My own (un)conventional professional life
In many ways, my career trajectory as a teacher can be considered as unconventional.
DPhil and Discontent
Having gained my doctorate in English from a Russell Group University, I languished in a limbo of “unemployment”. To fill my days, I volunteered in a local Oxfam bookshop; I secured a non-stipendiary post-doctoral research position at another university as an Associate Fellow; published a scholarly paper and a few poems; I also co-translated a sociology textbook into Chinese for a major publisher in the United States. After a year or two of drifting between dreams and reality, I decided that I needed a job – a proper job. I began to entertain the idea of becoming a schoolteacher.
Re-engaging with Education – as an Outsider
I decided that secondary school teacher would suit my intellectual disposition better, and a school with a sixth form seemed like an ideal option. At that time, teaching simply meant just that – teach. There was only one problem – I had never been to a British school; I came to the UK for my postgraduate studies after completing my national service in Taiwan. I was the first and the only child (out of 2 older brothers and 1 older sister) in my family to go to university, then beyond in the UK. I was intrigued to find out what a British secondary school could be like, and I wanted to ‘learn the trade’ from the bottom up – being a Teaching Assistant seemed to be the logical first step. I applied for a place at a local comprehensive; I was invited to an interview; I was given the job (as the most overqualified Teaching Assistant at that school’s history). I almost regretted as soon as I started my job. I came home with a paralysing headache every day in the first week of my new job. But the staff were magnificently supportive and friendly. A bond was quickly developed. And that gave me the strength to carry on. I undertook the roles of being a general classroom assistant to one that supported students with visual impairment. The job gave me a perfect opportunity to develop an overview of the curriculum. The trouble was, I felt I was stuck with groups with low expectations and poor behaviour most of the time.
Time to Get Serious
After three years of looking at the world of education from the back of the classroom, I decided it was time I tried a new perspective from the front of the classroom. Graduate Teaching Programme (GTP) was the route that I took to gain a Qualified Teacher Status (QTS). I had already taken up some English teaching at my school with a view to start my training there. Unfortunately, following a damning Ofsted inspection, the school was put on Special Measures which meant my training would have to be based somewhere else. Strange how one felt as if one were betraying one’s old students and colleagues in a situation such as this. A new school was found; my training commenced. My abiding memories of my GTP training has always been the hours spent on planning lessons only to be dismantled as soon as the students entered the room. The training pace allowed no time for academic studies of pedagogy and education theory. My saving grace was my subject knowledge, but subject knowledge cut no ice if one could not engage with one’s audience, and my audience was hard to engage. Fortunately, the county GTP programme provided thoughtful training conferences and workshop to prepare us for the onslaught on classroom reality. Naturally, working at a school with split sites presented its own logistic conundrums; all added to the richness of my training experience.
It had to be noted, however, the real sense of breakthrough came when I went on my placement at another smaller school in a village closer to home. The feeling of finally being able to teach was indescribably powerful. Liberating. Emancipating. The elation that came from the realisation that one was finally given the opportunity to offer one’s best was exactly what I needed. The result was that I could see a purpose of my endeavour – I could broaden others’ minds and my own. The placement was short; the impact was sustaining.
The completion of my training coincided with my plan to move away from the south east of England. I was offered a permanent position as a Newly Qualified Teacher (NQT) at a school with a sixth form in North Yorkshire. I was thrilled. I remembered the day when I came for my interview and the the subsequent visit to collect my timetable from the then Head of Department. Suffice to say, I thought I had found my life partner. Walking round the school, I could see students copying work neatly into their clean exercise books in fountain pens! There was no graffiti on books. The parquet floors down the long corridors gleamed in summer sun shine. The wood panelling at the entrance and hand-written scholarship and exhibition winners on oak plaques along the corridor emanated a distinct sense of academic formidability. I was happy.
The plan that I had in mind as a late entry to the teaching profession was far more ambitious – in retrospect utterly unrealistic and totally underestimating the complex nature of the professional progression. Too many internal and external factors are at play. I can still clearly recall that when applying for my NQT position at my current school, I ambitiously mapped out my career progress to become an assistant headteacher in charge of teaching and learning in three years. Very soon after starting my NQT, I began to lose all enthusiasm to climb up the managerial steps.
Bridging the Gap
Three years into my teaching career, I was becoming more aware of the wider issues in the world of education. My new school was also undergoing major changes with a far more ambitious self-image. The pace was relentless. The high staff turn-over after my arrival illustrated just how rapidly the school was refashioning and repositioning itself. Being a teacher was definitely not just about teaching. I had many questions. My desire to find answers was met with frustration and disillusionment. I was in danger of sounding like someone who had been in teaching for years – cynical! I needed answers. At least, I needed to find a way to find answers. My thought turned to a postgraduate course in education research. Then I read about Cambridge Master of Education in Researching Practice. I got in touch with the course director; I applied; I went for my interview; I was offered a place at one of the oldest Colleges at Cambridge. I could not wait to start.