Was it worth it?

Reflections on a teaching career

Kieran Clarke in his London classroom in the 1970s ©Rights reserved

Graduate teaching courses are becoming more popular again in many countries, though ageing continues to affect the profession, and making the career more attractive for longer remains a challenge. For insight, we asked a retired teacher to explain why, despite the challenges, he stayed in the job.

There were three routes into teaching when I arrived in London at the end of the 1960s with my Bachelor’s degree and an abiding love of English literature: drift, career decision, or two years on approval. I opted for the third and was prepared to give it a good go as long as people called me a school teacher and not a schoolmaster, which I found stuffy and inaccurate

Political efforts in the mid-1970s to give teachers a good basic salary provided some incentive to stay in the job, but what nailed it for me was the fact that after two years I found myself in a secondary school with a thriving sixth form (final year) and regular successes at Oxford and Cambridge entry. It was the kind of school in which a teacher might just decide to spend an entire career.

But the school met with difficult times. It became a multicultural school with the majority of pupils coming from immigrant families. About a third of pupils are now considered as having Special Educational Needs and the number of pupils on Free School Meals, a programme designed for very poor families, is over twice the national average.

Over the past 30 years, I have watched teachers having to cope with a litany of changes that shaped the history of today’s education: the advent of comprehensive schools, a national curriculum, the Baker reforms that destroyed the dream of a true comprehensive system in which every child would have an equal educational opportunity, regardless of background, class or ability. Then there were the Standard Attainment Tests, rigorous quality and competency inspections, often used as precursors to reform, and of course, performance league tables.

In 1984 our school amalgamated with another school, and teachers had to travel miles from one site to the other during their working day. Parents and children had to travel too. We lost many of the children from our traditional primary feeder schools. Their parents understood the likely disruption to learning that this split-site arrangement could cause.

During the recession we painted our own classrooms. Then came the rise of the sixth-form college, the introduction of technology, reforms to the exam system and, of course, the need to meet the cultural and social changes that were sweeping Britain at the time. Nobody entering the profession in the 1970s could have foreseen the changes that would take place in schools over the next two or three decades. My school went into decline. Soon it will close. Another school in the borough is about to be bulldozed, to make way for a sports academy.

I admire people who give up other careers to enter the classroom. They feel they have something to offer today’s schools, even though many of these, like mine, have become trapped and impoverished within the new social geography of Britain. It is a statement on what drives teachers: hope, enthusiasm, a desire to contribute.

But teaching also demands endurance. Recently on radio I heard a journalist, Steve McCormack, speak about his experience when he left his job to become a maths teacher. There were “magic moments”, but the sheer volume of work was one of the things that got to him. Then there was the attitude of students, demotivated, inattentive and hostile. Steve left after two years.

The public have always had a general respect for the teaching vocation, but do they really appreciate the day-to-day achievements against the odds or the anxiety that many teachers experience when the classroom reaches boiling point? A conversation about teaching in A Man For All Seasons comes to mind.

“Your pupils, your friends, God. Not a bad public that…..Oh, and a quiet life.”

I wonder if Thomas More ever came to regret not continuing his career in the classroom. For us who have taught, who thrive in working with pupils and colleagues, there is an empty space, a hankering to belong fully, not in the “real world” as is often said (there is nothing more real than a group of school kids, whether eager or disaffected), but in the world of successful enterprise, of recognition. To be not just respected, but admired; to be not just admired, but envied.

Pay was never a leading issue in my book, even if I had always been keenly aware of the inadequacy of teachers’ salaries. Actual funding of schools and investment in more teachers are more important. Financing was never sufficient, particularly after power went to the local authorities. Recent suggestions in Britain that teachers could take classes of as many as 80 pupils by introducing redundant civil servants into the classroom as assistants hardly inspire admiration or optimism.

So, where does the satisfaction come from? My wife watches me talking to ex-pupils I bump into in railway stations and supermarkets. “There’s your job satisfaction”, she says. “Look what you have given to the community.” She’s a medical secretary, working in a world where service to the community is important.

Nevertheless, when asked, “Was it worth it?”, I have to think. Lying in theatre with a cardiac catheter attached to my heart, I would have given you a pretty crisp answer to that question. Now I am feeling fine. I work half-days. I have time to write and reflect.

Early on, long before the coursework revolution happened, it became clear that my pupils were getting consistently good exam results, and in the year I became Head of English, our A-level results were reportedly the best in London.

Clearly, the professional who finds a particular skill, whether in the classroom or on the sports field, in art or science, or as a genuine “kids’ teacher”, is in with a chance of making a difference. This is where the job satisfaction comes from, working with a group of youngsters, setting targets, expecting to achieve those results, and being motivated by the drive to equal or better last year’s results. I think that’s what kept me going and what even today sends me rushing to make my Liverpool Street connection and teach in a small faith school on the other side of London.

I don’t know if this type of job satisfaction will hold in the new generation of schools with classrooms designed to hold several scores of pupils, where children are taught extended moral contemplation for a relativist society in which decisions are divorced from rules. Put this alongside staff shortages, drug testing, and inspections with two days’ notice, and see how many hours sleep you get.

People who leave another profession to teach are usually sufficiently well-informed to know what they are doing. To younger teachers I would say: look out for signs such as a school that cannot hold onto its talented staff. The dynamic deputy head who leaves after two years is making a statement about the future of the school. Look for a work ethic among the students, a collegiate atmosphere in the staff room, the sense of a corporate teaching staff. Look at the trend in exam results. And think of future careers too. It may be that after ten years in the classroom you might want to move on.

So, it was the single skill that made it worthwhile for me. Kyra Hollis in David Hare’s play Skylight says,

“And that’s it, that’s being a teacher. One private target, and that’s enough.”

It was enough for me.


BBC (2004), “Is becoming a teacher really a way out of the rat-race?”, 18 February 2004,  BBC Radio 4 Today programme;  audio archives at 8.52 am. Read BBC news story here.

Bolt, Robert (1960), A Man for All Seasons.

Davies, Nick (2000), The School Report, Vintage Original.

Hare, David (1995), Skylight.

McKenzie, Philip (2004), "Teaching: Restoring its class", in the OECD Observer No. 242, March. Click here to read the article.

*Kieran Clarke spent over 30 years as a secondary school teacher in the UK. He was head of English and Modern Languages at a large boys’ school in Blackheath, and later taught at Yesodey Hatorah Boys in Stamford Hill. Now officially retired, Mr Clarke, who holds a degree in psychology, continues to guide school students towards exams and teaches literacy to adults. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the OECD or its member countries.

©OECD Observer No 244, September 2004

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