Yesterday I had a conversation with a friend-of-a-friend. This is how it went:
Them: So, what do you do?
Me: I’m a music teacher.
Them: Oh, so you’re on half-term at the minute?
Me: Yes, I’ve been on half-term over the last week.
Them: It must be great having three months off a year…
Suffice to say, the conversation didn’t last very long.
I’ve been a qualified music teacher since July 2007 and have been employed in secondary schools on a permanent basis ever since. This is not the first time I have had the ‘three months a year’ comment directed towards me, usually by people (friends included) that have no experience or understanding of the profession. I used to be furious at this, now I usually just roll my eyes and change the subject of the conversation, but for some reason the comment really irritated me yesterday.
Teaching used to be a highly respected profession. Used to be. This has changed dramatically over recent years and in lots of circles we are now regarded as glorified babysitters that are paid far too much, have far too many holidays and spend more time striking than we do in the classroom. The subject of teachers and education is the catalyst for furious debates across the media and I’ve read many scathing newspaper articles about ‘the state’ of British schools, usually written by people who have never worked in any area of the profession.
1: ‘Those who can’t do, teach.’
It is often thought that teachers only enter the profession because they have failed in their initial career choice. I trained as a classical violinist at a music college, with the intention of becoming a professional performer. However, a few years into my degree I realised that I didn’t want to be a musician anymore – the amount of competition and elitism that exists within the classical world was too intense for me – but I had always enjoyed teaching others and working with children. When I left university I was employed as a Learning Mentor in a school and was offered the chance to train as a music teacher, which I took because it was an exciting opportunity. I am not a failed musician – I still play in a professional string quartet – but I made the choice to become a teacher because the job is fulfilling and challenging. Most of my teacher friends knew that they wanted to be a teacher and so went into their training as soon as they had finished their degree. Some even did a degree in teaching and education itself.
2. The quality of teaching has diminished.
I remember both the inspiring and the incompetent teachers from my own school years. I remember an english teacher with no behaviour management skills who’s lessons consisted of making students read out their stories that they had written for homework, science lessons copying out of a textbook, an entire music lesson listening to Mike Olfields ‘Tubular Bells’ without any explanation of what we were listening to and what the purpose of it was and food technology lessons spent listening to the teacher yell and scream at the poorly behaved members of the class. A friend of mine was assaulted by a teacher she had an argument with and another teacher had a romantic relationship with a student from the Sixth-Form. I left school fifteen years ago, and the school that I went to was considered to be a good one…
The teachers that I have worked with over the years are good. In my current school, they are excellent. They are enthusiastic, know their subject inside out and they spend hours developing new and exciting ways to teach in a way that will engage their students and encourage them to learn, with great results. Yes, in my career I have witnessed a few examples of indifference and incompetence, but the majority of the teachers that I have worked with are excellent practitioners who strive to bring out the absolute best in their children. If anything, my experience is that the quality of teaching and learning has improved.
3. Teaching is easy.
Imagine this situation: A group of 20 – 30 youngsters walk into the classroom. Each have had a totally different day. One may be feeling ill, one may have had an argument with a family member before the school day began, two or three may have fallen out during lunchtime, one has been involved in some silliness in the previous lesson and is angry because they have been disciplined by another teacher, one may have a family member that is ill in hospital and one may have split up with their boyfriend of two days. They’ve been to four or five lessons before they reach you, the weather is cold and miserable, they’re tired and want to go home.
Your job is to engage them in a calm, relaxed manner and in a way that is suitable for each child’s learning style from the minute they walk into the room. You have to be aware of what every single child is doing at all times, that they understand the content of the lesson and that they demonstrate this by making great progress. You have to remain positive, give praise, encourage and motivate, apply sanctions where necessary and make sure that you finish the lesson on time. Each individual child is set a target grade that they must achieve. If the child doesn’t reach this target, we as teachers are held accountable, regardless of the many barriers to learning many children have.
Easy, right? Now multiply this by twenty – one – the average number of lessons a teacher does a week.
4. Teachers work from 8.30am till 3.30pm.
This is perhaps the most irritating misconception for me. This is my average day.
7.15am: I arrive in work, set my laptop up, answer my e-mails and get any paper resources that I need ready into small piles in my room.
8.15am: I go to a staff meeting. I have one of these each morning with different groups – some are faculty based, some pastoral, some are whole-school.
8.35am: My tutor group arrives. I register them and give them notices and hand out any letters that they may need for the day.
8.45am: I begin my lessons.
3.00pm: The students go home. I then begin an extra-curricular activity – choir, coursework catch-up, one-to-one coaching, small ensembles etc.
4.15pm: The remaining students go home. I then print off resources for the next day if I need them, have meetings with parents or other members of staff and make phonecalls home to other parents.
5.00pm: I go home. I get changed, have something to eat and sort the cats out.
6.00pm: I get my laptop out. I mark work that the students have emailed me from Year 12 and 13, plan lessons (I try to plan 48 hours in advance), create resources, complete reports, develop schemes of work and mark various BTEC folders.
10.00pm/11.00pm: I have a bath and go to bed.
This is an average day. This doesn’t include break and lunch duties and meetings. It doesn’t include time taken if a child comes to you with a problem. I go to the toilet once in the entire day if I am lucky. However, if I have a concert, I’m guaranteed not to get home until 9.30pm. If I have a parents evening, I arrive back at 8.00pm. The marking and planning still needs to be done, so I get to bed at about midnight. I also spend many hours over the weekend doing the same thing, and I have been into school over the weekends for rehearsals and concerts.
5. Teachers have three months holiday a year.
This is what I do during the holidays:
- Host coursework catch up sessions. In an average half term, I will be in for three of the five days from 9 o’clock onwards. (I also pay for pay for pizza – for some reason this seems to encourage the older students to attend). I don’t usually get paid for this.
- Hold workshops and rehearsals. Over this last week I had twenty primary school children with me over the course of several days, in which we did singing workshops with a concert at the end. I wan’t paid for this.
- Plan lessons, mark completed work, develop schemes of work, assessment criteria and accompanying resources on both paper and the school VLE, assignment briefs, fill out data spreadsheets and analyse it. The last time I planned a scheme of work it took approximately 35 hours. An average lesson takes two or three. I may be sat on my couch instead of in a classroom, but the work is the same. I am not paid for this.
- Put up displays. I go into work, create useful display items on the computer, print them off, cut them out, laminate them and stick them up. It takes hours to do one display. I have eight display boards that need updating regularly. I am not paid for this.
- And do you know what? I go on holiday for a week or two, like everybody else does!
The point of addressing these misconceptions is to try and dispell the myths that surround some elements of teaching. I like my job, accept the workload and enjoy what I do, but i’m growing a little irritated by the remarks made by the ignorant. No, I don’t risk my own life like my fireman friend does or save lives like my doctor friend does, but I work hard and I do my absolute best to make a difference.