Schoolzone: Teaching: something worthwhile

Teaching: something worthwhile

Why Teaching?
There are people, I have to admit, who've thought of subtly slipping a card into my pocket bearing the address and consultation times of a recommended psychiatrist. And others who've pulled me to one side, and gently inquired whether I have completely parted company with my marbles. In short, the word is out that I'm mad. Anyone who gives up the glamour, the excitement, and the sheer lucre-loaded lifestyle that comes with being a BBC Correspondent must be at least five minutes short of a numeracy hour.

The image of broadcast journalism implicit in the above paragraph is of course way off the mark, but the question is nevertheless a valid one. Why have I given up a career at which I've been reasonably successful and which has earned me a secure living, for something I don't yet know whether I can do?

Well it's a two-part answer
First, my waning enthusiasm for journalism: in the last ten years, I have reported for the BBC on some pretty big stories in some pretty interesting places. I watched from a British warship as the USS Mississippi fired enormous shells towards a burning Kuwait at the end of the Gulf War, having survived a couple of months on board a vessel avoiding mines and repelling occasional attacks from Exocet-armed Iraqi fast patrol boats. I stood at the Auschwitz concentration camp on the 50th anniversary of its liberation at the end of World War Two and watched survivors show me the tattoos on their forearms and tell how they survived the living hell that was the Holocaust. And I travelled the world as a Sports Correspondent, from the MCG in Melbourne to the Montjuic Olympic stadium in Barcelona and regular working trips to Wembley, Twickenham and Lord's.

But somehow, for me, the excitement and enthusiasm had gone off the boil. And I'd come to realise that, important though journalism was, there was, for me, a parasitic nature to it. All I ever did was report on events driven by other people. I never made anything happen myself.

Doing something worthwhile

Second, at the same time as these thoughts were coalescing in my mind, I felt pulled strongly towards doing something worthwhile. I looked around at society and saw frayed edges, and wondered if I could do anything in some small way, to help. I'd always felt strongly that education was the most important function of society, since without it where would we get the doctors, lawyers, economists, nurses and future teachers? Reading about, and seeing, in the course of my journalistic work, people whose lives were a mess, I often felt it was pretty clear that they'd got to school-leaving age with not much of any use to help them cope in the adult world. So, given that I viewed education as Number One Priority in any concerted attempt to treat society's social ills, I naturally felt drawn towards teaching.

Choosing my subject

Being a journalist, most people assumed I would become an English teacher, but that was ruled out because I don't have a degree in English and, even if I did, my knowledge of English literature is nowhere near thorough enough. My degree, taken amid the red brick surroundings of Liverpool University in the late 1970s, is in Maths and German. So it was toss up between those two subjects. Initially I swayed towards German, since I had kept the language up pretty well during a two year stint as the BBC's Berlin Correspondent, and I was well aware that my Maths had got very rusty indeed, having been, to all intents and purposes, abandoned when I strolled out of my last Finals exam at Liverpool all those years back.

Having taken the decision in principal, I had to decide a) what subject, b) what age group and c) how would I train.

But something told me that I'd feel happier teaching Maths, partly since, as a subject central to the curriculum, I would be teaching a wider cross section of any school. And I've always had a strong belief that the mental disciplines acquired in Maths bolster work in all other subjects, not just the sciences. I particularly believe that the logical thought necessary for Maths is of enormous help in learning foreign languages. So I plumped for Maths, in the knowledge that I'd have a lot of catching up to do, but hopeful that the dormant compartments of my brain that gave me a Maths leaning as a teenager would respond to resuscitation

Primary or secondary?
Next I had to decide whether to teach in primary or secondary schools. Again, this was no clear-cut decision. I was naturally inclined towards secondary schools, since I think I can relate to teenagers more than small children, but saw a logic in the argument that the earlier you can have an influence on children, the greater is your chance of that influence being significant. However I chose secondary, because, in some way, I feel that there's more chance of developing a career at that level.

So, how to train? The choice was either a full-time PGCE course at a college with block placements at two schools or one of these relatively new on-the-job training schemes, where you jump straight in at the deep end and start teaching at a school and receive school-based training and support as you go along. The advantage of the second route is that you earn (almost) real money from the word go. But the drawback for me was the current precarious nature of my subject knowledge. I just couldn't see me being able to paper over the cracks if I had to teach a full-ish timetable from Day One. And I was rather attracted to being college-based for at least part of the year, mixing with people doing the same thing.

First step
So I was interviewed for, and got a place on the Maths PGCE (Secondary) course at St Mary's University College, Strawberry Hill in Twickenham, South-West London, where I've now been since early September.

On my course are mostly twenty-somethings with relatively recent degrees, but there is one other bloke around my age with a sizeable chunk of life and a couple of decades in the computer industry behind him.

As I write, I have just started my first teaching practice placement, at a big comprehensive in Surrey, and am trying to ascend the steep learning curve without slipping back further than the small steps I try to make every day.

So far, I've had it brought home to me how demanding, time-consuming and, at times, difficult a job teaching is. But with great support from my new colleagues, and with constant self-reminders of why I chose this career change, I'm still firm in my belief that I'm doing the right thing.


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