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Alison’s story: Barrister to Secondary School teacher

Alison Story

I thoroughly enjoyed working as a barrister for seven years before the birth of my first son in 1998: independence, responsibility, controllable stress and respectable financial reward.  These were still, however, relatively unenlightened days (no maternity leave enshrined in my Chambers’ Constitution) and returning to work seemed incompatible with family life.  I also wanted to spend time with my children before they were old enough to go to full-time school.  Somehow, having three sons with a six year gap between eldest and youngest, this meant that I spent 11 years out of the workplace.

I became interested in teaching partly through my work as a barrister, where I encountered many, many boys who could not read.  I also began to take an interest in boys’ education generally through seeing my children’s interest in books develop, and discovering that it was considered more difficult to engage boys with literature.  My first degree was in English and as an academic subject I preferred it to law.  I began to investigate re-training.  Maybe I also had a suspicion that teaching might enable me to spend more time with my children.  There is the attraction of those much referred to long holidays …

Four years ago I began the process of discovering that those long summer days are paid for in winter blood, sweat and tears.  I retrained, enrolling on a PGCE course at the Institute of Education.  I spent three years teaching English Language, English Literature (and some Law) at a comprehensive school in Surrey.  It had some wonderfully rewarding moments, but it also represented some of the most gruelling times of my working life.  At least when you are a barrister it is sometimes somebody else’s turn to speak and you don’t have to fight for the attention of the court.  Every minute of every lesson had to be planned and most evenings I spent three to four hours planning and marking.  This was despite the fact that I was allegedly working three days a week.  Working Monday, Wednesday and Friday was a particular circle of hell, as I felt compelled to fill Tuesday and Thursday with preparations for the next day combined with household and childcare jobs.  There were lovely moments when I felt my heart beat faster as I marked a piece of work where a student had taken what I had taught and had run with it, where they had produced something original and fine.  Nevertheless, the obsession with Ofsted meant too often teaching within the box, so that very narrow criteria were satisfied and my lessons centred more on crowd control than Coriolanus.

So last year I turned to the independent sector.  I am a reluctant convert, but perhaps like many converts I am now more fervent than those born into the faith.  I love being a teacher.  I am a long way from where I started with my interest in bringing the written word to the masses.  I teach at a highly successful independent girls’ school.  However, I have returned to my first love, which is literature.  I work long but reasonable hours (probably two hours most evenings and a day over the weekend) but I am spending that time reading widely, preparing for seminars for sixth formers and marking exam and homework that shows heart-racing moments of brilliance.  It is rather easier to convey a love of Jane Austen when your pupils haven’t stuck their hands together with Pritt stick glue before entering the classroom.  Teaching is a great career if you have a passion for your subject and you can share that with your students.  Oh yes, and there are lovely long holidays, even if you do have to spent the first three days solidly sleeping in order to cope with the exhaustion of term time.