Starting a new job is always nerve-racking, even for a seasoned old veteran like me. You naturally feel the need to prove yourself and seek approval from your peers.
You see, teaching is an extremely judgemental profession. You’re subjected to frequent lesson observations and learning walks, in which your superiors judge your performance on a day-to-day basis. Your marking is the focus of intense scrutiny and, perhaps worst of all, your colleagues have a tendency to surreptitiously discuss your shortcomings in the more obscure recesses of the school’s corridors.
Teachers are incorrigible gossips if nothing else. And there’s nothing we enjoy more than talking about a colleague’s perceived inadequacies. It makes us feel better, you see, and serves to validate our own performances.
The judgemental glare of the kids can be even more unnerving. Do they think I’m a good teacher? Do they even like me? Now, you might argue that it’s not my job to court popularity. But I’m only human. Everybody wants to be liked.
All this creates an atmosphere of suspicion and paranoia. Teachers, consumed by self-doubt and incurably sensitive to criticism, are forever trying to prove themselves to the kids, their colleagues and of course their superiors. No wonder so many go off sick with anxiety and stress. No wonder so many leave the profession.
So here I am, jumping back into the fire after a brief spell in a white hot, sizzling frying pan.
I’d previously been working as a day-to-day supply teacher in Tilbury - a job that didn’t carry the same planning and marking responsibilities as a full-time, permanent member of staff, but one that did carry extreme pressures of a different kind.
These kids were feral. To give you an idea, I remember walking out to my car at the end of a school day in late June, only to see one of our Year 8 pupils, a 13-year-old boy, sitting in the back of what looked like his Nan’s car. The window was open and he was puffing on a cigarette like a bootlegger in a speakeasy. ‘Boy, come over ‘ere, boy,’ he ordered, before handing his young customer a wrap of some sort. I was speechless. Then his Nan drove off, seemingly unperturbed. It was an eye-opening moment. A child-, chain-smoking-gangster with his septuagenarian getaway driver selling drugs in the school car park. Eye-opening indeed.
As if this wasn’t shocking enough, I soon discovered that, shortly before my arrival, the school had briefly flirted with local infamy after a pupil smuggled a home-made bomb into a Design and Technology class.
I greet the receptionist, a lady I had previously met on the day of my interview, who proceeds to direct me through the twists and turns of the ground floor corridors, until we reach my classroom.
It’s small and the walls are bare. I immediately notice the lack of storage space, too. Where will I put the kids’ books? I worry. I always worry.
Directly opposite is my line manager’s classroom. He is a slight, diminutive man with thick dark hair and long, spidery fingers. He looks a little like Mr Bean, I quietly chuckle to myself.
‘Hi, I’m Chris,’ he says. ‘I’m sure you remember me from your interview.’
‘I certainly do, Chris,’ I reply, shaking his hand. ‘How could I forget? It was the hottest day of the year.’
My interview and observation had been a serious test of endurance. It was over 30 degrees and, being ever so slightly on the larger side of large, I perspired like a bomb disposal expert attempting to diffuse an IED in downtown Kandahar.
Chris introduces me to Michelle and Jo, two of my faculty colleagues. Both have thick Irish accents. My initial impressions are that Michelle, curt and intense, is smouldering with barely concealed indignation. That doesn’t bode well, I think. Why’s she so pissed off? Jo, on the other hand, is relaxed and humorous, possibly down to the fact that she’s heavily pregnant and will no doubt be off on maternity leave soon.
After exchanging pleasantries- or, in Michelle’s case, being the recipient of a disdainful glare - we make our way to the main hall.
I sit with my new team, dreading this bit of the proceedings: The introductions. New members of staff are introduced by the Head and, one by one, stand up and present themselves to their assembled colleagues. It’s eminently embarrassing and happens at the beginning of the academic year, without exception, in every single school I’ve ever worked in.
My palms are sweating. Surprisingly, it goes without a hitch, though. No stutter; no embarrassing stumble into my redoubtable colleague Michelle, who happens to be sitting beside me, poised and unnervingly impassive; just a big, red-faced, up, ‘hello’, half-swivel, bashful wave and back down. That was almost regal, I say to myself, with more than a hint of irony. It wasn’t awkward at all.