The task for Day 12 was to write a post with its roots in a real-world conversation.
I qualified as a teacher of English in 2000 and eight years later, I left the teaching profession for good. I had taught in three different countries and during that time added a TEFL and an MA to my list of qualifications; however, because half of my working experience had been gained abroad, those teaching years were disregarded and on my return to the UK to take up a teaching post in the south-west, I was put on the same salary I had been earning when I left England four years before.
So there I was, stuck in a profession that recognised neither my qualifications nor my experience, and paid me a salary so low that I was still living in shared accommodation with no prospect of ever being able to save enough to buy my own home. I suggested to the school that this was a gender issue and that if I had been male, they would have paid me the salary I was entitled to with no questions asked. As I expected, this was heartily denied. I decided instead to vote with my feet and wrote a letter to the council in which I expressed a wish that my contract be terminated when the academic year in session came to a close.
I had to see the year through to its end, however, but my mental fetters had been loosened and, knowing that in a few months’ time I would never have to stand in front of a class of braying adolescents again, I was free at last to admit that the last eight years had been a ghastly mistake and that if I could go back to 1999, I would do anything other than put myself through teacher training. And I carried this mental freedom with me into the staffroom, where, with my ears and eyes wide open rather than stoppered with the blinkers of career anxiety, I became consciously aware for the first time of the ever-present low-level bullying that teachers inflict on each other, no doubt in unconscious response to the insidious culture of blame which is now, unfortunately, completely naturalised in the teaching profession.
I had, through the years, become accustomed to the level of abuse a teacher is expected to put up with on a daily basis. From politicians, obviously (and good riddance to Gove). One expected abuse from the students, of course – I well remember being called a ‘lezzer bitch slag’ because I had asked a boy to write three complete sentences showing the correct use of a full stop, or something outrageous like that. I had been shocked and rattled by the level of abuse which came from the parents, who apparently couldn’t see how much damage they were doing to their own child’s education by openly opposing the person who was trying to ensure that Little Jimmy left school with at least a handful of GCSEs to rub together. Much more depressing than all this was the lack of support shown by colleagues.
Not all colleagues, I hasten to add. But the bullying I mentioned above was rife. To return to the task set, I’ll give you an example of the kind of thing I mean by reproducing a conversation I overheard one lunchtime in the staffroom. Both speakers were female, and in noting this, I merely wish to clarify that the power-play in the exchange was not the usual male-female thing:
Teacher A: (looking tired and harassed) I’ve just had a dreadful time with 9B. They’re an absolute nightmare. Every bloody lesson it’s the same.
Teacher B: Yes, they are noisy, aren’t they? But I find they’re okay after the first ten minutes or so, once they’ve settled down a bit.
Teacher B’s reply looks quite innocent, doesn’t it? A throwaway lunchtime exchange, with B offering A a pat on the shoulder and a supportive squeeze. Well, it’s not. It’s a nasty little comment designed to undermine A’s confidence and to boost that of B. It says ‘You can’t control that class, but I can.’
Teacher A was looking for help and she didn’t get it. Instead, she was told that the problems she was experiencing with 9B were her fault, because another teacher of the same class was coping with their behaviour just fine. A’s admission would have cost her an awful lot and it took a great deal of courage on her part to speak up. And let’s consider the strong terms in which she expressed herself: she said she had had a ‘dreadful time’, that the class in question were ‘an absolute nightmare’, all of which B dismissed as hysterical exaggeration on A’s part in her response that 9B were simply ‘noisy’.
And this wasn’t an isolated incident that A was describing. In her final comment, she made it plain that this was an ongoing problem and that she had been dealing with it alone for some time. This could well have been the first occasion on which she had voiced her frustration and she would have been moved to do so out of desperation. She wanted sympathy, she wanted a listening ear, she wanted someone to provide some constructive suggestions for dealing with 9B. She got none of those things. What she got was a slap-down comment which cut her to the quick. I know that because I saw her face tighten and I thought she was going to cry. She didn’t – not then, anyway.
I had heard and registered all of this exchange and I had recognised B’s comment for what it was. And now that my ‘bullying radar’ was activated, so to speak, from that day until the day I walked out of the school for the last time, I overheard many, many similar exchanges. I witnessed the ritual staffroom shunning of another colleague, Teacher C, because it was well-known that she was having a hard time with all of her classes. Clearly it was felt that to break bread with one who was failing to meet expectations was to be tarred with the same brush oneself.
But look, now, I don’t like teacher-bashing. I admire anyone who can stick to the profession, because it was too much for me. I don’t mind admitting that I was very ill when I left teaching and it took me several months and numerous Zopiclone prescriptions before I was fully recovered. In Teacher B’s defence, I would say that when one lives in the shadow of a culture of blame, it’s all too easy to go along with it, especially when your salary and chances of promotion depend on your students’ examination results. Performance-related pay actively encourages teachers to do each other down because it promotes a competitive atmosphere instead of a co-operative one. Teaching is not a competition. It used to be a calling, and a noble one at that, but I wouldn’t be tempted back into the classroom now for any money. I hope Teacher A got out too. And I hope she got out in one piece.