Thought For the Day on R4 this week (25/11/16) applauded a successful journalist on the FT who plans to give up her lucrative life as a hack to ‘give something back’ by going into teaching.
After fighting your way to the top in the warzone that is journalism, there comes a time when the job does pall. You look around, forgetting about your expense account and witty amusing colleagues, and think, there must be a more wholesome life than this? If not checked by a smile from the editor, a pay rise or an exotic free holiday, this mood can fester and turn to full blown missionary zeal.
In 2005 I felt fed up with journalism, thinking that I had other talents to fulfil. After sitting in the Groucho Club for twenty five years I yearned to do something more altruistic than buy drinks for my chums, so I decided to go into teaching. The impulse was based on my interests in literature and history and fantasy about the joy of imparting knowledge to eager boys and girls.
I sensibly ventured into adult education as a way of partly bypassing current teacher training, which everyone told me was intolerably boring. I could not avoid the clap-trap entirely, having to take the PGCE in adult education at a local college while doing the job – which was offered to me very quickly. I rang up Wormwood Scrubs, my local gaol and they said, please come along.
I would recommend prison work to anyone. It certainly is ‘giving back,’ but the prisoners mostly give to the teacher as they are so grateful to see them. As I worked in a man’s prison it was also huge fun, rather like a decayed, impoverished boarding school. Once I got used to the dirt and crowding, I laughed more than I had since school. Thirty five women teaching a thousand men; a ‘man buffet,’ and rather as in journalism the currency was jokes and banter. There was of course a fly in the ointment; the staff room. I had never been in one before, but I was warned.
On my first day I made the mistake of speaking as I might have done in my newspaper office; freely. I mentioned something I had read in the Metro about people who drink ‘Cola’ having more health problems than anyone else.
‘They are probably people from the lower social groups who have all kinds of other problems,’ I said. A secretary with cascading blonde hair who looked twenty from the back and eighty from the front, was outraged. ‘My daughter drinks lots of Cola’, she expostulated. ‘And she ain’t from the lower social groups.’
She never spoke to me again. At lunch time I tried chatting to an elderly African woman who was eating something that looked like Ghanaian Jollof rice and fish. When I asked her about it she was offended.
‘White people think Africa is one country,’ she snapped. ‘It is a big place, every country is different.’
Within a few minutes of entering, I learned not to comment freely about anything. The staff room is the most sensitive of places; whatever you say is likely to cause offence to someone but there will be no amusing verbal comeback. You are more likely to be reported and find yourself before an impromptu disciplinary hearing.
I was told by a teacher of mixed race, ostracised by the Afro-Caribbean staff, that the elderly African was very touchy and no one liked her because she insisted on cooking smelly food in the microwave. Apparently the prisoners were terrified of her. I discovered that the black teachers did not talk to the white ones unless they had to. Feuds went back years. They had an advantage too as the head of the department was from Jamaica and, it was rumoured, would never support a white teacher against a black one. I don’t know if that was true, but there was a tangible sense of fear. I noticed that people who came in to teach in workshops were seen as a separate species and no one spoke to them. I soon realised that they were lucky as they could glide in and out unnoticed.
Among all the staff there were fights over who used which classroom and when, and access to the one photocopier which often broke down just before a class. I began going in as early as I could to use it, to avoid aggressive tantrums from teachers who had been there longer and seemed to have priority. I wonder if the FT journalist realises what she is going into; my problem in the two institutions I worked in during my time as a missionary in education were not the prisoners/students, it was always the teachers.
When I left the prison after a year to write a book, causing fury among the people I left behind who unanimously hated the press and ‘meedja,’ I continued teaching at an education college. Or tried to. To complete the PGCE I needed more than the twenty hours a week I had had in the prison but I just could not get them; there were cut backs on teaching support staff and fully employed staff were desperate to do all the hours they could. I would constantly make appointments to meet people about helping out, working in different areas such as literacy for single mothers, or filling in when people were away, but they wouldn’t turn up at the appointed time and I would be left feeling slighted and angry.
