My avatar across the web: a photo of my feet in grey-white socks and brown sandals.

Ben Babcock

I read, write, code, and knit.

Last day teaching in England

Picture if you will: finding it difficult to get a job in your chosen profession near home, you elect to move to an entirely different country to start your career. Now, some of you might have actually done this. So factor in having stayed in your hometown for almost your entire life, including university studies, with only occasional forays to other places. Oh, and you’re not a people person—you generally find their unspoken signals and expectations annoying and disconcerting and would much rather be reading a book, or at the very least interacting with them at arm’s length via Twitter. But no, you uncharacteristically up sticks and trek to a distant land where you are thrust into a brave new world that looks and feels a little bit like what you’re expecting but is also strange and alien in other ways. You spend two years there, two very long and difficult and fulfilling years. You have the, frankly, terrifying responsibility of moulding the minds of the next generation and are expected to engage them, educate them, and keeping them from killing each other. At times you feel variously exhausted, elated, stressed, amused, despondent, and content. For two years, this is your life.

And then one day, it’s over.

Just like that.

You’re done. You get to go home. But you’re different now. That place has changed you.

Today was my last day as a teacher at the Thetford Academy. In the weeks and months to come I will definitely blog about how my time in England has changed me. But I wanted to note for the record my immediate, rawest reaction to my last day.

Saying goodbye was definitely an emotional experience. I only “taught” two lessons today (not that there was any actual teaching happening). Yesterday I bid farewell to my sixth form math class, my Year 10s, and my Year 7s. I have a special empathy for the former two groups; they are at that each where they are on the cusp of an adult perspective on the world, and exposing them to more advanced ideas of math has been a privilege. And they invariably manage to crack me up and lighten my day. The younger classes have had their moments as well, but they haven’t swayed me from my conviction that senior high school is my jam. It is unfortunate I don’t get to see my sixth formers finish and go off to university, and I wish my Year 10s the best of luck in their exams next year. They are stuck in a hamster-wheel of an education system that they don’t deserve … but that is another blog post.

I am moved by the affection and kind farewells that many of my students gave me. Two students went above and beyond; instead of simply giving me a card or maybe some candy, they went to the trouble of preparing baked goods. A Year 7 student baked me an entire tray of cupcakes and decorated them with a goodbye, and a Year 9 student made me a cake. (Both students, coincidentally, are named Charlotte.) I loved my goodbye cards, but I am absolutely floored that someone cared enough to put the effort into baking something for me. Teaching can sometimes seem like a thankless task, because even if students recognize the extent to which you go to help them, they don’t always know how to express their gratitude. And sometimes this seemed doubly true at my school.

As students gradually learned that I would be leaving, they would ask me why. I suspect most of them expected or even wanted me to say it was because of their behaviour. This is a school used to a high teacher turnover. And, honestly, I’m definitely not going to miss that dimension of the work. But it’s not the reason I’m leaving. What I told them was true: my time is done; I’ve put in the two years that I planned, and now I’m going back home. I miss Canada, and I want eventually to find a job here and continue teaching. I probably could have stayed, seen my Year 10s into Year 11, continued to build and strength the rapports and relationships I’ve started here.

What you must realize about being a teacher, however, is that for those ten or eleven months of the year that school is in session, teaching becomes your life. You spend almost as much time at school as you do at home, and when you are home, chances are you are thinking about school in some way. It is not easy to leave your job at work, and work-life balance is something I continued to struggle with right up until the end. As I sat in the cafeteria with the rest of our staff during our leaving assembly, and as I looked around and out at the campus beyond the windows, I finally understood why I was leaving. If I stayed, this would become my life. It would absorb me and consume me in a way that I don’t want to have happen yet. I need to step back; I need time to reflect on what I’ve learned during these first two years of my career. So although I would have loved to be coming back to a teaching position, I also happy that I have some breathing room. Because it has been a wild ride.

I’m going to miss this place. It has definitely been a mixed bag of experiences, but what job isn’t? I have learned so much over the past two years. And regardless of the challenges I’ve faced or the times I have wanted to give up and go home, I have become used to getting up in the morning, putting on a bow-tie, and teaching. I became used to seeing that building, to seeing those people. I’m going to miss those people, particularly all my fellow teachers in the math department. And that bittersweet sense of leaving them is sharpened all the more by the fact that I’m actually moving to a different continent rather than across town or even across the country. I am totally going to enjoy not having to wake up at 6 am, not having to dress in a suit and bow-tie, and spending weeks playing Xbox and catching up on my reading … but it is also going to feel so weird.

For two years, this has been my life, and now it’s over. I’ve known it would be over for a while now, and as this last day approached, I yearned for it more and more. Students and teachers alike begin hankering for summer break as soon as that nice weather starts and we close the book on those last few units of study. The denouement of a school year is always a mixture of fatigue and brimming anticipation of the upcoming break. I could not wait to be done, and now that it is, I have to deal with the fact that this part of my life has ended. Such is the nature of our linear existence: one door closes, and another door opens. The last time this happened was when I left university, of course, but even that didn’t feel as permanent: I could always visit quite easily, and the possibility of grad school remains even now.

It’s funny, because on the one hand, part of me has viewed these two years as my life being “on hold.” This has been a temporary stop, to gain experience, along the road towards finding a far more permanent position, preferably in my hometown. On the other hand I also feel like it’s now that my life is going “on hold” while I wait to see in what direction I go next.

Insofar as we are the sum of our experiences, the Thetford Academy has been my proving ground as a teacher. Being a teacher has literally been my life’s ambition, from childhood through high school and higher education. So my biggest fear was of not measuring up, not being an able teacher. I no longer have that fear. I am a teacher. It’s what I do, and not it’s no longer a question of whether I’m a teacher but now what kind of teacher I am. I still have a lot to learn, a lot of room to grow, but it started here. I have already learned so much, changed so much, in these past two years. I am going back home a different person, and I owe that to the people I’ve known here and the way I have adapted to living and working in another country with a different school system.

So, goodbye, Thetford. Goodbye, English schools. Goodbye to my students and my fellow teachers and all the other staff who helped along the way. I have no idea what I’m doing now. The last time that happened was two years ago, towards the end of university, when it became apparent that, no, I wasn’t going to graduate and magically get a job in Thunder Bay. But teaching in England kind of fell into my lap in the months preceding graduation; it was an easy fit as a next step. Now, I don’t know what I’ll be doing in six months or next year. I don’t know when I’ll have a classroom of my own again. It’s a little unsettling, such uncertainty. But even if, for some reason, I never get another classroom, never teach again in the conventional manner but instead find another way to fulfil this drive of mine, then at least I can say that, for a time, I was a classroom teacher. I’m proud of that.