I think teaching is one of the most important jobs there is – without great teachers, future generations wouldn’t be able to reach their full potential. Education teaches us how to think and make decisions; it gives us access to our identities, talents and independence, as well as (hopefully) meaningful employment in the future.
Having taught for four years myself, albeit in tutoring centres in Hong Kong and not a secondary school inner city Birmingham, I can tell you that teaching is hard work and the burn out is real. The maximum class size that I had to teach was 12 and I already found that quite overwhelming, which makes me have even more respect for the work that Jess does, especially when her school was understaffed, and she had to teach classes of 60 year 11 students for two months while dealing with challenging behaviour. The hours that teachers have to put in outside of working hours to plan lessons, mark work and write reports is mad and I can’t even imagine how challenging it’s been to teach during a pandemic.
I’m so proud of her and everything that she’s personally achieved, as well as the work that she’s put in to ensure that her students can make the best of their futures.
Now let’s chat to the legend herself…
Hi Jess, was teaching something that you’d always wanted to do? If not, what other careers did you consider?
Absolutely not! In fact, in my year 13 leavers yearbook I think I wrote something similar to “I hope I never become an English teacher” so I can’t exactly say my current career was a childhood dream come true. When I was younger, I always imagined (/hoped) I would have a high-flying glamourous job in the city at a high-end fashion magazine, or something equally exciting, but as I grew up, I knew I wanted to do something, anything really, that actually made a difference to someone somewhere.
What made you decide to become an English teacher?
Well, it wasn’t the awe-inspiring English lessons I had when I was school that is for sure (shout out Mr Coles/Ms Benefield/Ms can’t-even-remember-her-name but know she taught me A Level English). However, I studied English Lit at Uni, and discovered that I absolutely love reading, and when I left university, I started working for a youth charity. Suddenly combining working with kids, and reading, seemed to make a lot of sense.
You taught for a year in Hong Kong – how did you find that experience and how does it compare with teaching in Birmingham?
It is literally incomparable. In Hong Kong, I can’t really say I was a teacher. I sat in the foyer of various colleges and chatted to HK teenagers about their view of British life (have never had so many conversations about Westlife of Mr Bean in my life) and taught a lesson for about an hour a day. During these lessons, most of the kids sat in silence…or slept. Teaching in inner city Birmingham is a whole other ball game…but I much prefer it!
Teaching to an unresponsive class is hard work! If you were given the opportunity, would you consider teaching in Hong Kong again? Why/why not?
No, I don’t think I would teach abroad again, I feel like there are so many kids here that need good teachers! If I had the opportunity to teach for a short amount of time in an inner-city American school such as those run by UnCommon Schools, though I would jump at the chance, because they have some inspirational people doing brilliant things in those schools!
I think that the work you do is incredible – could you tell me more about your experience with Teach First and why you decided to do your teacher training with them?
I always knew I wanted to work in schools which serve disadvantaged communities, as the education provision and attainment gap within the UK is horrific, so I immediately was invested in the Teach First “mission” as they call it. It is very American-like, and culty, but as an organisation it does genuinely care about improving education…and it pays a salary whilst you train!
What advice would you give to someone who is considering going through Teach First?
I would recommend Teach First to any potential trainee teachers, as I think the best way to learn is by standing in a classroom, usually being eaten alive from day one, but I would preface the recommendation with:
- You won’t be a anything close to a good teacher until at least half-way through your 2nd year, so be humble and keep going.
- Don’t think you are going to change the world, if you help one kid in your first year you have done brilliantly.
- Only sign up if you know what you are going into and really really want to do it, because these kids have often been let down enough times already and so they don’t need someone who will quit on them again.
What challenges have you faced through your time teaching?
Oh my goodness, too many to name, but as I know you love a list….
- Teaching students who have limited, or no, English and trying desperately to get them through a GCSE (cue the time I essentially acted out Macbeth as a one-woman show for an entire term to a room of students who had no idea what was going on)
- “Challenging” behaviour (shout out to the day in which there was a rather large incident in the playground, and I had to get all of my year 11s into a lesson 20 minutes early to get them out of the lunch area, and then had to leave them five minutes later to break up the third fight of the day, to which one of my students said, “Miss man, you must be tired of this” and to be honest, I was)
- Starting working at a special measures school, with a rather large media profile thanks to Trojan horse, discovering everyone was failing because they hadn’t had a proper teacher for years, and desperately trying to get them through a GCSE course in 3 months.
- Literally no-one wanting to work at a special measures school and so working within a department of 5 English teachers, despite having almost 1000 kids
- Trying to convince supply teachers to stay, when you know they won’t, and being left with so few staff you have to join classes together (very proud of the year I taught 60 year 11s for two months)
I’d pay good money to watch that one-woman show, haha! Could you tell me about some of your career highlights?
Yes, let’s bring the positivity back! I have so many.
I think my first was being part of a very small staff team that brought a school out of special-measures to “good” at Ofsted within less than a year. I then guess I am proud of the progression I have made from trainee to head of key stage to head of department to assistant principal in seven years.
But really, my career highlights are the results days and the days where you know you had an impact. For example, one year a student who joined in year 10 with zero English ability, managed to achieve a grade 6 (B in old money) and I don’t think I have ever been that proud. I have taught kids from Syria who have gone on to pass their GCSES with really high grades, and I don’t think I will ever forget the year that one of my students, who had been in bottom set all her life, achieved a grade 9 (a literal A**, because that is a thing nowadays) in English Lit. I cried a lot with pride that day!
It must be an absolute nightmare teaching from home during a pandemic, how have you found it?
Eurgh, so shit. Lockdown 1 was awful because hardly any of the kids had internet or devices (despite the government telling us all they were giving out free laptops) so we couldn’t teach in any way really and we knew the gap was just getting bigger and bigger. All we could really do was plan for this academic year which, lol obviously did not go to plan.
Then, when we reopened in September, life was crazy as we learnt to teach behind visors, and behind screens, and without lots of staff.
And nowwwww in lockdown 3.0, we are in a position where the academy chain has been able to provide laptops (because ain’t no one got time to wait for Gavin Williamson to sort stuff out) so we are teaching via Teams. It’s weird.
Have you got any funny stories to share from your working life?
I think every day I am in school is hilarious to be honest. Kids are just so funny.
See below for some highlights I obvs thought my insta fans would enjoy!
How do you like to unwind after a long day at work?
To be honest, it was much easier when I was in school. I think the drive home was a good separation but now I find it much harder to say I am done for the day and switch off, especially as so many students are experiencing so much anxiety and so often email well into the evening. I try and go for a walk, have a bath and then read or watch tv. Arran and I have watched all eight series of Homeland in the past 2 months. It’s been productive.
Do you see yourself in this profession for the foreseeable future?
There was a time where I didn’t. I felt burnt out and disheartened and that is not a good place for anyone to be but now, probably mainly because of covid, I can’t see myself feeling like I could leave the classroom for a long time.
If you could try another career for a week, what would you like to try?
Great question! All I know is, based on lockdown, it would NOT be an office/desk-based job…although spending some time talking to the big dogs at the department of education is very tempting!
Thank you so much to Jess for taking time out of her busy schedule to answer my questions and share her experiences in the world of teaching!
But there’s so much more to her than her career so go and find out more about the enigma who spent “approximately 6 months of wanting to be a RnB singer known as “Jay” when I was about 7” over here.
P.S. She’s right, Mr Coles was the worst.