This short excerpt from my forthcoming book concerns my ill-fated period as a student teacher. What follows if from the most personal and autobiographical chapter: “My Personal Revolution.” I’ve chosen this section for the delectation of teachers, failed teachers, and others who knew me in 1997/1998. I shall post more excerpts in the coming weeks.
I took to being a student straight away. Loved it. The work wasn’t too challenging. The living was easy. I was privileged to be one of the last cohorts to get a full tuition and maintenance grant. I feel sorry for today’s students who have to take on part-time jobs to survive, and then leave with a huge bill that’ll take years to pay off.
In my final year at Bradford I took part in a student tutoring programme, spending time in a girls’ secondary school helping out in the classroom. I enjoyed my afternoons at school and thought I might like to be a teacher. I’d been thinking about becoming a university lecturer but was put off when I realised how competitive it was. I was now confident I could be a good teacher and applied for courses. I was delighted to be offered a place on a Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) course at the University of Birmingham. I was to train to teach Secondary English.
Before I went up to Birmingham to start my teaching course I had to spend a week or two observing at a primary school. I enjoyed myself at a school in Blackheath and was still convinced this teaching lark was for me. Oh the idealism of it.
My placement ended at the end of the school term. I joined the teachers in a local pub and curry house on the last day. These female primary school teachers were the biggest bunch of boozers I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. After a while one teacher asked me how many beers I’d had. When I replied I’d had three pints she told me I’d have to do better. I’d have to up my game by way of drinking, but I was excited about my fledgling teaching career.
At the University of Birmingham I enjoyed the university-based study, but wasn’t prepared for the practical placement. I was allocated a girls’ school in workaday East Birmingham. On placement you are for all intents and purposes a proper teacher, albeit with a reduced workload. I had to plan lessons and schemes of work, deliver lessons, and take books away to be marked (usually undertaken at the New Inn, Harborne). My brief experience as a student tutor in Bradford had lulled me into a false sense of security. School discipline was poor, and staff morale was low. The pupil intake was 80% Muslim and the school felt as if it was run by the Taliban. It was oppressive. A member of senior management told me the school was known as a “Paki school”, and it played this up in fine style. Eid was a big occasion, but I was told the school didn’t celebrate Christmas or Easter. I couldn’t imagine this place being much fun for the Christian minority.
Girls would disappear for months, but their absence wasn’t treated as anything unusual. I believe they were being sent to Pakistan to get married. I found the whole set-up abhorrent, but what could I do? I was just a student teacher, struggling to make sense of it all and keep out of trouble. Even back then I knew not to question cultural practices.
I’d like to blame my failure to see the course out on the oppressive Christmas tree-less environment of the school, but I can’t. I’d like to tell you that I had the no-nonsense hard man demeanour of one of Ray Winstone’s film characters, but I can’t. I had no stage presence. My nervousness probably showed, and the absurdity of my situation played on me. Well, I would have laughed if someone told me in the 1970s that I’d be a teacher.
However stressful it is pushing a cab down Oxford Street, it’s nothing like waiting for that school bell to go. When thirty teenaged girls run riot they are a match for anybody, and I found it difficult to assert my authority without being heavy-handed and threatening whole-class detentions. Things could be unruly at my Hornchurch comprehensive in the 70s, but at least there was some discipline. The principal sanction here was a black stamp in the girls’ exercise book.
I also thought it would be an eight-to-four job, with a bit of marking in the evenings. I’m quite a disciplined person. In the cab I have exactly an hour for lunch and exactly thirty minutes for coffee. In teaching, you’re working to bells, but your work duties are flexible and are frequently changed at a moment’s notice. If you have any free time they’ll find you something to do. And if you have no free time, they’ll still find you something extra to do. Your lunch break could be taken up with playground duty, and you could be running any number of little projects before and after school hours. Once they found out I was a cab driver they’d surely have me driving the school bus. I could see the way it was going and I couldn’t live my life like that.
A fair few students on my course had already left. I never thought I’d do the same, but soon after New Year in 1998 I left before I was pushed. I returned to London with my tail between my legs and to my mum in Blackheath.