Should you give up your job and train to be something else?

In the middle of the night, Stephen McCormack questioned whether he should have given up his job at the BBC to train to be a teacher. By the end of the day, he had the answer
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The Independent Online

Everyone told me teaching practice would be hard. But this? This is inhuman! I have been sat in this chair, at home in front of my computer, since getting home at half past four, and I still haven't quite finished plans for my three lessons tomorrow. Littered across the desk are worksheets, open books, files and random scraps of paper; and somehow from among this chaos, I have to divine a coherent way of continuing my teaching of algebra to 30 Year 8 students. So forgive me if I write less than a Booker entry in my diary tonight. There are more pressing matters on my mind.

Everyone told me teaching practice would be hard. But this? This is inhuman! I have been sat in this chair, at home in front of my computer, since getting home at half past four, and I still haven't quite finished plans for my three lessons tomorrow. Littered across the desk are worksheets, open books, files and random scraps of paper; and somehow from among this chaos, I have to divine a coherent way of continuing my teaching of algebra to 30 Year 8 students. So forgive me if I write less than a Booker entry in my diary tonight. There are more pressing matters on my mind.

Wednesday 2.30pm

The bell goes to signal the end of another lesson, and I have a couple of minutes to gather my things, and negotiate my way through the human mêlée, to another room down the corridor where my next class will be waiting. On my way, the aim is to compose my face in such a way as to conceal the feeble grasp I currently have on the direction of my working day and give the impression of someone who knows what he is next going to teach.

A moment earlier today is etched on my memory as one that sums up the personal challenge I face at the moment. I had been explaining, as well as I could, a point of algebra to the class of 12- and 13-year-olds, and my plan was to set them on their way on a worksheet that I had, in true Blue Peter fashion, made earlier. Just as I'm about to hand round the sheet, it hits me like a bullet: "But, Sir, I don't understand."

As four or five other hands dart skywards with similar messages, I realise that what I thought was a neat way of getting a key point across, hasn't worked.

It's not their fault. They have been paying attention and I've seen young, furrowed brows showing earnest effort. It's me. I have just not explained it well enough. I hand out the worksheet anyway and spend the next 15 minutes flitting around the room trying to help as many of the genuinely confused as possible. Some of them got it, some of them didn't. The lesson was not a triumph.

I'm not alone in uncertainly ascending this Himalayan learning curve. In chats with other trainee teachers over lunch, we swap stories about classes that are difficult to control, and tips about how to get kids to stop talking and listen.

We also have positive anecdotes to tell: parts of lessons that have gone well, students that have responded enthusiastically, and funny things that have happened. Like the girl who, during one lesson, had complained, "Sir, you're messing with my head," to which the sotto voce reply had come, "Not difficult to do in your case!"

Thursday 7.30am

Driving to school on one of the main A-roads out of London, I spot the stationary queues of cars heading into town. Failing to suppress a snigger at the lot of these poor commuters, I note with satisfaction that I haven't sat in a London traffic jam for a while, something that was a depressingly common feature of my former journalistic life.

The car radio is burbling, as ever, in the background, but as I negotiate a roundabout, almost half way to school, I realise I haven't heard a word - such is the total domination of all my thoughts with teaching matters. For all I know, those clipped tones of my former colleague, Jim Naughtie, could have informed the nation that war had just now broken out in Basingstoke, or Euan Blair had become betrothed to Baby Spice!

I get to school at about eight o'clock. It's a calm place before the customers arrive. As I wander down the corridors towards the maths department, I spot teachers alone in rooms hard at work. I am in constant awe of most of my new colleagues, and the way they deal with the workload. From the moment they set foot in school in the morning, to the time they leave in the afternoon, they are assailed by an endless stream of demands on their time.

On top of teaching five hour-long lessons a day, most will have a class of their own to deal with at morning and afternoon registration, duties in the playground and elsewhere on the school premises, unexpected mini-crises to deal with in the corridors, and a steady supply of pupils button-holing them with subject-specific queries. Then after school, there are the department meetings to discuss curriculum matters, Year Group meetings and detentions to run. This is before the choirs, the football and hockey practices and the numerous other extra-curricular activities. And I haven't even mentioned the marking and the endless form-filling.

Friday early morning

Half-past five in the morning and I'm roused into consciousness. I can't get school out of my head. Every nook and cranny of my subconscious has been invaded by thoughts about teaching maths.

I picture myself in lessons struggling to make headway; I mull over ideas of how to start my next lesson and, most of all, I wonder whether I'm doing the right thing. I can't suppress the occasional stabbing question flashing across the backwaters of my mind: "Why have you given up something you can do, and which could earn you a reasonable living for something that you can't yet do?"

If the question had been put to a jury specially empanelled right now in my bedroom, it would need a Henry Fonda in tip-top Twelve Angry Men form to swing the verdict in my direction. After half an hour's fitful sleep, I wake properly, the nagging nocturnal doubts thankfully having receded, and remember the immediate priority: I need to get to school early so I can look at one of the computer programmes I might be using with a class today.

Friday

Four o'clock in the afternoon and there's a tangible and widespread atmosphere of relief settling over the school as the end of another week arrives. Half an hour ago, the bell had gone and a thousand and a half kids had streamed out of classrooms to hurtle off into their weekend worlds.

The bell, though, hadn't quite been the finishing line for the teachers. In the maths department, as colleagues arrive back laden with weekend marking, a loose-knit line of students forms. Some are "on report" and have to be there to show a senior member of staff their record books for the day.

One or two have been sent there to receive a talking to, following odd bouts of misbehaviour. Others, among them one or two sixth-formers, want hints on how to do this or that piece of work.

As I sit and just take in what's happening, my colleagues deal patiently, and with a mixture of sternness and compassion, with all the demands. Gradually though, the scene clears, and it's just the adults remaining, most sitting around like bedraggled trees after a storm.

As I head off to the school gym for a game of kick-about football with a dozen staff, other teachers make their way to the school hall to help with the setting up of tonight's final of the school's Stars In Your Eyes competition.

Two hundred tickets have been sold and there's a real sense of excitement among the pupils who have made it to the last stage, and their friends and supporters.

One girl, to whom I've been teaching probability, spots me in the corridor and enquires, "Sir, are you coming to Stars in Your Eyes?" She is, I learn, about to become Britney Spears for the night.

I wish her good luck and say I'll try to pop my head in later.

Little does she know, though, that with that one simple act of recognition and brief social exchange, she has begun to make me feel a little more at home in my new environment, after one of the hardest weeks in my life.

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