On no longer being a teacher

July 12, 2016

It’s now coming up to five years since I taught my last lesson, walked out of the classroom and my career as an English teacher came to an end. It took a long time for what that meant to really hit me; recently I’ve been thinking about what it actually meant.

A major change – the major change, I’ve realised – is that I now spend most of my time, not with young people, energetic, lively and with the world and their futures before them, but with people of my own age and older, with a far different outlook and rather narrower future prospects. I continue to miss my students, some of whom I’m still in contact with via social media, and they are now developing careers and lives of their own, becoming so much more than the young people I came to know within the four walls of a classroom. One of the great things about being a teacher, as well as one of the sadnesses, is seeing your students outgrow you. I miss the liveliness of the classroom, the interaction, the discussions and arguments, the continually being kept on my toes by the need to be a couple of steps ahead of them all. And I miss my teaching colleagues, too.

But this piece is not intended as a retired teacher’s wallowing in nostalgia. I have tried to keep up with my subject, and what is going on in the world of teaching and education since I bade it farewell, and have been shocked by what I’ve seen: the political games continue, the examination specifications continue to be changed far too frequently, teachers and their students are ever more at the mercy of data managers and bean counters seeking new ways to weigh the pig. Entry to university seems to have become even more complicated, and certainly far more costly; students rightly seek to know if they are getting value for money, and my impression is that often they are not.

The most shocking thing that has been brought to my attention, by a former teaching colleague, is the effect of all the pressure and stress on the mental health of school students, reflected in the increasing numbers experiencing quite serious problems and needing professional help for them.

I’m both horrified and outraged by what’s happening. All of education is transformed into a highly competitive business; instead of offering support and help to young people at a formative stage in their lives, who are trying to get to know themselves and find their way, we are subjecting them to often unbearable levels of stress and pressure.

Children must begin to learn to read and spell and climb onto the academic treadmill before they are ready, at an age when they should be playing; they must be tested regularly and told they are not succeeding or not up to average (by people who don’t understand the concept of an ‘average’); students must choose – at an age when they may not be ready to make choices – subjects for study that may restrict, constrain and limit their future lives, careers and happiness, not subjects that they enjoy, necessarily, but ones which they are told will set them up for future financial success – allegedly. And, when they might be enjoying the freedom to be students at university, before settling down to the relative seriousness of a working life, they are already saddling themselves with a mountain of debt.

All of this was happening while I was still teaching, but it has got far worse; I wouldn’t want to be trying to advise my students on wise and sensible choices. I’m profoundly grateful that I was educated in a more relaxed, more generous and more liberal age; I used to explain this to students and tell them that I felt they were also entitled to such treatment; a country like ours needs to be investing in its future, not auctioning it off to the highest bidder…and a rich country like ours can surely afford it.

And so, although I started off by saying what I missed about teaching, I’m also very glad I am retired. Perhaps this is a natural aspect of growing older: not that one looks back and says, ‘Things were better in my day,’ but that one realises – even if not yet fully accepting it – that life has moved on, is now passing you by, and that the torch has been passed to younger hands. Other minds than mine now have to wrestle with these issues.

2 Responses to “On no longer being a teacher”

  1. Michael G. Says:

    Sensational post. I wish you would consider making a comeback in a low key role by mentoring young teachers. The profession was clearly at a loss when you retired.


    • litgaz Says:

      Well, if I knew of a way to become involved in this role, I’d be very interested, but teacher training in England has become so fragmented, I really wouldn’t know where to begin… thanks for your vote of confidence, though.


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