I Used to be a Teacher

My last ever lesson was awful. It was with a year 10 chemistry class. I enjoyed teaching them. I had taught many of them in their first year at secondary school and it was lovely having them again now they were older. They were bright and actually seemed engaged in chemistry. An extremely rare experience in my teaching career! I had been looking forward to taking them through their GCSE, to being there celebrating their achievements on results day, to watching some of them progress into A level and wherever that led. All classes have their tricky moments of course, but generally I enjoyed a lesson with this bunch.

I’d been off sick a lot. Like really a LOT. I kept clinging on to my job. I really didn’t want to leave. Leaving work was an illness milestone that I did not want to hit, so I clung on. Never mind the financial implications which, of course, there were. My colleagues picked up some of the slack, occupational health put measures in place, I paid for private therapy but still… I couldn’t. I just couldn’t do it anymore.

Lying on my classroom floor when it was quiet

I was too broken to even hold it together for a few hours a day. I realised with devastating defeated relief that I had to go. Giving up really ‘ain’t my thing. Never has been. It was huge.

Conversely though my actual leaving was quietly arranged to minimise disruption. Hardly anyone knew. It was a secret. So I taught my year 10 class a normal lesson. I can’t even remember what it was about. I do remember trying to give meaningful and encouraging words as I walked around, checking their work, answering their questions. When the bell went they filed out, chatting, laughing and upbeat, stuffing their books into their bags, some said thank you, some checked that I hadn’t set homework (which of course I hadn’t), and they said “see you next time miss”. I smiled with big ouchie grimace inside. The door closed behind the last of them and it was quiet. Still. Lifeless. I looked around my classroom, the brand new classroom that had been decorated to my choices; my classroom. It wasn’t just a room to me. It had been my safe place and now I had to leave it behind. I powered down my laptop. Picked up my bag and walked out.

And I never taught again.

My classroom, my safe space. It’s bare because it’s newly decorated but I soon filled it up

When I walked out I didn’t realise that I wasn’t going back. I was supposed to be returning after a year sabbatical. I was supposed to be having my treatment and returning stronger, right? Wrong, wrong, wrong. I was naive. I didn’t realise. I just didn’t see that there was any other way, any other life. Yes I was suffering significant mental illness but it was just a problem and problems can be solved. A blip. I’d be back. I loved teaching. I probably loved it too much in fairness. I put too much of my identity and worth into my career.

Leaving that way was hard. It felt shameful. It felt like sneaking out, pretending everything was fine to my class. It seemed like the right thing to do but it hurt.

A gift from a Y11 boy. I cared enormously about that group. It distressed me that I left without saying goodbye. They were a bottom set and I had already thought about what to write in their yearbooks but I never got the chance. The boy who left this in my desk was the first person to call me out on my Personality Disorder. Seems he noticed before everyone else did. Pretty amazing innit?

Finally it became obvious that teaching and I were done. However, that still left the room, the room that used to my classroom (mine!), with piles of my stuff. I had a lot of folders with literally hundreds of hours of work in them. It needed to be collected.

After two years from walking out that horrible, painful day it seemed reasonable for my old boss to want something doing with my things. I asked if someone else could box them up for me. I was worried that going back into my room and boxing up my belongings would be too much me, even now, even two years later. How naive I had been thinking I would return within a year. It made me sad.

My belongings were boxed up as requested. I psyched myself up and went in to collect them. It’s doubly hard seeing people from ‘then’ as I’m quite unrecognisable now. I don’t know why but it embarrasses me. One of the receptionists asked where I was working now and, rather than lie, I said I wasn’t, that I still wasn’t well enough for a job. I could see how it surprised her because I do look pretty goddamn healthy. A technician, who I didn’t know, wheeled out a trolley with 6 boxes on it. She helped me load it in my car and I drove off. I don’t know what I was hoping for. Maybe that some of my colleagues might have come to say hello? A conversation with some of the people that I had spent so long with? Truthfully I felt pretty crap about the whole thing. People say they care don’t they? But when it comes to it I think it really is just words. It felt like a pretty harsh break up.

Then I was left with 6 boxes. Hey I’ve got no job and I’ve got no car but I got 6 boxes full of teaching stuff. Now, what am I going to do with that?! Well, today I cleared it out. Acceptance. I emptied the hundreds and hundreds of worksheets out of their plastic wallets. I gathered the plastic wallets which, by the way, I will never have to buy another before I die. I sorted empty folders and I smiled sadly at some of my sentimental bits – like the manga style picture a student had drawn of me. I remember thinking that the gift was odd as it had come some time after she’d lied to her parents about me and I’d taken a real roasting off of them. I had assumed she had hated me, perhaps not…once upon time… once upon a lifetime ago… There were cards and my very much beloved Periodic Table mug. The mug had been a gift from a student. It was my signature (along with cans of sugar free IrnBru!) and I was very precious about it! Actually it was more important than that – it had been my anchor, a safety object, nominated in therapy. Oh if only the kids knew why Miss was always clinging to her Periodic Table mug!

So many of the worksheets twigged memories. Some were good, some not so good but they all went the same place into a bin bag to go to recycling.

The perfect crime! Who had written the graffiti? Who?!

I don’t think it’s particularly maudlin or morose to go over this, to admit that the bloody thing made me sad. No, actually, makes me sad. I know there’s something to be said for considering it a new beginning but, the trouble with that is, a beginning of what? I don’t know when I’ll be going back to work and I certainly don’t have any chuffing idea of what that’ll be. It’s hard to get excited about a future so full of unknowns…but…I will say this, at least I do have a future. I would not swap places with the me of two years ago. She had a job. Big deal. She was also very, very broken and living a life that wasn’t what she wanted at all.

So yes, I am sad about trashing hundreds of hours of my work. Of course I am! It’d be weird not to be, I think. Am I still a teacher? I guess I could be but, for now, I think of myself as an ex-teacher. I used to be a teacher.

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