Written by Mehreen Baig
Mehreen Baig takes us inside the classroom and the mind of young teacher facing her first ‘real’ job in her honest and hilarious debut book.
Mehreen Baig is a former teacher who is passionate about education and empowering young women. She worked as an English teacher in a north London secondary school after graduating from the Institute of Education, spending 10 years in the classroom during which time she learned a bit about teenagers and a lot about life. Mehreen has poured all of this into her new book – a funny, fiercely impassioned, personal and completely honest account of her years as a teacher. In the following extract she recounts getting her first job as a newly qualified teacher.
In 2018, I left teaching for television. The decision to swap my red pen for a blue tick wasn’t easy – but stress-induced thrush helps make a hard choice simpler. In my leaving speech, I promised the staff and students I would never forget them and, with a quivering bottom lip, shared Googled motivational quotes on being brave and following your dreams. During that one minute, I questioned whether I was doing the right thing about a million times. But, in the words of Macbeth, I had ‘done the deed’: my resignation had been accepted and I had no choice but to push back the worries and try to visualise my future celebrity self, living a life of hot yoga and personal stylists. Manifesting and all that.
Two years later, I was still living in my childhood bedroom, spending evenings online shopping and getting told off by my mum for coming home too late every Friday night. The funny thing was that while I was in awe of the brave new world I was immersed in, it was my old life as a teacher that intrigued people. It became my party trick at networking events – when people first met me, they brushed me off as ‘an influencer’ – then I would casually mention that I used to be a teacher and suddenly they were fascinated.
Lessons from the frontline
I got through [the first half of my training year] without any major drama. My second placement was at a grammar school in a wealthy area, where students stood up when the teachers entered the classroom and everyone was high achieving, and I personally thought it was boring as hell. It was like the Canary Wharf of schools – and for those of you who haven’t been to Canary Wharf at the weekend, it may be the heaving heart of finance, but it is utterly soulless.
Whether or not it was my own insecurities shining through, I could never shake the feeling that both the students and teachers could tell that I just didn’t fit in, and the parents seemed perturbed that a British-Pakistani, working-class girl was teaching their children English. So, when I started looking for jobs, I took it as a clear sign from God that there was an English-teacher vacancy in my hometown of Tottenham.
My father dropped me off on the morning of the interview, and we saw the headteacher waiting for all the candidates outside the school gates. To my utter mortification, as I got out of the car, my dad wound down the window of his banger and shouted, ‘You’ve got the job, darl! The job is yours! You’re a star!’ And with that, he performed his trademark twelve-point turn and drove away. It was like the first day of school all over again.
The minute I stepped into that building, I knew it was the place for me. I felt it in my bones. The other candidates and I followed the headteacher down the corridor towards his office, and each classroom radiated with an indescribable buzz. Along the way, students ran ahead to hold open the door for us and beamed in excitement as we walked through. Some wished us luck as they passed with an encouraging wink. The kids were confident, charming, polite, and I desperately wanted to be a part of this world. It was an energy like I had never witnessed in any school before, as if the whole thing had been carefully choreographed for me.
The interview was spread across the day in three different stages: there was a student panel (a bit like speed dating, though less pressure), an observed lesson and, finally, an interview with the head and other members of senior leadership. It was gruelling – but there was no way I was going to let anyone else take this job from me. My interview was the last of the day, so at 5.50 p.m., I topped up my lip gloss for some additional boss-babe energy and strode into the headteacher’s office, ready to show them what I’m all about.
My memory of the actual interview is a bit of a blur, though I can recall regurgitating some key phrases that my siblings had drilled into me the night before. I repeated jargon that I didn’t truly understand – ‘SEN’, ‘differentiation’, ‘pupil premium’ – like teacher’s Tourette’s.
As the interview came to a close, I was packing my folder away when it suddenly dawned on me that these were the last few seconds I had to show this panel how passionately I wanted this job. My mind went to the kids I’d passed in the corridor, and with sudden inspiration, I stopped mid-action, looked up and said, ‘I just want to say that I grew up on these streets, went to the primary school next door, and would love the opportunity to be able to help the students who are growing up just like me.’ They smiled. Confidence spread through me like wildfire. And before I knew it, the following words came tumbling out of my mouth: ‘I just want to add that people think you can’t be both pretty and clever but I just want to prove that you can.’ I have no idea where that came from and I still haven’t lived it down with my friends. It’s like something from Legally Blonde that I’d dug up and decided was appropriate for the beleaguered and bewildered secondary school headteacher in front of me. And with that grand ending, I picked up my folder, thanked them for their time, and sashayed out of the room.
I don’t know how or why I got the job, but they chose to overlook the narcissism and offered me the role. And a couple of months later, I was set to embark on my new adventure, ready to change young people’s lives.
But you see, the slight issue with changing young people’s lives is that it’s a very difficult task when you’re a young person yourself.
Mehreen Baig’s new book Hidden Lessons: Growing Up On The Frontline Of Teaching is out now in hardback, ebook and audiobook, £16.99.
Images: Hodder & Stoughton
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