Bruising lessons from the UK

Hugh Hutchinson

Having moved to London to challenge myself professionally and personally after a turbulent period in my once-comfortable and rewarding life as a classroom teacher in Sydney, I sit here on another overcast day, taking a break from the madness of the last six months.

Over a respected teaching career in Australia I had achieved a lot, most recently working on designing and implementing the new performance management development framework across the state through the government and the union body.

I decided to move on and, after a series of volleyball-type conversations between my agent and an exclusive private grammar school in North London we were finally connected. I was offered a classroom teaching role with added TLR (Teaching and Learning Responsibility) in performance management and staff development. The role seemed like the perfect fit and I brought with me all the excitement and nervousness I could muster.

Never had I met with such disdain and repulsion than when I arrived at this school. During the interview process my alternative experience and perspectives had been my main drawcard but minutes after arriving it became quite clear that this was not the case.

The staff were clearly divided into secular and non-secular teachers. I made the effort to introduce myself to them all but, six weeks in, my colleagues still had to be reminded of my name.

A select few of my team members were truly wonderful. They saw the flaws in the system they were a part of and coached me through the unusually endemic obstacles of this setting. These problems compounded the added responsibility of designing and implementing a program of professional development and performance management across the school.

My dealings with students and their parents proved to be the best indicator of how I would find my position as a classroom teacher given that teaching is about making connections and building upon those. Because I was an outsider and the school had gone through a number of teachers before me the students were incredibly apprehensive and closed to my arrival.

I tried my very best as the weeks went on to get to know them and infiltrate the facades they had put up. This, in the end, could not be overcome for the students and their community saw me as an outsider.

Each day started with four hours of religious instruction followed by four hours of secular study, typically taught by secular teaching staff. The morning instruction reiterated the view that because I was not accepted into faith I should not be accepted into the students’ lives.

Many lessons were interrupted by the sheer silliness of a few students who would begin shouting out in Hebrew that I did not belong and should not be accepted. This sentiment shone through in other student behaviour. Many times I would be abused verbally in the playground or notes would be left in my classroom with labelled sketches of myself with swastikas on my forehead, or abuse would be hurled at me as I travelled through the train station after school.

In the staffroom, I was told I should not initiate conversation with a non-secular member of staff or look a non-secular member of staff in the eye when speaking as I did not deserve his time due to my lower social standing. I stood up at each lesson and begged to differ: the fact that I was different would not stop me — it would be the thing to drive me on. I am a firm believer that we must make the changes we want to see in the world: we must be the change.

The curriculum and resources had to be censored and tailored to meet the discerning eye of the conservative leadership of the school. This made teaching a lot more difficult given the strict guidelines of the British education charity and exam board, Assessment and Qualifications Alliance’s (AQA) curriculum and how sheltered these students were from daily occurrences in our fast-paced, image-driven, technology-charged society.

The school had just undergone huge renovations and was in the process of ordering new resources and equipment. I was reprimanded by management for not adhering to the strict censorship guidelines when, during one lesson, I mentioned the celebration of another belief system in linking the ideas of belonging and individuality.

Ultimately, they won. I could not take any more. Lost in a haze of anxiety and sleeplessness, I contemplated the easiest escape. The news was filled with the terrifyingly real story of teacher Laurian Bold who threw herself off a motorway bridge to escape the unbearable stresses placed on her by school managers trying their best to swim in a rapidly emptying bathtub.

I resigned from the school in order to guard my own wellbeing.

I tried another teaching job, in east London. The school excited me for its management knew how to sell its product but it was run by the parents. Staff meetings were run around the concerns of one incredibly wealthy family or a well-connected parent’s thoughts on our processes. The school excelled academically and failed socially and collectively. It was disheartening that while this school had all the resources it could ever need and media coverage and connections at its fingertips it was still not happy.

A phone call from home brought home the madness of it all. I was struggling to survive in London on a teacher’s salary, living a non-social life, eating discounted foods and wearing second-hand clothes. Where had we gone wrong? When did education become so undervalued? How was this to be fixed?

Ultimately I decided that the education system in the UK was, perhaps, not for me. The scariest part was the fact that in all the change in the NSW system I had come from the warnings were on the wall — “They’re trying to make it like the UK.” If that is the case, financially, I’m sure it is a great decision but collectively a terrible one. At the heart of education is human connection, empathy, understanding and passion. No amount of money or revised framework can develop this.

While I do not have have all the answers and have not faced all of the problems I am now taking a career break from the classroom to spread my wings in another industry before one day, maybe, returning to the classroom. I long for that connection — the indescribable joy of connecting students with content and watching them grow, reason and create. That is teaching. That is why I joined the profession: to fight the good fight.

Hugh Hutchinson is on leave without pay