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Life in an Inner City Primary - Chapter 1: Why Do You Want to be a Teacher?

by flock1 

Posted: 03 July 2006
Word Count: 2496
Summary: Tales from my time as a primary school teacher in Yorkshire.
Related Works: SATS, Drugs and Rock n` Roll • 

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TOM JARRETT LIVED WITH HIS MOTHER AND FIVE-YEAR OLD SISTER. Mum was a known heroin addict. Though only eight, Tom usually had to get his little sister and himself ready for school on a morning. They normally arrived late. At half past nine, almost forty minutes past the close of register, Tom Jarrett opened the classroom door. His hair was dripping from the rain outside, expression neutral. As he sat down at his desk, I noticed something unusual. He wasn’t wearing any socks. Wondering why, I went over to him. The rest of the class got on with handwriting practise. “Where are your socks? I asked quietly.
Tom shrugged, his thin, freckled face looking up at me only briefly. Then he spoke. “I could only find one pair in the bucket when I woke up. I dried ‘em for our Stacy.” He opened his handwriting book, reaching for a pencil.
“Where was your mum?”
“Asleep. I could hear her snoring. She wouldn’t wake up.” He wrote the date. “So I had to make Stacey’s breakfast. Coco Pops. There’s none left now though.”
Knowing the answer already, I asked the Tom what he’d had for breakfast.
“Nowt, Mr Hunt. I weren’t hungry.” I nodded and stood up. A moment later I was at the other end of the classroom helping another child join up some tricky letters. At playtime, I gave Tom a biscuit from the staffroom. He was ravenous.

Chapter 1
Why do you want to be a teacher?

“SO TELL ME, JASON,” asked Mr Granger, the silver topped Head of Teacher Training at Bradford College. “Why do you want to be a teacher?”
Shifting in my seat, I tried to think of a suitable answer. As a twenty-one year old student, I couldn’t tell him the truth - that would be a costly mistake. Instead, summoning my most sombre face, I looked Mr Granger in the eyes. “Because I want to make a difference to children’s lives.”
Mr Granger nodded. “Very noble. And how do you propose to do that?”
“Well,” I mumbled, searching for inspiration. “By helping them do their work. And by being friendly and kind. Things like that.”
“I see.”

* * *

A month previously Phil Jackson had burst into the living room of the student house we shared with six other blokes. “I’ve done it!” he proclaimed, sending the mice scurrying for cover. “I’ve found my true path in life! I’m going to be a primary school teacher!”
I laughed. It had to be a joke. “A teacher? But you hate kids.”
“Yeah, but listen, Jase. The course is ninety percent women! Ninety percent!”
Phil Jackson and I had met at Bradford University in 1987. Phil had studied Mathematics; I Civil Engineering. After passing our degrees we had faced the dismal prospect of finding proper jobs. Knowing we’d spent three years pursuing a life of leisure only added to this misery. “So what do you think?” he asked.
I stared out the window, once more noting the dead rat in the garden. It had been there for about a fortnight. I turned back to Phil. “I think it’s the best plan I’ve heard in a long time. Where do I sign up?”
Phil handed me an application form. I filled it in there and then. It was in the post within the hour. The pair of us went to the pub to celebrate our newly found fortune. We no longer had to join the working masses. We were going to be students again.
A week later, two identical letters arrived, one for me, the other for Phil. They said we had to attend interviews at the teacher training college in three days time. It was a necessary part of the selection process, it stated. The college wanted to assess our suitability for the PGCE course.
“Shit,” I said. “We’re scuppered now. We’re not suitable candidates. They’re going to see that straight away.”
Phil Jackson folded his letter, seemingly unfazed. “Just tell them you want to make a difference to kids’ lives. That’s all they want to hear. If that doesn’t work, mention your degree. They’re crying out for people with maths based degrees like ours.”

