by an anonymous WomenEd member
‘It’s a big world outside the classroom,’ said a wise friend about six months ago. And, just like that (well, almost), I resigned and jumped off the cliff after around a quarter of a century in schools. I’ve documented quite openly the joys and the freedom and the opportunities to be able to shout about louder about the issues really affecting teachers – ridiculous levels of scrutiny, presenteeism, data over humans etc. Here, I am taking an opportunity to voice – anonymously, for obvious reasons – some of the more surprising, less paletable, more controversial and more personal stuff that’s been playing on my mind in its new and disconcerting freedom to actually think independent thoughts.
Conditioning and Stockholm Syndrome?
The quality of my life and my mental health are better in a way that would have been unimaginable back in the GCSE preparation days of May. My alarm is no longer set for 6, but for somewhere around 8, depending on what the day brings. In fact, I don’t usually need the alarm, as I tend to wake naturally. I don’t feel sick when I get up. I get to walk my kids to school; make them dinner, listen to their conversations. I get to wear pyjamas as I work, if I wish. Were I to wish to watch Cash in the Attic, I could – and then (get this!) I could do the extra half hour’s work later on. Revolutionary! I’ve stopped counting hours and listening for the bell and am starting to divide my work by task rather than by time spent, though, on balance, I’m actually probably ‘working’ just as much as I was. It’s just that I love it and so it doesn’t, cheesy as it sounds, feel much like work (except the tax and pension bits, which I’m mainly ignoring).
Am I celebrating this? No! I’m feel mainly cripplingly guilty about it, because I know my colleagues (I still see them as colleagues) are back on the treadmill of 14 hours days. Somewhere along the line, probably years ago, I got conditioned to believe that if you’re not fizzing with the tired-headache by break on Tuesday, if you haven’t put in at least two sixteen hour days by Wednesday, and if you don’t feel like an extra on the Walking Dead by the end of Friday, you’re simply not trying hard enough, not committed enough, not dedicated enough. You might even be lazy. You certainly don’t care enough. Recovering from this conditioning is going to take time.
Being treated like a child
A middle leader sent a note of congratulation to her team and ended it with a smiley face. She was summoned to the office and told emojis weren’t professional. Another was told her ‘ethnic’ attire wasn’t suitable for a parents’ evening. Sparkles, visible tattoos, drinking coke, coloured hair, nipping out for a sandwich during a non-contact lesson, fruity language in the staffroom (away from children), taking the class outside… all have failed, at some point or another, to ‘meet professional standards’. I’ve lost count of the number of times we’ve been told to copy out information or data from one format into another, spending hours doing this in the name of ‘consistency’.
I cannot tell you how utterly dizzying and euphoric the feeling is of being able, as a 52 year old woman, to finally decide what to wear, how to speak, when, where and what to eat how all on my very own is. Is THIS how ordinary people live?
“Thank goodness she’s left teaching….”
This, it transpires, is what my wonderful Mammy has been telling her friends. I had to take a VERY DEEP BREATH and count to 1,000 when this became apparent. I wear many hats now, but I am still, to the very fibre of my being, a teacher. And yes! For the record! I’m still teaching. I do supply (the rates are appalling – there’s a rant to be done there!) and I mainly love it. I get my ‘fix’ of the classroom – the one place in the world where I am truly and utterly and unselfconsciously myself. But yes, you’ve guessed it, I still feel guilty. I still feel like a quitter. I still feel like a rat off a ship, and I still have to steel myself before confronting challenges and jibes online… speaking of which
There are some right tossers in education!
I was far too busy to do anything but grin smugly at my own lovely network and scroll past the various online spats when teaching full time. Now I use my online networks to gather research data and gain work, they’re harder to avoid. I’ve effectively been called a shameless racist, a traitor to my profession, and have been invited to disrobe by a variety of different menfolk. Never directly, mind – this, through jibes and taunts and sly references (except the latter, which tends to be direct). Not too put too fine a point on it, these usually single-issue, usually male keyboard warriors seek validation and confirmation by belittling and attacking others. I treat them much as I would the disturbed and disruptive child in school – with sympathy and tactical ignoring, but I do wonder who has time to be on the internet what seems to be 24 hours a day simply draining positivity and spreading toxicity and it makes me a bit sad and quite weary.
The irony is that, as with all these discussions, there is always a potential interesting issue behind the bluster, and I thank goodness for my WomenEd networks for actually engaging in grown-up debate and encouraging me to challenge me own thinking and read and listen and learn. But if you hate books by teachers or don’t wish to attend informal training on a Saturday, there’s always the radical option to…. erm… NOT do those things and go for a swim instead?
Oh, and the big world of freelance and self-publicity. Now, I’m a great fan of celebrating one’s achievements and being openly proud, but there are people out there who literally seem to do nothing unless it’s directly linked to publicising THEM. Are any of us above a day or two’s supply teaching, especially if we’re going to declare ourselves experts and gurus and ultimate authorities in the world of UK schools?
Friends, family and spillover
I’m still a bit of a multi-tasking chaotic nightmare, but something odd has happened. When my children hurt themselves or get rewarded at school or my partner shares an interesting video, I’ve found myself actually listening. Like, sitting still and looking at them for whole minutes at a time. It’s quite novel. And quite staggering how they’ve put up with a barely present mother and partner for so long. That said, my house is still a shithole.
I worry about money constantly. For all the bad press on teacher salaries, I was receiving a pretty good whack in my senior role and took for granted the neat little green payslip and the fairies who calculated tax and national insurance and pensions for me.
My partner and I are both professionals. Since reading A Room of One’s Own at 19, I swore I would always be financially self-sufficient and have made a promise to myself that I will continue to bring in at least 50% of the household income. This has some advantages. #WomenEd will be proud of me – I no longer take on assignments without asking for pay or, as an absolute minimum, travel expenses. I adjust according to the assignment, of course, and am usually open to negotiations, but I am starting to Know My Worth. In retrospect, it is staggering (TeachMeets etc aside, for they are different beasts) how many huge and successful organisations seem to take it for granted that people will be so very honoured to be consulted that they will offer their services for free. Grrar.
A bit like a white person denying white privilege (I no longer do, thanks to wise women who have provided so much to think about), I used to declare myself someone who ‘never worried about money’. I am still, of course, privileged, but the worth of a spontaneous coffee or Amazon purchase and the new reality of unpaid time off sick are starting to make me truly recognise the value of money.
Writing this piece has given me a whole new sense of freedom and lightness. When I think of my enlightened and wise and funny and zany colleagues from WomenEd and other amazing groups of educators, I become firmer than ever in my belief that there IS another way. Let’s stay humble and sweary and flawed and receptive to others and almost anything is possible.