I wanted to be a train driver when I grew up. Either that or a professional footballer. My teenage years were spent living day to day, not really thinking about the future, but when I reached my mid-twenties, I thought teaching would be a good option for me. I’d done university, and didn’t really know where I was going, but always remembered how great my college experience was. At school, things felt so constricted; you’re just made to jump through hoops so they can put a letter next to your name on a spreadsheet. There’s just a relentless pressure to get numbers and stats. But college was like the Wild West of education; I was given so much time and space to develop as a person, and I was allowed to make mistakes. When I re-entered the classroom as a teacher, I knew I wanted to maintain that appeal.
Every day is different as a teacher. You never know what’s going to happen; you think you’re going to be in control, but that’s totally not true. You just never know what the students are going to present to you, and that element of chaos and randomness makes it an extremely exciting and fulfilling job. Most teachers will tell you that the unpredictable nature of it all makes the job hard, but it can also make it really fun. Even on the days you’re feeling a bit shit and can’t really be bothered, you’re guaranteed to have a couple of interactions that you’ll find rewarding, enriching or just hilarious.
It’s hard to describe how fulfilling it is when you see your students go on to do really good things. You first meet them at a critical juncture in their lives where they’re experiencing tremendous changes. Sometimes you meet a kid that’s lacking in confidence, hasn’t figured out who they are yet, or is just a bit of a twat. But after two years, you can see how much they’ve developed, and seeing that progression is incredible. When you’ve been teaching long enough, you start to bump into people that you taught ten years ago, and are now in their twenties, or married with kids of their own, and it’s really bizarre to see. It’s amazing how many of them say that college was the best part of their lives.
Trying to respond to the needs of up to 100 students in any given day, with increasingly less time, is one of the biggest challenges of the job. That’s less time in the classroom, less time for one-to-one sessions, and less time to plan lessons. Class sizes are getting bigger and bigger, and resources are getting increasingly shittier. There’s always going to be an element of improvisation in responding to the challenges that students throw at you every day, but it’s starting to become impossible because of the amount of students and the lack of time.
If you have an emotional investment in you job, you’re always going to be put over a barrel, because management knows you really care and will always try and exploit that
Teaching at a college has made me realise how essential further education is in society. The door used to be open to everyone, there weren’t any barriers: whether you wanted to train to become a mechanic or study history, you just rocked up and got a free education that was amazing and unique. But over the years more and more barriers have been put up, like introducing fees for being over 24 or limiting the number of courses a student can do. It just seems so ill thought-out, because further education colleges were like community centres for people who weren’t best suited to staying in school, hadn’t done too well earlier in life, were mature students, had learning difficulties or just didn’t fit in to the usual education pathway.
My job has been extremely difficult recently because of the ongoing problem with contracts where I teach, which has resulted in us going on strike. We were all offered new contracts which were universally terrible; the terms being offered were just the worst in every possible way. Having not had a pay rise since 2010, we were now being told that our pay was going to be cut and our holiday and sick pay entitlement was being reduced. We’ve had fifteen days of strike action in five weeks and a further fourteen planned in November, which is one of the longest strike campaigns in Further Education history, but this is a fight for survival. What we’ve been offered is going to make living and working as a teacher impossible, and the institution won’t survive unless they make changes. There’s something quite Donald Trump-ian about the guy who runs this place, and it’s become an ego thing where he cannot be seen as the guy who backed down.
As hard as recent times have been, it’s been great to see the sense of solidarity and togetherness that builds among the striking teachers, and the support we’ve had from the public. There’s a misconception that teachers have loads of holidays and, while we do get a good amount, if you average it out, we do the same amount of work as everyone else. We work fifty hours a week for 43 weeks of the year, so it’s in concentrated bursts. So fighting for holiday entitlement sometimes doesn’t play well with the public, but it’s all part of the bigger picture of what we’ve been offered.
You know that in the short term striking is going to have a negative impact on your students, and some of them either don’t understand the issues or are reacting negatively to us going on strike. Obviously, that means that a lot of people are dealing with feelings of guilt. But if you have an emotional investment in your job, you’re always going to be put over a barrel, because management knows you really care and will always try and exploit that. But things just reach a certain critical mass where people throw their hands up and say, “I’m not doing this anymore.”