School’s out forever

An audio version of “School’s out forever” is featured in this episode ☝️ of the Without a hitch podcast

Leaving high school was hard. Leaving high school again was even harder.

I was terrified the first time I left high school. The rules and routines of school held me in suspension like a piece of fruit set in a jelly mould – I wasn't sure I'd survive without them. The local radio station played school-themed songs the day school finished, and the one that stuck in my head was Alice Cooper's 'School's Out'. No more teachers, he sang. No more rules. Freedom! School was out. But it didn't feel like freedom to me.

After school I spent a decade expecting to chance upon some utopian job where I would never feel unfulfilled. I sampled jobs buffet-style, quick to discard one I didn't like (which was all of them). I wasn't ready to commit long-term to being a forecourt attendant, call-centre operator, door-to-door electricity salesperson, medical lab cleaner, unemployed vagrant, museum guide – or incense, weapon and drug paraphernalia store clerk. I did take a promising job as a librarian, but I left the country just before the job started and failed to inform them. (I dedicate this paragraph to you, Vic Uni library.)

Then one day I woke up and I was a high-school English teacher. I'd always reserved teaching as my fallback in case everything else didn't work out. (It's not uncommon for people who loved school to return as teachers; some even return to the same school, so you get this intergenerational Russian doll situation, where teachers who taught teachers who taught teachers are teaching at the same school. Educational institutions are efficient at recycling people.)

For a while, teaching felt right. I went all in. This is me until retirement, I told myself. I am a young-people improver, a knowledge giver. The students called me Hipster Jesus, sometimes shortened to Jesus, because I had a beard and matched corduroys with cardigans. "Jesus!" they shouted, as I paced the grounds on interval duty with my huddle of teacher cops. "Hi!" I waved back. I thought of myself as the good cop.

I learned that the teaching lexicon is full of war metaphors. In the Great Battle of Education you must form a united front with your teaching comrades. Have a plan of attack. Get students onside. Identify the ringleaders. Don't smile until Easter. Pick your battles (avoid the ones you'll lose). Do such and such and then half the battle is won. Smash out those essays overnight. Just another day in the trenches.

The positive influence you might have as a teacher is seldom evident straight away. It's a lesson in hope. A student hangs back after the final lesson of the year, waits until the coast is clear, and says, "Sir, I don't want to make this awkward, but you're kind of the best teacher I've ever had." Or many years later, a tall guy stops you in the supermarket, and you recognise him as one of your most notorious hellraisers; a former student who never did a skerrick of work. "Hey man!" he says, "You still teaching?" (Man in place of the old, unbearably formal sir.) "I'm off to Vic next year to study psychology," he says, beaming.

I loved being in the classroom, and there's evidence that I was a pretty good teacher, but I worked too hard. Planning, assessing, marking, coaching sport, managing a form class; all with the expectations of hundreds of parents hanging over my head, and admin from here to the moon. Teaching's not a cushy job – it's gruelling.

I had to do so many assessments with the students there was barely time to teach them anything, and this bothered me more than anything else. NCEA is well intentioned – full of lovehearts and second chances – but the people who dreamed it up didn't consider how perpetual assessment and marking would impact on teachers. (The upside, of course, is that it puts teachers, students and parents on common ground – by bewildering them all.)

When you let a job consume you, life outside work recedes to a point in the distance. Exhaustion makes you cynical. Disillusionment sets it. After two years of service I'd lost faith in the efficacy of my own teaching. It wasn't about the school – I liked my school. It was the job. My reserves of teaching fervour had run out. I decided to quit.

I knew it was going to be awkward – leaving a job always is. Someone always feels hard done by; and while everyone is at pains to congratulate and smile, their eyes say don't leave us here. Because I resigned just before the new school year started, I had to see out part of the first term. It was a seven-week goodbye that felt like breaking up with someone but still sharing the flat.

My classes for that final stretch, however, were brilliant – some of my best work. My new, relaxed, I'm-about-to-leave-anyway style was well received by the students. Things were good. And that made me feel bad. I was no longer 'nurturing the young minds of tomorrow'– I was turning my back on them.

I took comfort in the knowledge that I was not alone in my professional discontent. After I'd revealed I was leaving, many staff reacted as though I had pulled off a successful prison break: you got out. Some whispered, "If I could be doing something else, I would." These teachers have been weather-beaten by the expectations of time and effort placed on them, which grow every year. But they soldier on.

A few staff viewed me as a defector and from them I received only silence. While people frequently left for teaching posts elsewhere, I was quitting the profession altogether – and the first rule of Teach Club is that you don't leave Teach Club. The teaching collective had opened its arms and said, "We honour you, newcomer," and I, the wayward initiate, had replied: "I spit on your honour."

It was the comments meant in kindness, when I was told my departure would be a great loss to the profession, that were the hardest to take. Those comments detonated my heart over and over, splattering the contents of my ribcage across the staff noticeboard.

Guilt, too, made me second-guess my choice to the very last. Was I prematurely turning my back on something I loved? Was teaching my calling… and was it calling me? Then I got even more philosophical. Does a job liberate or imprison you? I'm pretty sure that leaving a job you dislike is liberating – at least until you run out of money and then you're just trapped in another way. And you need another job to be free of poverty. It's the glorious circle of employment life.

I'd imagined squealing off in a cloud of burnt rubber with a getaway song blaring at max decibels, but my car was a little automatic number, and the CD player skips when it gets too loud, so I politely brmmmed away on that final day.

For old time's sake I listened to Alice Cooper sing "School's out forever…" once more, and it struck me then that the key word was 'forever'. School isn't supposed to be out just for a little while – it's out for good. This 70s song lyric was what convinced me my choice was a good one in the end. It was no calamity that I was leaving high school. It was, in fact, about time.

This essay was originally published in Sunday magazine on 15 February 2015. One amendment has been made: the original essay said "80s song lyric" instead of "70s". Sorry for the error, Alice Cooper fans.