I waited an whole term for a reply to an email about one job. Eventually it came and I was delighted, thinking I had a chance. Then I read it again and realised it said, ‘We think we will have time to read your e-mail and get back to you.’ They never did. My head of department was not interested in helping me, in fact the opposite. She told me I would never get anywhere without a PhD. Someone tipped me off that she disliked other women.
Before she takes the plunge I wonder if the FT journalist, educated at the illustrious Camden School for Girls, is aware of the sheer illiteracy of many English people, and the determination of the teaching establishment to keep it that way?
In prison I enjoyed teaching the men very much, standing in front of them like an old fashioned teacher, referring all the time to my old A Levels. The many foreign prisoners had no trouble with that. They all seemed to have had a good basic primary education, were literate and numerate. The English lads however knew nothing, had never read a paper or anything at all, and liked to put their heads down on the desk and whine, ‘It’s too ‘ard Miss. Why do you use them big words?’
Another teacher and I decided to start a history course, beginning with the story of English Law. Many of the men, particularly the Africans who seemed to already have a good basic knowledge of British history, were enthusiastic about this. They liked to hear about dynastic power struggles. The other teacher sent away for a GCSE history text book. I had not seen one before and was truly amazed. It looked like a comic, full of brightly coloured pictures. Nowhere did it mention the words, ‘Habeas Corpus.’
This was explained in the introduction which said that in the interest of ‘inclusiveness’ the language had been simplified. No big words allowed to upset the English boys. The Africans, all literate, could find the education they wanted in the library. I was disturbed by how much the other teachers disliked the Africans, representing all of the things of which they most disapproved: intense respect for the teacher, eagerness to learn facts. ‘They just want to learn everything by rote,’ I heard again and again. The fact that they had learned something wasn’t considered relevant.
The FT journalist is well known for writing an amusing column. I wonder if she is prepared for the sheer dullness of conversation in the average staff room? There may still be the odd eccentric academic in elbow patches who teachers for the love of learning, but the individualist teacher with a flair for their subject is as extinct as Mr Quelch, who anyway would now be behind bars for emotional and physical assault.
Staff rooms, dominated by women, are PC hubs, mostly dedicated to left wing politics. The teaching of ‘rights’ not the acquisition of knowledge, that suspicious middle-class brand of capital, is the priority.
If she likes a bit of irony with her lunch she better get out and meet her old journalist cronies because she won’t find it among women teachers. They will mistrust her for having been a journalist, and resent her for having had a real talent which she has fulfilled.
After I left the adult education college I applied for a job in an east London school where they wanted someone to help their mostly Muslim girls increase their cultural capital to get into Oxbridge, to get through the notorious admissions interviews. By then I had certainly seen a thing or two of the world and I was interested in helping them to do that.
There were three of us for the interview, including a middle aged Hindu woman in a sari and a Muslim girl aged eighteen who had just left the school. The head teacher began the interview by saying to me, ‘Is there any reason why I should forgive you for working for the Daily Mail?’
There was no good answer to that except to say that it was surely in the interest of humanity.
‘How do you feel about the Islamophobia which dominates the British press?’ was her next question.
On the way home she sent me a text message telling me I had not got the job as another candidate (the Muslim girl) was ‘far more suitable.’
I was boiling with rage at her rudeness and tried to ring the school but could not get through. The next day a woman teacher also on the panel who had not spoken at all but smiled at me rather sympathetically rang up and apologised. Later a friend who worked there told me she had left the school.
After that I went into teaching privately, which was tiring but enjoyable because it is just you and the person who wants to learn, no need for lesson plans stretching for months ahead, cross referenced to the National Curriculum, guards outside the door, or informal disciplinary hearings.
Two years after venturing into teaching I wrote a book about it; it became just another story after all. Without noticing it I returned to journalism, proving a suspicion I had had all along; leaving journalism even to ‘do good’ is almost impossible. It is not so much a profession as a chronic illness, which once it has got you will never let go no matter how you distract yourself. It is also a thing only a few people can do really well, involving talent, wit, verve, an independent mind and some understanding of the world; qualities which drive teachers insane with jealousy.