Who wants to be a teacher?
Lucy Kellaway’s memoir is a must-read for anyone considering the profession
Who would want to be a teacher today? It is a job often characterised as second choice for those who failed to get into medicine, law, finance, or all those other, “real” professions that are highly selective, require rigorous training, and are well paid (none of which apply to teaching). There are some careers that society holds in high esteem but teaching is not one of them. Perhaps that’s not surprising: who would want to spend their days dealing with difficult teenagers (and their often more difficult parents), working in “challenging” schools on low pay with limited opportunities for promotion?
Teachers are increasingly having to act like social workers
Teaching is hard and often thankless; the pandemic, with all the social ills that trail in its chaos, has made it even more difficult. Is it any wonder so many teachers suffer from long-term mental health problems? This year many teachers were told to set and mark assessments to replace the examinations that were cancelled in January. The inevitable grade inflation this August, coupled with appeals from parents who feel aggrieved that their children did not get the results they deserved, will expose schools, and teachers, to more criticism than ever before. The workload, which was already heavy and overly bureaucratic, is now weighed down with this new and daunting responsibility to be not only teacher, but also examiner and awarding body.
In addition to all of this, teachers are increasingly having to act like social workers, grappling with complex issues they are seldom trained for. What sane person would want to do that? Well, it turns out quite a lot. Recent statistics show that applications for teacher training courses are up 42 per cent compared to last year. It seems that nothing persuades people to want to make a difference more than a global pandemic and their own imminent redundancy.
Unlike many of those new teachers desperate for job security and long holidays, Lucy Kellaway is not someone who was forced into teaching because she had no other options. Quite the opposite. When she decided to train as a maths teacher she did so with the comfort of a long and prosperous career behind her. An Oxford graduate of PPE, she was, for 32 years, a respected columnist at the Financial Times, married to another successful journalist (David Goodhart), she owned several lovely houses in north London, sent her children to private school, and was invited to the sort of weddings Princess Diana attended. There aren’t many Newly Qualified Teachers who are invited on on the Today programme to discuss their insights on a job they barely know, but Kellaway is one of them.
It’s easy to be dismissive of someone with such options as dabbling in teaching to atone for leading such a privileged life, or to see her desire to help disadvantaged children in Hackney as a form of late-middle age moral tourism. But Kellaway is too self-aware to allow herself to be perceived in this way. Or, rather, to be only perceived in this way; there is an element of self-righteousness to this uneven but entertaining memoir that is only partially negated by the author’s candid recognition that she is guilty of it. Just because she admits she can be solipsistic doesn’t make the solipsism any more appealing.
Nevertheless, it would be difficult to dismiss her considerable achievement in founding Now Teach, an educational charity that helps professionals retrain to become teachers in shortage subjects such as Maths, IT and science. The beneficial impact this has had in many state schools is immeasurable. We can sneer at the fact that Kellaway made full use of her childhood friend Lucy Heller, now chief executive of ARK academies (which runs 38 schools in the UK), to get it established, but such networking is something ex-public school boys and girls have been doing for centuries without shame. To use a cliché, the ends justify the means, if the ends mean that more children are taught well.
There are many strengths to Re-educated, but her overuse of clichés is one of its irritating weaknesses. For such an experienced writer, one would expect fewer sentences describing people “pulling their fingers out” or “rolling up their sleeves”, of hoping for “clouds with silver linings” after going “cap in hand” to someone, or of being “let off” various “hooks” after “walking through a minefield”.
The prose veers from being sharp, astute and almost self-lacerating in its honesty to being tired, hurried and uneven. Also uneven is the book’s structure. Perhaps a clue is in the title, beginning as it does with the worthy and focused, but trailing away into the self-indulgent and trivial. Do we need a whole chapter on hair? Is the (long) opening chapter on why she decided to buy (another) fabulous house in north London absolutely necessary? Do we need to be so involved in why her marriage fell apart?
Perhaps all this adds some contextual colour to a story so familiar to anyone who teaches today. The shock Kellaway felt in her first year of teaching is memorably described because it captures the daily difficulties all teachers face as they stumble through chaotic days. Only someone who has stood in front of a group of teenagers — struggling to remember their names, failing to get the whiteboard to work, unable to take a register, saying the wrong word at the wrong time — knows how uniquely demanding the job can be. But Kellaway is also brilliant at describing the necessary — but constrictive — rules that make schools run but, too often, seem to suck all spontaneity and joy out of learning.
Re-educated asks the right questions, but leaves the hard thinking to the individual
Kellaway’s own education began with her parents, who were both teachers, and included sitting at the kitchen table with a young Emma Thompson and Sean French, getting average A level results before going on to Oxford. She is open about her failings, and also about how she feels she has failed with her own children. Like her own parents, she feels she did not instil in her son the ambition she sees in so many children she now teaches. She admits that, being middle class, progressive and educated, she and her family can “get away with” making poor choices because there will always be more available to them.
For the children she teaches now there is no such luxury; it is this which can motivate or crush them. Only the privileged, in their lovely schools, with endless connections spreading out into a future of countless opportunities, talk about how important it is to fail and to learn. Whereas once the author would have believed in the importance of creativity and discovery-based learning, she now admits that it is the teacher’s job to get students the grades they need at GCSE and A level. Anything that impedes this, no matter how well meaning, is a dereliction of duty.
Re-educated, like a good teacher, asks the right questions, provides most of the answers, but leaves the hard thinking to the individual. That’s how we learn. It should be mandatory reading for anyone considering entering this underrated — yet invaluable — profession.
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