Today my twelve-year career as a primary school teacher comes to an end, for now at least. This is an occasion to pay tribute to the remarkable men and women of one of the most underestimated and misunderstood professions in our society.
In Game of Thrones, new recruits to the “Night’s Watch” swear the following oath:
Night gathers, and now my watch begins.
It shall not end until my death.
I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children.
I shall wear no crowns and win no glory.
I shall live and die at my post.
I am the sword in the darkness.
I am the watcher on the walls.
I am the fire that burns against the cold, the light that brings the dawn, the horn that wakes the sleepers, the shield that guards the realms of men.
I pledge my life and honour to the Night’s Watch, for this night and all the nights to come.
At the most tiring and stressful times in the school year, teachers often imagine they have sworn an oath such as this. The rules that apply to ordinary citizens about working hours, about what constitutes a reasonable deadline or about what level of abuse and unkindness one should be willing to tolerate at work become suspended because we’re “here for the children.” It’s one hell of as life, and politicians have been making it harder and harder for several years, usually without any benefit to the pupils and often to their detriment. I’ve written about this, I’ve explained why it’s unfair and I’ve got all of that out of my system. You can read about it here, here and here.
But now the end has come, I’d prefer not to use this moment to have a moan. Instead I want to pay tribute to the quite brilliant men and women in the profession I’ve been so proud to be part of for the past twelve years, first as a lowly PGCE student and eventually as a deputy head. Yesterday, when finding myself the butt of the joke during a bit of ribald staff room banter, I told some of my comrades-in-arms (in jest, of course) that my next blog post would be entitled “why my colleagues are all complete twats.” If that is true (and, in a way, aren’t we all complete twats?) they are the most noble, compassionate, hard-working and perceptive bunch of complete twats you’re ever likely to meet.
The Night’s Watch in Game of Thrones is a band of grim-faced outcasts charged with defending the lands of the living from the mysterious threats that lie north of a vast and ancient wall. They keep the kingdom safe without most of its people appreciating, or often even knowing about, the many sacrifices they make. Teachers aren’t the only people who could be compared to the Night’s Watch on this basis. Doctors, nurses, social workers, police officers, paramedics, fire fighters and members of the armed forces as well as many other people who work in both the public and the private sector no doubt feel the same way about their work all too often. But sometimes (and with so many of the services provided by those other people having been cut) it really does feel like our schools sit on the front line between civilization and chaos. For many children from the most vulnerable backgrounds it is their teachers who give them their sense of morality, stability and aspiration. In fact, never mind that; sometimes it’s their teachers who give them their breakfast. Society has started unravelling at an alarming rate and it was never completely healthy to begin with. The extent to which this is happening isn’t always obvious to the public at large because, in between them and the consequences of this unravelling, are the teachers (and teaching assistants) standing guard- the shield that guards the realm of men (and women!) For some children these exceptional individuals are fairy tale heroes; rare beams of sunlight or sparks of inspiration in the otherwise dull, uncertain and sometimes even downright terrifying world in which they live.
And that isn’t the half of it. The mental and intellectual strain and creative energy required to teach well, even (if not especially) at primary level, is well beyond what anyone would imagine who has never tried it. Understanding the characters and needs at work in a class of 30, ensuring they are all catered for and homing in on the particular misconceptions that act as barriers to their learning is methodical, forensic work. The stereotypes many of the public have of kind, mumsy ladies in floaty skirts giving children pictures to colour in, or bearded hippies strumming away on a guitar without any particular aim or purpose present a completely false impression of life in a modern primary school. If it ever was like that, it definitely isn’t now, and hasn’t been at any point during my career. The teachers I’ve worked with have tended to be fiercely intelligent, ruthlessly critical people, sometimes to the point of cynicism, but always with their obligations to the young people they teach at the forefront of their minds.
I don’t know exactly where I’m going from here or what happens next. Having lived my whole life up until now according to a heavily-regimented three-term year, that is remarkably liberating. But I do wonder where else in the world I will encounter such good and admirable people as my brothers and sisters in the teaching profession: a brave and industrious fellowship of brilliant, gritty people for whom I will never stop fighting. To all of you out there, serving the people of this country with little or no thanks from many of them, I see you. You are strong and powerful, even though you never get to feel like it. You are wise and innovative, even though your political overlords go out of their way to make you feel stupid and ineffective. You are the hope and salvation for so many children who rely on you even though they and their families may never give you the credit. Like the sworn brothers of the Night’s Watch, you are the fire that burns against the cold and I will always be proud to have served alongside you. Have a wonderful summer holiday- you deserve it.
And now my watch is ended.