In which The Author thanks his lucky stars
One of my all-time favourite films is the 1939 adaptation of James Hilton’s novella Goodbye Mr Chips, starring Robert Donat and Greer Garson. Donat won an Oscar for his portrayal of the lead character (‘hero’ is too strong a word), beating off competition from Clark Gable, James Stewart, Mickey Rooney and Laurence Olivier. It’s an extraordinary performance, requiring him to age over sixty years during the course of the film.
I first watched it with Dad when it was on TV one day – I was probably ten years old, if that – and when we got a VHS player it was one of the first films we bought. I subsequently bought it on DVD, and watch it at least three times a year. If you haven’t seen it, I can thoroughly recommend it. (I don’t rate the 1969 remake, a musical starring Peter O’Toole and Petula Clark, though. It’s worth watching once, but I wouldn’t rush to see it again.)
Goodbye Mr Chips charts the career of Charles Chipping (known to everyone as ‘Chips’), a Classics teacher at a minor English public school. Aged well into his eighties when the film opens, Chips is introduced to a new master on his first day at the school. Later he meets one of the new boys, tells him a bit about the school, and then goes home for tea. He returns to his rented rooms at a nearby cottage, dozes by the fire, and dreams about his time at Brookfield.
Chips relives his memories across sixty-three years, from his lacklustre first day at the chalkface, his unexpected marriage in early middle-age, his later years as the much-loved ‘legend of Brookfield’, through to his eventual retirement – and beyond.
The sequence set during the Great War is particularly poignant, but it had never really come home to me until I was working on The Men Who Marched Away last summer. The film was released only a few months before the start of World War II, adding extra piquancy to the daily roll-call of Brookfield old boys who’ve made the supreme sacrifice. I never fail to dissolve into tears at the beautifully-played ending. Behind this cynical and bitter façade I’m an incurable romantic at heart.
I know the book and film are somewhat sentimental and extremely dated, but I love the simplicity and innocence of the story. Whenever I hear a junior government minister talk about ‘traditional British values’, I think of the underlying message: it plays up the virtues of honesty, tolerance, decency, fair play, ‘a sense of humour and a sense of proportion’ (in Chips’ own words) which underpin the story. It’s high up in my list of ‘must-see’ films.
One of the last books I bought during my time in the retail trade was a copy of the 1934 novella which made James Hilton’s name as a popular writer, and which has been in print continuously ever since. (I can date my purchase accurately, because the original receipt was still tucked inside it when I took it off the shelf last week.) You can read it in a couple of hours, but the story will live with you for years and years afterwards.
There was a time when I thought I’d like to pursue a career in teaching. Maybe I was inspired by Chips, and also by David Powlett-Jones, the hero of R. F. Delderfield’s novel To Serve Them All My Days (which was also on TV when I was in my teens), but I thought it seemed like a noble calling.
In September 1977 I’d been part of the last intake to Aberdare Boys’ Grammar School (see School Reunion
), and our teachers obviously had a sense of vocation, together with a deep knowledge and love of their subjects. In my wildest dreams I could almost see myself doing the same thing.
The following year our school became part of the comprehensive system. Our numbers were swollen by hundreds of boys who could barely write their own names. I know I’m going to sound like a terrible snob, but things went rapidly downhill after that. The grand idea of the comprehensive system was that the academic grammar school achievers would set a high water mark for everyone else to aspire to. As I say, it was a grand idea.
Like most grand ideas, it failed to deliver. Instead of playing catch-up, the worst of the meatheads (as we called them) only served to put the brakes on the majority. Those of us who wanted to carry on as we’d started were derided as ‘swots’ – or (in my case) became the victims of relentless bullying – until the O Levels filtered out the scum and we could return to business.
The long-running BBC children’s drama series Grange Hill was frequently cited as a negative influence on schoolkids. In fact, the reverse was true: Phil Redmond and the other writers were simply holding up a mirror to society. In any large inner-city comprehensive school with a diverse social and cultural intake, you’d probably see the same tensions and dilemmas played out on a weekly basis.
Our school, situated in industrial South Wales, and with an all-male, 99.5% White British pupil body, didn’t have the same problems as the fictional Grange Hill. There was hardly any racial tension, and there were no teenage pregnancies (not within the school gates, anyway – although at least one of my contemporaries became a father within weeks of finishing his O Levels). However, there was outrageous homophobia at all levels, and an incredible amount of sexist language and behaviour was directed towards some of the female teachers. I shouldn’t imagine things changed very much after I left.
Grange Hill, for obvious reasons, concentrated almost exclusively on the kids. It took a long time for a popular TV drama to emerge which followed the tribulations of the teachers themselves. Waterloo Road, which recently completed its tenth (and possibly final) season on BBC1, did its best to redress the balance. It depicted the pressure which teachers come under every day, when faced with stroppy teenagers, pettifogging bureaucrats, the ever-changing demands of the National Curriculum, and their own work/life balance.
Even so, it gave a rather rose-tinted view of the profession. Every week one of the teachers would help a wayward pupil to turn his/her life around, and hardly anybody ever went seriously off the rails. The stressful side of the profession was played down, though. Only one of the teachers became an alcoholic over the course of the series. I can think of a fair few, just from my own personal circle. (Mind you, since we only ever saw about half a dozen teachers actually doing any teaching. The rest just appeared as background artists in the staff room. Who can be sure Christine Mulgrew wasn’t the only secret swigger?)
