11 things I learnt from going back to school

I spent the last academic year working in a school.  Not as a teacher, as some assume from my Facebook statuses, but as a receptionist, especially for the students.  I entered into the job wanting to get a better idea of what I wanted to do, and open to the possibility of entering the teaching profession.  I now have a better idea of what I want to do long term, and it is NOT teaching.

However, I learnt loads, and wanted to share it with the world (maybe I should be a teacher after all!).  So here are the eleven things I learnt which changed me deeply.

  1. Teachers are heroes.

If you have had no experience of teaching teenagers, you will probably fall into one of two camps.  You may think that being a teacher is easy – as effortless as English teacher Clara Oswald in Doctor Who.  Or as casual as history teacher Alfie Wickers in Bad Education.  That teaching is like anything you see on a television programme or film which is school related.  Or you hear the horror stories about violent pupils, pushy parents and Gove’s curriculum changes, and baulk at anyone who decides to pursue a teaching career.

As a receptionist, I observed many teachers striding grimly to and from lessons, heard stories about tough situations in classrooms and had to deal with some challenging students myself.  Teaching is no picnic.  It’s tough, yet a task which needs people who can do it, not who slide into it because they think it’ll be easy.  We need people to bear with this country’s young people, patiently continue to teach them and truly care about their well being, not just about their grades.

2. Support staff are unsung heroes, and should be honoured more

I have been a member of a school’s support staff team.  And I noticed that teachers were bigged up more than support staff.  Probably because they have (usually) had more training and are paid more.  But support staff are vital for a school to run.  I’m not just talking about office staff, but staff who run the behavioural and special needs units, teaching assistants, student supervisors (i.e. student police officers/medical help), lunchtime supervisors, careers advisors, kitchen staff, science technicians, IT staff, cover teachers, support workers and key workers.  So much of their work goes unnoticed by many people, but without their help, teachers would have even more work to do.

3. I don’t take what I have for granted any more.

Before I started working there, I took my academics, family and upbringing for granted.  Then I spoke to so many teenagers who haven’t had my privileges, and realised how blessed I am.  I worked hard at school and university, and it really did pay off.  My parents are still together, still love each other, and have sacrificed so much to give my sister and I the best education we could have.  I have never been abused by them or members of my family.  Apart from not going on expensive holidays and having expensive gifts, I have lacked nothing.  It has made me so thankful for what I have been given, and sad that others do not have and will not have the same lot in life that I have had.

4. Children lie.  A lot.

I slowly realised this throughout my job, but this has still not really clicked.  But I know this is true.  Children lie a lot.  At least, they lied a lot to me.  And even when they look distressed and properly upset, they could still be lying.  Usually there is no way of knowing if they are telling the truth unless a trustworthy adult affirms what they are saying.

5. Many children do not realise how important it is to get their schooling right the first time

I spoke to teenagers who were doing their GCSEs – some were genuinely concerned about them and were keen to do well.  However, many of them seemed not to care at all.  I wish they could see what I do now – I work in an adult college where many people apply to take their English, Maths and Science GCSEs again.  And they do it because after leaving school and not realising after about a decade they really needed them, they then realise that to do whatever they want to do, they need a C in Maths and English GCSE.  If only they had heeded their teachers back in the day.  If only they knew how important it was to have tried hard and not slacked off.  And spaces are few in adult colleges to resit those GCSE courses – I hate having to tell people that there is no space on those courses.  It means they have to wait another year before applying for that nursing course/A-level course.

6. So many home situations are dire.  And it really messes up children.

Our society is so broken, and many children live in buildings, not homes.  I made a deliberate effort not to not think about students’ situations I was informed about, because dwelling on them was depressing in itself.  And children do not bounce back from the abuse they suffer.  It is why many children are unhappy in school and behave badly, and then eventually drop out of school.  And I don’t blame them for wanting to truant and not doing what adults tell them to.

7. UK secondary education is not about the enjoyment of learning.  It’s about meeting targets.

The love of learning for the sake of learning is teetering on the brink of extinction.  It’s why I do not want to become a teacher in this country in the secondary sector.  It’s all about targets, levels and reaching for high qualifications.  And don’t get me wrong, it is important, as I said earlier.  But education is now a means to an end – getting to go to university to enjoy the freedom of being away from all you’ve known, getting a highly paid job and more money and a better lifestyle.  What about the joy of learning?  The joy of learning how something works in its intricacy, the joy of speaking another language fluently, the joy of reading and thinking and discussing?  No student or teacher mentioned that to me last year.  Which is a real shame.

8. Muslims are portrayed poorly by the media  – either as victims or fundamentalists.

I got to know several more conservative Muslims last year, for the first time ever.  And they are normal people.  They may have an ideology which is extreme, but they are normal, lovely, down to earth, funny, caring people.  And knowing this makes me take offence at people who make assumptions about Muslims, who have never ever had a proper conversation them, and are blinded by fear that they forget – Muslims are human too.  This distrust and suspicion is just making the world’s situation worse, and the media is not helping by fuelling this.

9.  How to deal with confrontational situations.

I had a few situations when I was in my previous job, and already have had a few in the last month.  I would recommend staying calm, not taking anything the person says personally, not raising your voice to match theirs and standing your ground.  Let your no be no, and if you threaten something, make sure you follow through, so you show your do not mince your words.

10. Immigration is a grey area, and it’s inadvisable to generalize about it

I have met parents who have come to this country and made an effort.  They try and speak English.  They are employed, or trying to find employment and they persevere when speaking to someone who does not speak their own language.  And I have met parents who refused to converse with me, because they took one look at me and saw a young white woman who would not know any Sylheti.  Evidently, they have made no effort to integrate into the UK at all.

I am now of the mind that we should allow people to remain in this country if they are prepared to earn their keep and become part of this society, not remain cocooned in their ghettos.  However, it does sadden me that there really are people who sponge off our benefit system, and are able to learn English and work, but choose not to for no good reason.

11. Most people do not read signs.

Even when you plaster them all over a door and the security system, telling them to use another entrance.  90% of people will not read them.  That is because despite the education we have received, and that many people can read, we are lazy and would prefer having someone repeat the same information face to face over and over again.

Perhaps we should dispense with our education system entirely, and in fifty years time, there will be no need to read anything again!  Only joking, but still, I found something ironic about people being unable to read signs, when they send their children to school for that purpose – to learn how to read.

But even when adults want to learn, later in life, they still do not read signs and still cannot follow basic instructions.  I guess the education system will never be perfect, as well as people!