Welcome to the Olympic afterglow. Inbetween the talk of engaging fat kids in beach dressage, and discussions about where The Incredible Disappearing Playing Fields went, someone halfway famous muttered something about employing leading sports stars as teachers. This is a sweet idea in principle, but a daft one in reality. As going to the loo between 8.30am and 3.30pm is considered unprofessional, teachers must have above-average levels of bladder and bowel control (“So, Miss Radcliffe’s class will have a supply teacher today…”). Furthermore, one needs a little training in tangential subjects like the curriculum, how children learn and other such blah, even if – according to another person with too much power and a profound disrespect for pedagogic experience – they’re utterly irrelevant to being able to teach, if not actually inimical to promise.
Schools have long invited guest speakers to deliver lessons about their chosen fields. It helps to be a posh school, if you want the invitation to be accepted, but there are a few pop-tarts who will, thankfully, lug their wares to Scuzzyville High. Their input is often part of a learning scheme devised by a teacher to develop specific skills and areas of knowledge; and, in my experience, guest speakers are appreciative of the focus this framework lends their sessions, as it stops them dying on their arses in front of a tough crowd. If you’ve ever witnessed the speed at which status-struck gawping elides into competitive farting when students, faced with a speaker ill-prepared for a school audience, try to liven up proceedings, you’ll know what I mean.
There is much to be said for students receiving the insights and wisdom of a practitioner, rather than a person at one remove: been there, done that, catch this pearl. But another, complementary approach, may also be worth considering. How about (whisper this) teachers having the time to ‘do’ their subjects as well as teach them, which is impossible at the moment given the enormity of the workload that comes with the job? I’m not, for a second, advocating the Geography department attempting lunch-hour plate tectonics, or biology teachers coming over all Gunther von Hagen with a set of knives from Lakeland Plastics. But, with a reasonable workload, they might be able to keep up with key developments in their specialisms – a practice once known as listening to, reading and watching things about your subject.
Back in the day, I used to read books. Then I started sporting them as eye-masks, having managed about a paragraph in the small hours of the morning, after all the day’s marking and paperwork had been completed. Occasionally, I’d simply drop the volume on my head through exhaustion, rather than a sense of fun. (N.B. Avoid taking Don DeLillo’s Underworld to read in bed, unless you harbour a secret death-wish.)
You might imagine that reading books would be required of English teachers. But no. It would appear that all we need, by way of literary sustenance, is repeated gallops through Of Mice and Men to ensure a handsome crop of A*-C grades. Which is why we’re only given enough time off duty to be able to re-read a novel so overtaught that I can now quote it in its entirety when sleepwalking. I once narrowly missed being run over by a speeding bus on my way home from work, managing to leap out of its path just in time. Almost immediately, I regretted my actions, realising that hospitalisation would mean I might get a couple of days to myself, and some time to write or read.
One of the advantages of being incredibly old (which, in teaching, is what you are over 35) is that you may be on the upper pay scale. Admittedly, ascension to this giddy-making altitude also means that you will never be employed at another school again. So make the best of it and, if you can, use your greater earning power to make teaching part-time more feasible: you’ll end up closer to what most other professions consider a normal working week with, maybe, a couple of spare hours in which to do something else. And if you’re doomed to see out your twilight years in Hark All the Angels Academy, it may be the best way of keeping the marbles still in your possession. I did precisely this as soon as I could, with the result that I’m back to reading, rather than wearing, books – and a wider variety, at that. I’m writing again, and hugely enjoying this activity in which my participation had been reduced to commenting on other people’s participation. Best of all, it’s reinvigorated my teaching to the palpable benefit of my students, even if I did have to take a pay cut to achieve the oft-quoted but rarely-sighted Work-Life Balance.
So, as well as hoping that the greater and gooder might deign to teach for a fortnight, how about ensuring that teachers’ actual workloads (as opposed to the ones other people think they have) mean that there is some time in the week, if not the day, when they can rediscover their enjoyment of their subjects? Contrary to political opinion, the wellbeing of teachers does not entail the detriment of their students. Quite the reverse: a less frazzled, better informed, specialist workforce; a better supported, more engaged student body. Unlike Olympic sports, this is a win-win situation, not a zero-sum game. Now, there’s a legacy worth pursuing.