I remember, very clearly, speaking to one of my Art teachers when I was at school. I had several Art teachers,
one only for a year who was utterly amazing and who has had a huge impact on my life. Another who was just
a grumpy cow, and who I can now see was not a very good teacher at all. I particularly remember one incident with her that I passed on to many of my own students. I was told to develop a certain piece of work, and I honestly didn’t have a clue what to do, but because my teacher was so horrible, I didn’t want to ask. So away
I went and did what I did, and I can still see some of what I did in my head - and it was awful. When I showed
my teacher, let’s call her Miss Grumpycow, I got a telling off because it was wrong, I’d wasted my time, blah blah blah, and all I could think of was ‘If you’d told me what to do in the first place, I would have done it right!’. For once I kept my mouth shut, but that thought has stayed with me for 28 years, and it shows just how powerful small moments between students and teachers can be. Whenever I taught students how to develop their ideas for the first time, I would tell this story, getting a laugh when I called my teacher a grumpy cow, and - hopefully - appreciative looks when I would tell them that I shouldn’t assume that they know what I meant when I gave
The third Art teacher I had was a part time teacher, and I only remember being taught by her a few times,
and sadly I can’t even remember her name. However, I do remember one small conversation that has had a tremendous impact on my life and career. We had just completed a class where we had been drawing one of
our classmates using pastels. I remember that the model was one of the lads in my form, Jeremy, and that my piece was a somewhat psychedelic multicoloured piece. As we were packing away, the teacher asked me,
“What are you going to do when you leave school?”
A loaded question in itself. There had been several options running through my young mind by this point. There had been serious consideration of being a tester in a ballon factory - imagine, your job would be blowing up balloons! Brilliant! - and of being a naturalist (I always have to think carefully when I write that, I don’t want to write naturist and and then have people with visions of me wandering around naked all the time) or possibly
a zoo keeper after voraciously reading all the Willard Price books. These however, had been fleeting ideas, although I do have wistful (and overly romanticised) thoughts of being a naturalist or something to to do with wildlife, conveniently ignoring the extreme conditions, the bugs and the long periods of waiting around for something to happen. In my head, any wildlife expedition would be chock full of animals, and you’d have to
beat them away with a stick! (not that, as a kind and considerate animal lover I would beat any of them with
a stick - I’d have to shoo them away gently, using my hard-earned Barbara Woodhouse skills)
The job I had settled my mind on very early, while still at Primary school, was that I was going to be a Graphic Designer. I have no clue where I’d gotten this idea from - it was the 1980s, and graphic design wasn’t really at
the top of anyone’s priorities. Watching Why Don’t You, Grange Hill (Just Say No kids!), or lusting after a BMX
were stronger desires. But wherever it came from, that’s what I wanted to be.
So when my Art teacher asked me what I wanted to do, what I should have said was: be a graphic designer. However, what I did say was,
“I want to be an Art teacher.”
“No,” was her reply. “You’ll waste your talent.”
Those words should have been carved into stone tablets or have been boomed out by a mysterious and deep voice, because they were that important. Of course, I completely ignored them, and after a slightly circuitous route, ta-dah! I became a teacher. Not an Art teacher, but a Design & Technology teacher with a specialism in Graphics.
She was right.
I completely wasted my talent. Ah, the benefits of hindsight! To rub salt into the wound, I heard a number of times, consistently over my career as a teacher, that I shouldn’t be a teacher because it was wasting my artistic and design talents. I didn’t like hearing those words because of the growing sense of suspicion that they were right. Every time I heard that phrase I thought of my teenaged self, of being advised not to be a teacher, and what I was doing now.
So, Lesson #1 kids: listen to your teachers. They may be tired, they might be slightly insane, they are most certainly holding onto the tattered shreds of their temper, but they do know what they’re taking about. They know you in ways that you can’t even comprehend, and they genuinely, honesty, want the best for you, even if you’re convinced that they hate you. They might, but they also want you to be the best you can be.
So I became a teacher, after training to be a graphic designer and working in the design industry. I was full
of enthusiasm and passion and ideas and I was going to rock the educational world, just like every other NQT.
Get used to acronyms when you enter the educational world, they’re everywhere. NQT stands for Newly Qualified Teacher, and it means you’ve passed your training year, survived the purgatory of being a student teacher and were now a trained professional! You were in charge! You were terrified! There were actual children in front of you now, and if that weren’t scary enough, you were now the (allegedly) responsible adult in charge
I’m saying all of this from a position of, if not safety, then relative calm and perhaps even comfort. You see,
I am no longer a weapon of mass instruction. I can no longer say ‘we’ when I talk about education and schools.
I resigned from my teaching position in May 2015, in the twelfth year of my teaching career. So I get to look at these stories from a different position than the one I would have had if I were still teaching. Definitely a more relaxed, more humorous, a less bitter perspective. I know it’s said all the time by teachers to anyone who will hear, but teaching is hard. It’s physically and emotionally draining in a way that is hard to adequately describe
to someone who hasn’t done the job themselves.
I get to write this away from school, because now I actually have the time, space and energy to do it. I’d threatened to do this almost from the very start of my teaching career - to write a book and make a fortune (finger’s crossed!) and to show everyone what teaching was like. Or, more specifically, one aspect of teaching, although of course I’ll talk about more than just that one aspect. What I told my students - to various receptions of glee or dread depending on the student - was that I was going to make my fortune by writing a book based
on all the stupid things that students had said over the years, and boy oh boy, were there a lot of things to
I’m not talking about questions stemming from genuine confusion or lack of understanding but truly idiotic, boneheaded stuff that, unless you were a comic genius, you honestly couldn’t make up. Yes my dear reader, the mind of a child is a wondrous thing, but sometimes it can also be an astonishingly stupid thing as well, and, as an added bonus, incredibly funny. Many a student was annoyed and frustrated when, as I (and usually several of their classmates) were laughing at their stupid comment, they declaimed,
“That’s not funny!” they’d say, trying to shore up and defend their oh-so fragile teenaged pride.
“No, you’re right,” I would always respond, “It’s hilarious.” at which point, another student would helpfully
remind everyone in earshot,
“Sir, don’t you write these things down? When are you writing your book?”.
So really, it was their own fault - it was widely known, by both staff and students, that I was going to do this; they should have been forewarned and kept their mouths closed. Luckily for me, they didn’t. All of the stupid things that the students said are 100% genuine, they did say them, and no, I haven’t edited or tweaked them for comic effect.
Some of the names I will change to save the pride of those concerned, but some of them I won’t because I know that on the whole, the students concerned, even if they had uttered the dumbest of dumb comments, would actually be quite proud to be included in the book.