One of my first teaching heroes never even became a teacher.

She was a colleague of mine on the PGCE course; bright, funny with wide eyes encased firmly behind some serious coke-bottle specs. She looked the part and acted it too. She did well in her assignments and, according to the people that she was on placement with, was a blast in the classroom. You sometimes meet people like that; people who you admire with their sheer togetherness. People you feel like you wish you were when you are scrabbling. People you might even feel a little jealous of if you’re being honest with yourself.

Then, about twelve weeks into the training, she quit. Just like that. Done.

Our little circle of prospective Educators Who Were Going to Change the World were flabbergasted. She was doing a hell of a lot better than most of us poor fools. We were beginning to resemble shell-shocked veterans of some terrible skirmish, sharing war-stories in a dark corner of the university boozer, jumping at every click of a pool ball and wallowing in our own misery and the unfairness, oh the unfairness of it all.

Then, brother, I said to them ‘I’ve got all day – I’ll wait until you’re quiet.’
Eighteen hours they talked, brother. Eighteen.

She wandered in to say goodbye to us poor unfortunates and was inevitably met with a clamour of questions. Was it the kids? Was it the way they behaved? Was it the workload? It was the workload wasn’t it? Spreadsheets! I KNEW IT! I HATE THEM TOO! SHE’S QUITTING  BECAUSE OF THEM! DAMN YOU EXCEL! DAMN YOU STRAIGHT TO HADES!

She looked at us all, a little bit confused and more then a little perturbed, smiling sweetly as she started to edge towards the door, making sure she kept eye contact and checking the room for alternative exits. We simmered down enough to placate her and persuade her to sit down with us for a bit. Then we asked her again, calmly this time (although with more than a wild glint in our eyes) and this is what she said:

‘I don’t actually like it very much. I’m not going to spend the rest of my life doing something I don’t like.’

Then she threw a smoke pellet to the ground and disappeared, cackling wildly.

I’ve been in awe of her ever since.

Most of you reading this probably teach so I won’t go into the multitude of stresses and strains the job presents and how bloody marvellous we all are for putting up with it all etc, etc. It’s a tough gig that requires, dedication, determination and courage. Everyone knows that.

But does that mean someone who gives it up lacks those things?

Personally, I don’t think so. What’s worse? Staying in a job that you hate, becoming increasingly bitter as time goes by as you bemoan the things that you may have lost, like some crap version of Miss Havisham without the awesome wedding dress and the cobwebs? Or admitting that this isn’t what you want it to be, moving on and finding something else; something hopefully better. It takes a different type of courage to make a leap like that.

I love teaching, but even I go a bit misty-eyed considering different career paths as a 9am session teaching the finer points of article writing to a bunch of surly hairdressers sails into view on a Monday morning. I also do it on Tuesday morning. And Wednesday afternoon. Man, Wednesday afternoon is a bad one. Sheesh.

So my PGCE bespectacled colleague who turned out to be a ninja was my one of my first teaching heroes for taking the brave step and leaving because she wanted to. I never found out what she went on to do in the end. I sometimes imagine her as a high-flying journalist, or a multi-million pound entrepreneur or, in my lesser moments, as a call-centre operative. That’ll learn her. Either way, well played.

However, there is a much darker side to teachers leaving the profession. There are those that leave because they have to. Or are made to. It’s an absolute scandal but I’ll leave that one until I’ve taken a few deep breaths. For now it’s time for me to make my own dramatic exit!

Just as soon as I find those bloody smoke pellets…damn, must’ve left them in my pencil case.

I’ll just use the door.


  1. Clive

    I struggled in my, 1st method, teaching placements during my secondary PGCE, like most I suppose, but enjoyed the outdoor activities, 2nd method, part which in many ways seemed a more demanding yet manageable challenge. Partly because of the learning culture which surrounded it which seemed largely lacking in my school-based placement. As part of the course we completed our mountain leadership award and, after a week of exacting assessment, as my assessor signed me off he said, “well done, you’re good at this, you’ll make an excellent instructor”. I have tried to be a consistently outstanding teacher at the expense, I think, of developing my work in outdoor education. I guess good will have to be good enough but, for me, it may be time to see if I can still be excellent at something else.