* * *

Mr Granger, Head of Teacher Training, regarded me with a tight-lipped expression. I tried to meet his steely gaze, but couldn’t. He’d obviously seen through my silly charade. Finally, he opened a thin folder on his desk. I watched as he ran his finger down the page. “It says here your degree was Civil Engineering. That’s a strange choice to do before embarking upon a career in teaching.” He looked up.
I nodded. I’d anticipated this question. I’d prepared my answer well. “Civil Engineering wasn’t for me. It was all about sewerage pipes and car parks. Concrete might appeal to some people, but not me. I want to be a teacher. I did the wrong degree, that’s all.”
“Yes, but that’s precisely what I’m worried about, Jason. You’re essentially swapping one career for another. How can I be sure you won’t do the same thing with teaching?”
Rubbing my sweaty palms on my newly ironed trousers (the only article I’d ever ironed in three years) I began to speak. For two minutes I talked about the teachers I remembered from my childhood, describing my favourites and the things they had taught me. I told Mr Granger I wanted to be just like them.
The Head of Teacher Training said nothing for a short while, clearly weighing things up in his mind. Closing the file, he said, “You do know that teaching is hard work?” I nodded, though in truth, I thought it was probably easy. “And the course itself is about as demanding as they come?” I nodded again, smiling.
Mr Granger sat back, folding his arms. “I’m taking a risk here, Jason. But I’m going to offer you a place on our PGCE course. And that’s mainly down to your degree. We need more maths specialists in primary schools. But there will be one stipulation. For one week, you’ll work in a local primary school for free. This will give you some understanding of what it’s like working with young children. Afterwards get the Headteacher to sign a letter saying you’ve completed the experience. Only then can you formally become a student teacher. How does that sound?”
Terrible, I thought. “Fine,” I said.
“Good. Here’s a list of local schools to ring. Congratulations.”
Thanking Mr Granger for his time, I left his office with the list. On the way out, I was torn between emotions. Jubilation for getting a provisional place on the course. Misery for having to work for free. But at home, I found out Phil had been given the same news as me. This meant the bitter pill was easier to swallow. We went to the pub straightaway to lament our sorry plight.

For both Phil and I, our first day at Paisley First School was a strange experience. Walking into classrooms filled with small children (and even smaller chairs) seemed so different to the world we were used to. Thirty pairs of beady eyes staring right at us didn’t help either. We felt like freakshow exhibits. Some children laughed at us, though we couldn’t fathom out why. And every single adult we saw was a woman. Primary schools, it seemed, were the domain of the female of the species.
Phil Jackson and I sat and read with various eight-year-old children. We also tied shoelaces and held hands with crying kids. At playtime we were sent into the playground to get to know the children. I ended up twirling one end of a skipping rope while Phil listened to a tale about a guinea pig. It was all surreal.
On the second day, I was in the playground with a real teacher. She was at one end of the large concrete quadrangle, I at the other. Phil was inside somewhere, hearing readers. As I held hands with various small children, a little girl, giggling a lot, approached me from behind. She tapped me on the back. “Jasmine loves you!” she said.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Jasmine says she loves you,” the girl repeated. “She told me. She’s over there with the blue coat.”
I looked over and could see a group of other little girls staring over at me. All were giggling. Before I could say anything the girl ran back towards her friends. It was then I witnessed my first playground fight.
One boy was on the floor with another boy on top, strangling him. A second later, the boy being asphyxiated rolled his assailant over and punched him in the face.
I came out of my stupor and ran over. I asked the boys to desist, but they paid me no heed. Just then, the teacher arrived and took control.
“Stop!” she shouted, making both boys freeze instantaneously. “Charlie! Jonathan! Get up and go inside! I’ll speak to you both later!”
The boys did just that. They traipsed in one after the other, hound dog expressions all the way. I stood astonished. The teacher rolled her eyes at me and shook her head. “Silly little boys,” she muttered. Then she walked off.

During the next few days Phil and I became used to answering inane questions such as: Are you two brothers? or Can you touch the ceiling? or even, Why have you got a black eye?
The last question was directed at me. My black eye couldn’t have come at a worse possible time. I’d gained it on the Friday night before we were due at school. After one too many beverages, I’d made a futile attempt to climb a dry stone wall. My descent had been headfirst. The next morning, with a black eye peering back from the mirror, I perfectly epitomized the type of person who should never be allowed to work with children. I looked like I’d been fighting or else head butting lampposts. Compounding my misery was I could do nothing about it. But I was wrong; Phil suggested I go into Boots to purchase some make-up.
“Make up?” I uttered. “For a black eye?”
“Yeah. Get some women’s foundation. It’ll cover the blue bits. Loads of blokes do it. I’ll even go with you if you want - to offer moral support.”
And that was how we ended up in the women’s make-up section of Boots.

