Why I Teach by James Payn

Year 3 Teacher (7/8 year olds) & Enquiry Advocate for Network Learning Bath


Why do I teach? I look back in my mind to the reasons I gave when I started my PGCE course and began my teaching career but now they feel like a very small part of the answer. That is because the reasons I gave were for the benefit of some one conducting an interview. In those circumstances reasons are polished and positive, not real and sometimes derived from feelings of inadequacy. Now I have to answer that question for myself, which means I have to be completely honest.


My Family  - Perhaps the most significant reason I am a teacher

Family background seems to be a good place to start. I am the youngest of 6 children. My mother is German and has a tremendously strong work ethic. She is highly competent and as a child all other mothers seemed to me somewhat childish if I compared them to my mother. My Father was a diagnosed manic-depressive who had severe boats of highs and lows also associated with very heavy drinking. Parties at our houses were great and as a young child I associated my Father with real highs. I became highly aware of the products offered by petrol stations because if they sold chocolate it meant my father would return to the car with treats. I learnt to despise shelves of car care products and oil. My Father also came from a wealthy family and there was a fair amount of money around until I was 6 when the family business was lost. This meant that I had a golden period in my life that I used to look back on with longing and it has made life seem like it has fallen from a previous state of grace that can be reclaimed if you find the right path. Subsequent to my Father’s business being lost, my Mother went to work in Germany. So from the age of 6, I saw her every 2 weeks for a weekend. I do remember this being tough and feeling very sad. Also, my Mother had formed a relationship with another man and there was little commitment to the up bringing of the last 2 of the 6 children. Robert and I are still separate from our other siblings in terms of the amount of time our mother gives us. I was the favourite of my Father and I was the only child that he gave any real time to. My mother told me that he identified a sadness within me even when I was a baby and that he related to this sadness. My mother can talk nonsense, but who knows? I always got on very well indeed with my Father and we were relaxed in each other’s company. My 5 siblings were somewhat ‘brighter’ than me and I was treated with a certain degree of contempt by 4 out of the 5. My brother-in-law later told me how shocked he was by the way I was criticised by my siblings with constant wails of ‘oh James’. I went on to fail the 11+ at primary school and I can still remember the anguish in my face when I saw my reflection after my father had told me I had failed. I went on to a badly run school where I suffered a fair amount of physical abuse because I spoke ‘posh’. Not soon after going to this school, I saw my Father’s life degrade very rapidly when my Mother finally left him to live with the other man. He had a series of strange relationships and ended up living in complete squalor. At the age of 13 I broke down while visiting my mother and I asked whether I might live with her. It strikes me as strange now that she never asked me in the first place whether I wanted to come to live with her, but I had been brought up to look to myself in hard times rather than question or criticise my parents. A divorce settlement a few months later ended with me living with my mother. I also got into a grammar school so the quality of my surroundings improved considerably. It was at this time that I became a born again Christian and this was an important part of my life for the next 13 years. I am very confused about what impact that had on me, as so much now seems not to make sense at all. I suppose it also had an impact on why I teach, but I am not yet clear what long term impact it had. It strikes me now as something that helped me a great deal through the difficulties I faced as a teenager. Perhaps it did far more, but I cannot see that now. I would still visit my father and it was heart breaking to witness the degradation of his life, particularly as it involved  a string of particularly strange girlfriends. 5 years after moving away from my Father, he contracted a rare bone cancer and had to have his left leg removed. The cancer was not stopped and he ended up at home dying slowly from the disease. His last girlfriend stormed out in the last 3 weeks and I was left during my Christmas holidays to look after him. This was a relief as we were able to relax and enjoy each other’s company. We watched videos and I cooked and helped keep him clean . Lowering him into the bath and seeing the painful looking amputation stump still hurts as a recall the memory. I was at college the following week when I got the call that he had been taken into the Hospice. He was drowsy and he only spoke a little that evening. He was unconscious the next day and he died the day after. The reason that I put this story into why I teach is that I know that much of the sadness and loss it contains stays with me, as does a sense of grace that helped me through. Without the presence of my father’s absence (both in terms of his death, but also his depression and sadness when he was alive) I would not be as passionate about people losing or never being given their chance for a fulfilled, meaningful life. Spiritual poverty, like that experienced by my Father in a family that relied on threats of being cut off from huge sums of money and where the only time affection was shown was when you were sick, must be challenged and wherever possible changed.


Away from home

I went on to do a degree in Archaeology at Southampton University, which in very small part I enjoyed. I also fell deeply in love and rowed my socks off. I became Captain of the Boat Club and I am still proud of how I put my ideas of equal opportunity and honesty in practise. 

When I considered what to do after my degree in Archaeology, I looked at what I thought I was good at and what I felt was important. My sisters had had children and as a young uncle playing with my nephews, I was often told how good I was playing with children. I identified this myself and believed I was gifted with being able to relate and excite children. I wondered whether that was because I had faced a great deal of criticism from my siblings and a certain amount of neglect by my parents and this had led me to heal myself by helping vulnerable people. At primary school I had felt a strong desire to help Johnny Smith who had no friends and wandered the playground alone. I played with him and made other children play with him and that felt very good. I still have this desire and it is one reason that I teach. I don’t know how healthy it is. But I now feel that I enjoy teaching and that I am able to communicate enjoyment and having fun to the children. I believe that if you have a good thing then you should share that as a pattern that others may choose to follow. The cooking I saw as a child by my highly competent mother was really good and now I can cook well. Stories told well rub off and make further good stories. Teaching provides truly spiritual moments for me personally and the children should be able to feel, comprehend and copy these wonderful moments if they believe in them. As a teacher, I should also be very sensitive to these moments so that I can talk about them and share them with anyone who wishes to take a part. My analysis of great story telling and story listening is about highly sensitive behaviour so that I might be able to share this behaviour with others. The patterns can be shared and copied, I hope.

