Tuesday, 26 October 2010


Advertising, advertising, fatal lady of the lake
No one opts for copywriting, they get in there by mistake.

I quote from memory a poem by Gavin Ewart (whose work should be more available because it's funny and salutary). I quote it because many people get into teaching by mistake, or, if not quite by mistake, by wandering in for shelter, for lack of a place to be, then by staying. I know there are vocational, idealistic teachers who want to make the world a better place. They tend to be played by Sidney Poitier or Robin Williams and mostly they are a sentimentalisation. I suspect true vocation may be not what pre-exists but what might, with luck, be discovered, and that it is less to do with idealism than most consider convenient.

I myself wandered in in much the same way some thirty-seven years ago, because a man has to do something, especially when his wife is expecting their first child, and when his degree is in Fine Art which offers a great deal, but not a career structure. I could have hung around and starved for a while, or tried to duck and weave, but that would have seemed a little unfair on C and the incipient other being. Teaching - school teaching then - was a job choice, not a career choice. In that respect it was like most jobs. It was so distinctly not a career choice that when three years later I was made head of an art department, only because I was older than my one departmental colleague, I had reached the pinnacle of most art teachers' academic career without ever even trying to reach it.

Did I regard being a young head of department as a triumph? Not in the least. Did the fact of having to be a schoolteacher at all seem like a defeat? My mother thought so. She had higher hopes. It seemed neither triumph nor disaster to me. I just regarded it, as I have regarded almost everything, as interim.

So years passed in schools - I taught in a few of them - then I was asked to write a poetry course for the art college in Norwich (by that time I had published some six books of poetry and two or three of translation, which my mother would have liked, or at least been reassured by, but she, alas, was dead) and so I wrote the course and delivered it, first by myself, then with excellent others. After more than a decade of this I started teaching at the university, and that's where I am.

What I discovered over the years, slowly at first, ever less intermittently, was that I liked teaching. Not because I thought I had a stash of knowledge that I could dole out to the needy but because I liked thinking and talking with others about the subject. I liked it so much that there were times I thought:

Money for jam! You get to do it, you get to talk about it, you get young fresh people to talk to all the time and they tell you things, and then you have to rethink and re-articulate, and in re-articulating things you come across this truly fascinating thought and you wonder where it goes, so you follow it and try it out, and that leads to something else. And in the meantime the students get on and you like them as people (you do after all share an abiding interest) and when they do well it is genuinely a good feeling, because you don't get left out of it, and in any case you carry on doing what you yourself need to do, so you put up with institutions and procedures and all the stuff about best practice, some of which might be good practice, some of which is just piety, and you carry on thinking the real contract, the true contract, is what goes on in class and in discussions, which is something you take deadly seriously because it is, after all, the only proper human contract, and you hope that your idea of the contract is indeed the important thing, more important than ticked boxes (but you tick them) and the ancillary obligations (which you fulfil), because, surely, that's what you're there for, you now realize, to be part of this intense and necessary but courteous conversation that is the contract, because, you say, what else is there?

That's a very long passage in italics but maybe that is what a vocation might be. I know full well I have had it easy, and am lucky to be doing this, because I could be struggling to make myself heard in a hostile classroom down a bad street, except I know I wouldn't do it, would refuse to do it, and that those who do are heroes, not because they have the vocation, but because they have the persistence and the hope and the wit and the good will which remains good will despite the odds. And they run the risk of drying out, turning dull, turning petty, having their minds and bodies exhausted for little thanks, surviving perhaps through developing small, vital eccentricities.

This is written as a rather breathless riff at the end of two long teaching days. Sometimes I wonder whether I'd miss teaching if I stopped? Probably not. I'd probably be filling my head and time with other things, of the store of which there is no end. Nevertheless, there are rewards, and they are the ones I list above, so it's not a bad job, nor indeed a bad vocation, not today, not on the spur of the moment, the right moment that is, because the right moment is what you work towards and hope to enjoy, the chances being that if you enjoy it, others might too.

1 comment:

The Plump said...

it is, after all, the only proper human contract

Lovely and affirming. And, of course, if you work in adult education that contract is more intense, more passionate, as the dull conventions of parental expectation and career advancement have been stripped away and we are merely left with desire. Which is just one more reason why literature is not for posh people.