    • tstarkey1212

      Absolutely nothing wrong with that. There’s a fair bit of guilt that surrounds us when we may have thoughts of leaving but I’ve found as time goes on I’ve come to believe that you have to do something that you enjoy. Really enjoy. Nothing else is good enough, especially when the job is so bloody demanding.

  2. Jill Berry

    This made me thoughtful, Tom. Just in case it’s of any interest/use to you or anyone else out there, this was my early experience of teaching….

    I hadn’t ever wanted to do anything else. I was the kind of child who played ‘school’ from a very early age, marshalling my toys and putting them through their paces. I wanted to go to a ‘Teacher Training College’ (as they were called) rather than to university and do a BEd (which was just coming in in the mid 70s) as I was so sure about my future path and thought it might make me a better teacher, but was persuaded to do an English degree at Manchester University, to keep my options open, so I did (and didn’t regret that – loved my degree) but went straight on to do a PGCE and applied for teaching jobs at the age of 22.

    My first school was a good school – biggish, newish, 11-18 comprehensive in the north west. I expected to love it – it was all I’d ever really wanted, and I was thrilled to have a job which allowed me to use my subject, pass on my enthusiasm for English, keep reading, talking about literature and language, and learning. The pupils were generally amenable, some very bright, their parents were generally supportive and my Head of Department was excellent. All should have been rosy….

    And it wasn’t. I found it so hard, felt I was working incredibly long hours and was exhausted much of the time, and that I was putting in so much more than I was getting out of it. I had to face the fact that perhaps teaching WASN’T for me, and perhaps I wasn’t going to make a success of it. It was a shock!

    So at the end of the autumn term I did some serious thinking. I decided that if I felt the same at Easter, I would hand in my resignation and look for something else before the end of the summer term. I didn’t have much of a clue what that might be, but once I’d made that decision, I felt as if a weight were lifted off me and I relaxed a bit.

    The first term WAS the toughest. The second term was a little easier, and by Easter I’d decided I would stick with it at least for the present. I even started to enjoy the summer term and the summer holidays were fabulous. Coming back to school in the following autumn having passed my ‘probationary year’ felt like a great vote of confidence. I was no longer one of the newbies and it was far easier to establish myself with my new classes (who didn’t ‘test’ me as some of my first year classes had).

    I had a thirty year career in education – seven different jobs in six different schools, and I loved it – not every moment of every day, (there were days as a head where I looked at the woman on the till in Tesco and wondered…) – but there were far more good days than bad ones, far more positive, rewarding and energising experiences than negative ones. I am pleased and proud that I stuck with it.

    So my advice to anyone training, or in their first years of teaching and finding it tough, would always be:

    1. Give it a little time. This is a challenging job, there’s a lot to learn (and you never finish learning it) but a little experience can do a great deal for your confidence, and
    2. If you’re really unhappy in a school, consider a change of school before you take the step of changing your profession. It may be a fresh start in a new context can actually lead to greater success and happiness.

    Sorry this is such a long reply! Hope it might be helpful/reassuring to someone….

    • tstarkey1212

      Thanks for that Jill – some solid advice there and a real insight into the process that I’ve got no doubt many, many of us go through.

      Those points at the end really are telling and experience and location are massively important when considering a future in this hallowed profession and you’re an example of what you can go on to achieve if you can stick it out.

      Saying that though, I worry that sometimes there’s more harm than good that comes from waiting to see. My comrade (luck to her in whatever she chose to do) was absolutely adamant that ‘the biz’ (as I like to call it to give it a bit of pep) wasn’t for her. She identified it and got out. I think the point is that she was quite an unusual character for me. There was no hand-wringing, no guilt, just a decision and that was the end of it.

      I don’t want this post to result in droves of newbies who feel a little lost feel worse when they don’t head for the exit – your points at the end are absolute gold and need to be taken on board by anyone in that position. Having said that, it’s a hell of a thing to watch when somebody does it and I’ll always feel a tiny bit jealous of the strength and decisiveness of my pellet-equipped colleague.

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