So I did a Primary PGCE at Bath College of HE.  By the end of this course I was not sure whether I could be a good teacher. I thought that it was too serious. I looked at people who had been teaching for a long time and they did not strike me as being that happy or clear about why they were teachers. I now understand that is because they had not been asked by Jack Whitehead to write it down in a way that carries hope for their own learning and the learning and humanity of their pupils.


Not Teaching but still wanting to teach

Because I could not really see myself as a serious teacher, I made large PVC covers for 2 years and then I was a manager for a Marquee Company. This was valuable experience because it was seriously hard work. Sometimes teaching is hard work, but it is never as hard as a 70-hour week on the marquees. This hard working environment has also made me appreciate the quality of the environment that I work in as a teacher. I also appreciate that I am not simply an operative delivering some else’s package, idea or product that makes someone else richer. Extra effort as the Marquee Manager meant my boss could order the even larger Audi. Now, extra effort I choose to put in can benefit Terry and make him a more confident speaker. That is truly motivating. I also appreciate teaching because to do it well over a long period of time you have to be philosophical about what you are doing. If a PVC cover fits the required object, then job done, with no more questions. This is also the serious side of teaching that I was not ready for at the age of 24. In time I have realized that in fact all work places need to ask philosophical questions if the employees are to have fulfilling, meaningful work, but at the time the idea of clocking off and walking away from work each day was very appealing. During the three years in industry I saw a great deal of mental ill health and abuse of emotions and that really upset me.


Becoming An Employed Teacher

The suffering I saw in industry did a lot to persuade me that I could actually be a teacher and that I did fundamentally care a great deal about the welfare of the people around me. In all the work places I have experienced, there has been a tremendous amount of potential for improving the quality of the lives of the people working there. So much suffering is caused because power structures exist for the benefit of the ‘fittest’ and I cannot abide this philosophy. Yet it underpins a great deal of human behaviour. We are faced at our school with a label of being a ‘special needs school’ and that the children who come to our school are ‘not very nice’ (parent quoted after coming to visit the school). A parent informed us of a local primary school from a more affluent part of Bath actually recommending that she send her child to our school because we were much better at teaching special needs. This exclusive, ‘fittest survive’ mentality that segregates children and perpetuates and values class division is crucial for the success of many educational institutions in Bath and when I consider the disadvantage faced by Andy in my class it makes me very angry that  our culture has still not learnt and moved away from such an enormously damaging philosophy. I have argued with friends. They believed that I would want my son to go to the ‘better school’ even if this meant my local school suffered because it had no investment from educated families. I believe that we will send Fraser to the local school and invest energy into that school. I believe this is one of the most crucial elements of education and without belief in equality of opportunity for children what long-term hope is there of an equal society? People will acknowledge the validity of this principle and then allow themselves to forsake this ideal when they are faced with decisions for their own children’s education. Diane Abbot has given us a clear example of this poverty of conviction. Without hope we are lost. Being a teacher gives me hope that I might help to make a better society (if I seek to squeeze my child into the best possible school regardless of its location within my community, I could not claim for a moment that I really believed in creating a better society, no matter what I did as a profession) and I am in favour of challenging philosophies that do not seek to make all children’s lives better.


Perhaps this is why I teach and why I want to research story telling & listening

So the conviction that I might contribute to making society more equal and break down some of the barriers that exist between and within people, provides me with energy and direction for teaching. It informs the way I ask the children to work in groups, identifying strengths and weaknesses within the group and also when they consider their own development and progress without involving notions of elitism and ‘being in the top/bottom group’ (very strong thoughts that fundamentally effect children’s self-esteem and are little talked about in school).  Patterns of understanding, respect and a belief in mutual benefit can appear in the behaviour of the children as the direct result of teaching (children also seem to have a natural understanding that this is the right way to behave). I am also very interested in how traditional stories can communicate these spiritual values to children and affect their behaviour. I am not sure how I might record these patterns but I am hoping the application of IT may provide the tools for serious analyses and lead me and others to understand more about the dynamics that make classrooms ‘spiritual’ places to be.


Last & Most Precious Note

I have noticed in the last 8 months that I am a better teacher. My wife and I had Fraser 8 months ago. He makes my days less organised and he changes my boundaries so that I have to be more flexible. I am not as flexible as my wife who seems to adapt and meet his needs almost constantly. I have kept a lot of self-centred behaviour, but Fraser has challenged this and changed me. I still could go a long way, as my wife’s behaviour demonstrates. And Fraser has impacted more than my behaviour. His presence provides tangible peace and makes my day feel like it makes sense. Feeling that my actions have significance enables me to let go more when I am with my class and not worry so much about the quality of lesson outcomes. As I worry less the quality of the outcomes has increased and furthermore the quality of the children’s interactions and thought processes has also improved, I think. As I know my significance as a Father and a partner, I am able to feel that I am in the right place and this lets me simply be myself rather than strive to hit imposed targets or visions of what an inspector would want. When the children see a teacher being a story teller or a mathematician or an artist and not a sausage manufacturer of ‘standards’, they can become completely engaged with the learning because they see it making sense, making someone happy and fulfilled. Fraser and my Wife have both helped me to be the artist, mathematician or human being with doubts and questions that the children in my class need to meet everyday that they come to school.