The Story of the Vanishing Teacher

Wraiths exist in every school. 

They stand on the periphery of a morning assembly. They shuffle across the car-park: haunted, thin shadows of what once was. Both familiar and strange, they are seen but barely remembered. Serving the end of their days, they slowly become more transparent until no more than an empty space exists where they once stood.

Geoff is a wraith. Each day, Geoff walks into work, his foil-wrapped cheese sandwiches and flask of instant coffee in a Tesco carrier bag, knocking against his legs. 

It wasn’t always this way. When Geoff had started teaching at the school twenty-six years before – a mere four years into his career – he’d taken no time to acclimatise. In those early years, he was ambitious and conscientious; occasionally sacrificing moral judgement in favour of advancement. Then he grew slightly too comfortably into his own skin, settling down into a safe Head of Year role where he could gripe about those above and beneath him. Knock-backs and continuous cycles of change brought out a more cynical side. But it was fun back then: there was a small but comfortable crowd in the staffroom that he regaled with tales of teachers past: those who belonged to the times before education had finally lost its way. But as the years rolled by, so numbers in the staffroom dwindled. With sadness, he remembered that very first time when he noticed thin film of disinterest set across a colleague’s eyes eyes as he spoke. No-one needed to tell Geoff: he’d become the staffroom bore.  

And so it has come to pass that, with no-one to talk to, Geoff now works through lunch in the staff work area. There always seems more to do: catch-up sessions with kids, revision booklets to compile, spreadsheets to update. Bashing out another set of reports, he hunches over the monitor, foil package perched against the keyboard, pausing only to take the occasional slurp of coffee from his flask. 

Often, Andy, his Head of Faculty, pops in, and peers over his shoulder. Geoff has a nephew of around the same age. This should, in theory, be enough to establish some sort of rapport between them; but Andy is emotionally distant. With a haircut as sharp as a knife and a sleek black suit, he looks disparagingly at Geoff, who glares back from within the sanctity of his light blue Cotton Traders fleece. Geoff’s grizzled features lock into a frown. It doesn’t take a clairvoyant to read Andy’s mind:

‘You’re old. You’re expensive. Shuffle off this pedagogic coil and make room for someone who costs half as much but works twice as hard.’

It is Andy who has the job of telling Geoff that the Maths department is short of teachers. Rebecca, the Head of Maths, has suggested that Geoff forgoes his A level Physics set, and starts teaching some Key Stage Three Maths instead. But Geoff is a Physics specialist: why would he want to teach Key Stage Three Maths? Besides, establishing a connection with the younger kids is becoming increasingly difficult. Sure, one on one, they’re OK – he can sit down and quietly work through a problem. Kids are, after all, kids. But, as a pack, they make him feel like old and out-of-touch. With their names frequently escaping him, he watches their lips move, but he is hearing a hearing a language he is no longer interested in or can comprehend. 

No. He won’t teach Key Stage Three Maths.  

He tells Andy, and Andy promises to talk to Rebecca again. But Geoff knows that such a conversation will never take place: he has already snatched a glimpse of the plans for next year’s teaching on Andy’s laptop. It’s a fait accompli from September.

September.

Another year. More changes. And now Key Stage Three bloody Maths. 

Geoff checks his prospects: too old to change horses, but too far from retirement to hang up the saddle for good. Key Stage Three Maths it is, then. 

With a sigh, he flicks off his monitor for another week. 

Every Friday, Geoff watches the younger teachers make the secret, “Are you going down the pub?” sign to each other. It involves waggling eyebrows and making a drinking mime behind his back. They stopped asking him five Christmases ago.   

Loading his marking into a carrier bag, he trundles back home via the supermarket, where he can pick up a four-pack of London Pride and a Chicken Jalfrezi for one.

A street lamps flickers on and off across his path. Another piece of Geoff disappears.

***

Such is the decreasing value of staff community in many schools today that even the most charismatic of teachers – the ‘legends’ who blaze through years of adulation until a whole host of retirement dos and treats herald the end of their distinguished career – can find themselves wiped from the collective memory just a few weeks into the following September. Sure, places need to be able to move on; but it would be nice if more establishments took greater stock of what they have and celebrated it.

A week or so ago, I read a blog that stated that ‘it’s time (teachers) stopped wallowing in the negative zone.’ Is there any wonder that older, wiser and more experienced colleagues who feel undervalued, pushed around, side-lined might eventually feel this way?

We know that the Geoffs of this world will whinge. They will often be stubborn, slow to change, resistant to initiatives. They can also do a darned good job of hiding enthusiasm! But how do we know that their grudges are not legitimate if we stop seeking their views? Experienced teachers near the end of their careers deserve to be more than merely tolerated. These people are experience-rich and often carry wisdom that many of their ‘superiors’ can only aspire to grasp. They know a school, they know real education, and they probably know the kids better than they think they do. They have watched the  wheel being reinvented beyond recognition until it slowly becomes the wheel once more. They will also have been eager for change, ambitious and forward-thinking for themselves and their schools, even rolling their eyes at the Geoffs and the Sues that came before them. 

But we need to accept that, while Geoff may be more expensive and less effective than his ambitious and youthful colleagues, he remains a human being; one with a voice and a heart who, whilst still there, is as much a part of the School community as anyone else. 

Let’s help to make Geoff visible again.  

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