Being a teacher is stressful. You've got a giant workload to manage and hordes of rowdy, hormonal teenagers to deal with, all while trying to keep it together in the face of regular assessments and attempting to retain some semblance of an out-of-school life. It's no wonder that almost a third of teachers quit within five years of qualifying.
But it's not all bad: despite the above, it can be a very rewarding job. Pawel Blanda, 25, has been teaching English for nearly a year-and-a-half. Starting out as a teaching assistant, he graduated to teaching after two years, partly so he could afford to live in London. He's now working with students from years 7 to 11, and is passionate about his profession.
I sat down with him to ask ten questions you've always wanted to ask a teacher, about everything from shouty parents to drug use.
VICE: First – do teachers take drugs?
Pawel Blanda: Teachers are expected to follow the law – we get barred from the profession if we don't. So even though, statistically, one would suppose that some must, I have no evidence to say which do. That said, most teachers are dependent on caffeine.
Have you ever wanted to hit a student?
Honestly, yeah. It's rare and it's only when I'm at my worst and most undernourished. I suppose everyone has intrusive thoughts – but hitting solves nothing. Also, it's always the kid who will later make all the frustration worthwhile. The most frustrating type of behaviour is interrupting. Boys do this the most – just calling out a question or starting to answer it, despite me explicitly asking for someone else's ideas. Or just starting a conversation while another student is explaining how to do something.
Have you ever fantasised about a student?
Oh god, no. There's too much trust to abuse. Kids are fragile, weird little things. I think our society infantilises the same bodies it sexualises, so there's definitely a narrative that fetishises these types of relationships between teacher and student. Honestly, Anne Summers' "sexy teacher" and "school girl" outfits make me feel really uncomfortable.
What is the worst thing about the school system today?
Since the 1990s the school system has been treated as a semi-market, where schools compete between themselves for better results. This is happening while funding is being syphoned off and contracts are continuously being given to private sponsors. I think there should be less emphasis on competition and more on cooperation. That, and there should be more public scrutiny into how schools are funded.
Is there anything you wish you taught but can't?
No – my department's very good with giving me room to teach how I want. I mean, there is an abundance of dead white men on the syllabus, but my department doesn't require me to only teach them. For instance, I taught a Year 7 group about persuasive language in speeches exclusively by looking at black female speakers. In terms of that, I guess it comes down to the texts we get to select as teaching material.
There's also a big debate about how grammar and literacy is taught, coming from the change in KS2 SATs tests. That revolves around a more explicit use of metalanguage. So, for example, our generation – if they were taught in England – are likely to be able to use grammar correctly but not be able to explain why, while this generation is expected to be proficient in the terminology around grammar.
You might have heard of a lot of resistance to those, but I'm a bit of a grammar nerd, so I think I have a biased view on it. I think the old system unfairly favoured speakers whose first language is English.
Is being book smart the only way to succeed in life?
I really hope not. That would be so dull. But unfortunately, the statistics are even duller: kids with rich parents end up doing best in terms of success. In terms of asking if kids who prefer certain subjects do better in school, I would say there is a hierarchy, which is hinted at through governmental policy, about which subjects are "important". As an English teacher, I find my students really respect my subject. I can imagine that isn't the case in all subjects. Also, generally, students don't excel in one subject exclusively – if they make progress they tend to do so across the board, in my experience.
Also, I would say grades matter less than most kids think – for the students, at least. They're useful as a guide to determine what should be learnt next and how. Grades are used to hold teachers to account – which is odd, if you think about it. I'm not sure how many people know, but our pay is strongly related to how well the children perform.
What's the most embarrassing thing that's happened to you in class?
Getting kids names muddled up generates a big response – the level of outrage tends to be almost operatic.
Do you think being a teacher will affect your parenting?
I'd love to adopt one day, but teaching has made me very aware of the amount of emotional work that comes with having a kid. Unfortunately, it's also not easy to look after a child in a material sense, so often emotional stuff gets neglected. I think I need to become more financially stable before I have the emotional energy to do a decent job as a parent. I have so much admiration for anyone who does it, though.
What is the hardest thing about being a teacher?
Just the sheer amount of work. It's endless. Some of it is really hard, but even the easy stuff – there's so much of it. On an average day, my schedule comprises of:
- Make a coffee
- Check emails
- Mark books
- Prepare resources for the day
- Teach a 30 minute pastoral lesson to my tutor group
- Teach two 50-minute lessons
- Depending on the day, either prepare resources for the lessons I have after break is over, or teach another lesson
- Have lunch while preparing the classroom for the rest of the day
- Then either have staff meetings until 4:30PM, or run extra-curricular clubs
- You meet or call parents to let them know if their child has misbehaved or done well
- Now more admin stuff to be done
- Then you can plan lessons for the next day
- Now there's probably more marking to do
- Then you can go home and sleep
Often we have a meeting in the morning, too. Many teachers forget to eat, go to the toilet or drink for the whole day. It's really easy to let that happen because there's just so much to do.
Who's the worst parent you've encountered?
A parent made a formal complaint against me, but my school has a really clear behaviour policy, so as long as you follow it, you're fine. That was a difficult conversation, though.
I also was roasted by a bunch of parents because they thought I was being uncommunicative. Fortunately, another group of parents stuck up for me. I think they were expecting a similar level of communication as you get in primary school, where a child is with one teacher all day and you get to see them face-to-face every day when you pick your child up. Obviously secondary school doesn't work that way, so there's a bit of a gap in expectations of levels of communication.
Parents can get shouty, but it's very rare. Generally, everybody wants what's best for the child, so any disagreements are dealt with quickly and it's never personal.
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