“Can I help you,” offered the pretty store assistant. She’d been watching us wandering aimlessly up and down isles for some time.
I turned round to face her while Phil surreptitiously edged away. “I’m looking for some cream,” I said.
“What sort of cream?”
I didn’t have time to answer. Phil, safely ensconced behind a nearby isle, decided to answer for me. “He wants foundation cream.”
The assistant turned to face him before swivelling her gaze back to me. She said nothing. I nodded, feeling my face going red, which was giving my blue bits a not-very-pleasing purplish hue. “What shade do you want?” she finally asked.
Shade? That stumped me. I opened my mouth to speak, then closed it again. The young lady watched me with an interest bordering on caution. Finally I said, “I’m not sure. It’s for my eye.”
Nodding, the girl moved closer, studying my face, no doubt trying to match the skin tone with the correct foundation. However, Phil decided to add another choice ingredient into my cauldron of abject misery. He said, “It’s not for his face. It’s for his willy.”
I fled the shop. Phil was close behind, guffawing all the way.
Luckily, none of the staff at school asked me about my black eye and whenever one of the children asked, I shrugged my shoulders, telling them I was a boxer in my spare time. They all accepted this.
After the week was over, Phil and I got our letters signed by the Headteacher. After thanking her, we went straight to the pub to applaud ourselves. We were in! We were going to be student teachers.

The summer of 1990 came and went. A week prior to starting college, Phil and I met up in the pub to discuss things. He showed me a letter he’d received from the teacher training college. I told him I’d got one too. It stated that we’d be required to attend an induction day at the college. For me, this was no problem, but for Phil, it was hassle beyond belief. He’d planned to go away with his girlfriend to the Lake District. He’d already paid for the B&B. “You’ll cover for me won’t you?” he pleaded.
“No chance. It’s the first day. You’ve got to be there for that.”
“I can’t. Julie will kill me. Come on, cover for me! ”
“I’ll buy you a pint.”
I shook my head.
“Two pints?”
I shook my head.
Phil breathed wearily. “Alright. Three pints and a curry.”
A week later, after signing my name, and forging Phil’s, I entered a large hall filled with about a hundred students of various ages. As I scanned the assembled masses, I seemed to be one of the youngest people there. Most were between the ages of 25 to 35. But Phil was correct; the room was filled with women. I found a seat, just as a middle-aged lady walked to the front. As she climbed onto the small stage and tapped the microphone, the room became quiet.
“Hello,” she said. “I’m Susan Brantley, Assistant Head of Teacher Training at Bradford College. And first of all, I’d like to dispel a few myths about teacher training. A large proportion of you – probably about a third - will not make it to the end of the course.” She paused, allowing her gaze to sweep across the audience. “And the reason for that is simple. The PCGE is not easy. You will be worked to the bone. You’ll be expected to work harder than you’ve ever worked before. And after each day in college, you’ll have to work most evenings completing coursework and assignments. And then it’s into school for practical experience. That’s where most of you will drop out.”
Whoa, wait just a minute I thought. This didn’t sound very promising. Teachers had an easy life, didn’t they? All those holidays? Home at three? I slumped in my seat, listening as Mrs Brantley continued.
“However, for those who persevere, the rewards are immense. As a primary school teacher, you’ll experience satisfaction like no other job in the world. You’ll go home after a day’s work glowing. It’ll make the hardships worth it in the end.”
Susan Brantley regarded us all. “Good luck!” she said, and walked off the stage to rapturous applause. I wasn’t clapping though; I was too busy making my way out of the room to get to the pub. I needed a pint after all that.

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Comments by other Members

Steerpike`s sister at 16:03 on 20 July 2006  Report this post
I found this on the Random reads & really enjoyed it. You could be the James Herriot of primary schools! Good stuff, and a really gripping first paragraph.

flock1 at 15:09 on 21 July 2006  Report this post
Thank you for the reply. And I'm pleased you enjoyed it.

There are another 4 chapters posted in the archive if you want to read further!


crazylady at 21:58 on 17 August 2006  Report this post
Hi Jason,

I just found this whilst looking for your accounts of Tallin etc.
I really enjoy your writing style, it drew me in straight away and now I shall read on to other chapters.

I'm fascinated to find out more about your experiences, because in my own naivety I only thought about the long hols and short days of teachers. However, a good friend has just completed her PGCE as a mature student and tells me it was the hardest year of her life.

PS. I spotted a couple of typos. Do you want me to list them or will you be editing later? (I'm a congenital nit picker on things like that.)

flock1 at 18:35 on 23 August 2006  Report this post
Crazy Lady,

I'd love you to spot errors in spelling, punctuation etc. And sorry about the hefty delay in getting back to you. I've been in Croatia.

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