates. The tables were wonky, the OHP was a nightmare and the sun would regularly dictate the lesson as it chose to cast huge shadows over the board or illuminate one member of the class for thirty minutes at a time. When Mr O’Hanlon left the school we held an assembly for him and sang ‘O Danny Boy’ through streams of tears. He must have been absolutely mortified. I spent weeks trying to find him a present that he would love and would show him how much he had inspired me. Eventually I settled for a little book of Shakespeare quotations from a charity shop and wrote what I thought to be a worldly-wise comment in the front for him.
For A level English I was taught by Miss Lotinga, a gentle American lady full of sharp wit, warm humour and a huge amount of intelligence. She spoke so passionately about books and her love of learning that it stayed with me. I still remember her love for Anna Karenina. Mr Walsh also taught me at A level – he was relaxed, thoughtful and kind and showed us that teachers are human beings. Alongside teaching he would throw in anecdotes about his drunken escapades with Mr O’Hanlon and the time he woke up in a shower in Ireland! Perhaps not something I would share with my students nowadays but at the time we sixth formers loved being let into this little secret before we would be submerged back into the worlds of Thomas Hardy or John Webster.
Mr Hildrew taught me for Media Studies and showed us that it was much more than ‘watching films’. It was analytical, political and significant in our lives. He felt passionate about the power that the media has and his lessons always seemed so thoughtful and carefully considered. He loved Kate Nash, Taylor Swift and Slow Club and encouraged us to combine our passions with our study.
Mr Pitts became like the new Mr O’Hanlon. He had a biting wit, love of the subject and didn’t take anything too seriously. His approach to teaching created an atmosphere of challenge and support at the same time. Miss Tegg also joined and taught me Media for a while. I recall her seeming very young and thinking she was far too ‘cool’ to be a teacher. Perhaps she was a trainee or NQT at the time. She worked so hard and helped in giving us structures, model answers and examples to work with.
Although the above are English and Media teachers, I was influenced by many more.
Miss Nissenbaum helped me struggle through GCSE Maths and I came out with a B thanks to all of her support and never-ending patience. Maths is not my friend and I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to get me to understand any of it. She was a small, sharp lady with a sprinkling of freckles and dark brown hair. I remember how strict she was but how she would soften and be so helpful in important moments. Even after she stopped teaching me she would pass by and ask me how I was. This is something I’ve always tried to remember and do when I see my old students. It means so much just to be acknowledged.
Mrs Ford was the interesting Science teacher with fiery hair and personality to match. She used to wear a multi-coloured pleated skirt with her big white lab coat. She always seemed full of energy and enthusiasm.
Mr Smith was the Head of Sixth form at the time and was a keen walker. He loved being outside, building things and exploring and would be on every school trip going! As a scared sixth former who had no idea what to do, he guided me and considered what would be best for my future. He suggested that I try Aberystwyth University based on the English Literature course and the town itself. He had visited many times and knew it would be the place for me. He wasn’t wrong and I spent four wonderful years there.
Even in my earlier years of schooling I can recall the influence of my teachers. Mrs Scholes, the friendly, owl-like lady with big round glasses taught reception classes the importance of friendship, co-operation and how to fit 30 wriggly children onto a small carpet all at once. She even tolerated our giggles during the ‘I was cold, I was naked’ hymn. Mr Walker used to read from a huge book in his booming voice and slam it shut at the end to make us all jump. He did the same thing every time and yet we were still full of surprise and awe.
I’ve grown up with some fantastic role models and tried to assimilate some of their practice into mine on a day to day basis. I’ve not quite nailed the booming voice just yet.
The teachers I work with now still inspire me and remind me what is it to be a teacher. Hard work (lots of!) but also passion, courage, kindness and determination to do your best for everyone. The department I work in is full of English teachers who love to share, discuss and consider what will work best for their classes. We share books with each other, send along resources, keep each other in constant supply of tea and chocolate and advise each other. At times when I wonder if I can keep up with the workload, I remember that I am surrounded by people who want one thing: to do their best. They are not motivated by money or selfishness and they are not trying to beat each other at things – they simply want to help students and other teachers. That is why I am a teacher. I feel passionate, I love learning new things on a daily basis, I love challenging myself, supporting others and making a difference.
Ultimately, making a difference is the most important thing. I hope that I can go on to inspire a student the way that my teachers inspired and enabled me. I only wish I’d managed to say it at the time and wish I could let them know just how much I appreciated their tireless efforts.
Sometimes we forget that teaching is a job because it is so closely intertwined with our passions and personality but it’s important to remember that to be an effective teacher you have to be rested, creative and happy. I for one will be enjoying this Christmas holiday more than ever before!