A couple of years ago the BBC also made a fly-on-the-wall documentary following the fortunes of some newly-qualified teachers in Greater London. It was extremely disheartening to watch their high ideals being dashed on the rocks of the real world. If some future Government ever wants to launch an advertising campaign to dissuade graduates from entering the teaching profession, the BBC has already done most of the spadework.
My own life veered far away from my ambition to stand up in a classroom full of barely-civilised teenagers. I thank my lucky stars that it did. I know now that I absolutely wouldn’t be able to do it. Lots of my friends did go down that path, though. Some of them clearly had the vocation that I thought I had over three decades ago. Others, I suspect, simply went down the PGCE route because it was better than working behind a bar (or in a bookshop) and wasting their degrees while slogging away on minimum wage (or slightly above).
My cousin Adam was awarded an MA in archaeology from the University of Exeter a few years ago. Unsurprisingly, there weren’t many job vacancies for young archaeologists, so he returned home and got a job in one of the many Wetherspoon pubs which clutter up the capital city. Eventually he bit the bullet, went down the teacher training route, and is now working at a school in Kent. As far as I can tell, he’s thoroughly enjoying himself. Adam had a bit of a scare during his first week of classroom practice, though. He’s a very tall good-looking chap, and one of the older girls slipped him a note with her phone number. When I heard about it, my first piece of advice to him was, ‘Join the union ASAP, just so your arse is covered!’
Another friend of mine, a chap I used to work with in the bookshop, was a very gifted mathematician with a PhD in physics. He decided to give teacher training a go as well. After a few days of classroom practice, he decided he wasn’t cut out for it after all and went into insurance instead. What a waste of his (and everyone else’s) time and money!
I know at least one other guy who embarked on the PGCE journey, only to jump ship as soon as he faced a class of unruly teenagers. I don’t blame him. I’d probably have done the same thing. The days of Mr Chips are long gone – it’s Grange Hill and Waterloo Road all the way now.
I caught the tail-end of Any Answers on Radio 4 over the weekend. The callers were discussing the alarming rate at which newly-qualified teachers were abandoning ship once they were faced with the competing demands of the pupils, the parents, the headteacher, the local authority, the governors, the Government…
A couple of former teachers phoned the show. They told disturbing stories of their own decisions to take early retirement, or their mid-life changes of career, or the toll that teaching had taken on their mental and physical well-being. The last caller was a GP who said that in the previous week he’d signed four teachers off sick with stress-related conditions. That’s a pretty scary statistic, isn’t it?
I’ve been pondering this subject for some time now, for a number of reasons. It’s partly because of Adam’s decision to go into teaching, which he seems to have made out of necessity.
It’s partly because I watched that BBC documentary series with a strong sense of relief that my path led me in another direction entirely.
It’s partly because I’ve seen a number of young friends sign up for PGCE simply because there aren’t any decent local jobs for young graduates.
It’s partly because every day a fresh batch of vacancies for teachers appears on Universal Jobmatch and elsewhere. About a month ago I put a status on Facebook, pointing this out, and asking whether teaching was really that bad. I got a number of replies from my friends in the profession, and opinions seemed to be split roughly down the middle.
It’s partly because a lot of my friends think I’d make a good teacher – or (as a couple of them have said) a good lecturer.
Well, that isn’t going to happen any time soon. Only last week I heard back from a training provider in Merthyr Tydfil who offer a City & Guilds qualification in adult education. I’d spoken to their rep at a careers fair a few weeks earlier, and told her that I’d been looking into doing PTLSS (the previous qualification) via Janis and Grace, some friends of mine. (Unfortunately, their company folded a few months ago, so the idea had run out of steam.) The Merthyr-based provider is running the course over six weeks, starting next week – and it’s a snip at £450!
I emailed back, saying that £45 would just about break me, and ten times that is utterly beyond me. If you’ve ever wondered why the teaching profession (and the adult education sector) is increasingly populated by nice middle-class boys and girls, that might give you some idea of the reason. As with so many careers these days, it’s increasingly becoming the preserve of the well-heeled, or those with unlimited borrowing facilities from the Bank Of Mum And Dad while they’re studying.
Finally, though, I’m writing this because an old friend of mine has announced that she’s quitting teaching. She’s a few years younger than me, and has taught in primary schools for some years now. After my most recent bout of depression, she told me that she’s been battling the Black Dog for a while too. You can only take so much before you give way under the strain. In her own words, posted on Facebook this morning:
‘I love children and I love teaching. I didn’t want to leave teaching but the workload is unmanageable. My hat’s off to all you teachers that keep going. I know it’s a struggle and an uphill battle. But I’m done x’
I don’t blame her for a minute, now that I’ve explored my own thoughts on the subject. She’ll be a great loss to teaching, especially when I consider how much she’s put into her career over the years. However, I’m sure she’ll find something equally fulfilling and less stressful to occupy her time. I wish her all the best of luck for the future.
Goodbye Ms S. Hæc olim meminisse juvabit. I need not, I hope, translate.