Improper teacher: dishing the dirt on life as a peri

For Claire, in fellowship.x

Two years ago I left a job I hated and was forced to leave another job I loved. I vowed never to return to the classroom, pulled myself together as best I could and set about seeking out work as a peripatetic piano teacher. I was dubious that I’d find enough teaching, but gradually things picked up and now I teach over 50 pupils across three schools. Despite what you may think after reading this post I am exceedingly grateful to have this work. The pay isn’t bad, most of the children (and their parents) are lovely, and teaching an instrument can be immensely rewarding … but life as a visiting music teacher brings with it a unique set of challenges.

1) You don’t need to eat. Well you do need to eat, but you don’t need meal breaks. No really, it’s great – you can leave the house with a cup of tea in a lidded plastic mug and a bit of toast and marmite folded over in some foil or kitchen roll: that’s your breakfast, which you scoff whilst driving one-handed to your first port of call. You can also chuck a hastily assembled ham sandwich and various snacks raided from the kids’ treat cupboard into your bag, where they become squashed and warm in time for lunch, which is eaten en route to your next school. Don’t even ask about the state of my car.

2) With regard to the above – sometimes you get free food!  If a pupil is absent or for any other reason you find you have an unexpected break during normal lesson times, you can peek into the empty staff room to see what treats are on offer, and steal one. Or several. (Nope? Just me then!?) One of my schools starts the new term with a big bowl of fruit, but as the end of term approaches the tins of chocolates and the home made cakes start to appear. If you’re lucky you can grab the last piece of cake that everyone was too polite to take while the staff room was full. In addition to this, I must pay homage to the delightful chef-cum-lunchtime supervisor at the same school who often takes pity on me and saves me a piece of pizza toast at break time.

3) You don’t need money. That’s right, I do this job just for the love of it! It’s not as if my lessons are my livelihood, or that my ability to pay the bills is severely impacted by multiple delayed payments … Many parents are excellent at paying their children’s lesson fees on time, for which any peripatetic teacher is eternally grateful, but when it comes to late (or extremely late) payment of fees you quickly discover the regular culprits. I have never had a problem with a late payment in the case of financial difficulty or ‘having to wait until pay day’ (we’ve all been there); I’m talking about the kind of parent who, six weeks in, having been repeatedly phoned and emailed by me – which I hate having to do, by the way – as well as chased by the school office, sends their child in with the message “Mum says we can’t pay you until the extension’s finished”. And then sods off on holiday to the Caribbean.

4) No-one cares how your day was. Actually, this is probably unfair. They may care, but they don’t ask. Granted, when new acquaintances ask what you do and you reply “I teach piano/violin/woodwind/brass percussion*” they’ll light up and say “Oh how lovely!”, but then that’s pretty much it. People who know you are even worse, not that I can blame them. My husband manages an orchestra. He travels internationally, meets all kinds of celebrities (Kermit, Beyonce and Tiny Clanger to name but three), and once even stood backside-to-backside with Pippa Middleton in Buckingham Palace wearing a shirt from Primark (him, not her). If you’re considering asking someone about their day and would appreciate an interesting response, my husband’s a fair bet. But, with the notable exception of one or two close friends and family members, people tend to steer clear of asking me about my working day. Why wouldn’t they? I teach a bunch of kids the piano. What on earth is there to ask about!? Why dig that awkward hole? Moving on.

*delete/amend as applicable

5) You’re not a ‘proper’ teacher.  You can’t be: sometimes you arrive and half of your pupils have gone out on a jolly that no-one has bothered to tell you about. This minor irritation aside, people – OK, teachers – have made the assumption on several occasions that I’m not a fully qualified teacher. Actually I am, and I now make a point of letting my colleagues-at-one-remove know it. Yes, I have a PGCE but I ‘just’ teach the piano now. Yes, it was by choice. And yes, I’ll be clocking off at 5 pm rather than planning until gone midnight like I used to do.

6) You irritate the ‘proper’ teachers. Granted, some of them are charming about the interruptions to their lessons. And others do their best to smile graciously (even if it does come across as more of a grimace). But, with the best will in the world, you are persona non grata when it comes to classroom teachers, and you can’t help but notice the pursed lips, the barely suppressed huff, the quiet ‘tut’ before basic good manners dictate that an attempt at a smile is required. And then of course a few of them don’t have the best will in the world, or any manners whatsoever. The most stressful moment of my week consists of psyching myself up to knock confidently on the door of a certain teacher’s classroom, open it with a smile and say “Hello! Could I borrow ***** for a few minutes please?” Having to apologise for your existence is pretty demeaning. Note: when I was a proper teacher I was one of the charming ones.

7) You aren’t to be trusted. And I’m not talking about the last slice of cake in the staff room. There is always, always one parent who’s somehow got it into their head that you are out to rob them. This is the parent who texts or emails you before you’ve even made it through the front door after a particularly stressful day, demanding to know precisely when little Jeremy’s missed lesson will be made up because he was on a school trip today, and they’ve paid for 12 lessons but according to their records he’s only had 10 (regardless of the fact that there are still two weeks to go and there are only so many times you can reassure this parent that you leave catch up weeks for exactly this kind of thing, and everyone signs in so you can keep track of who has had what lessons, and if they read the terms and conditions they’d realise you’re not actually under any obligation to make up lessons that are missed due to pupil absence but you do anyway, because you are nice, so would it really hurt to be a bit more gracious?)

8) What holiday pay? Unless you’re very lucky and teach in a lovely posh school, there isn’t any. In some cases you even have to pay for room hire. And with most parents paying at the start of each term, the summer months can be mighty lean.

9) It can be exhausting.  Sounds pathetic, I know. But honestly, it can! When you teach upwards of 50 pupils each week, the vast majority of them beginners, keeping things fresh, inspiring and pacy takes it out of you. I promise enthusiasm and patience, and I do my utmost to deliver both … but it comes at a cost, and when I get home I’m aching to don my comfortable and familiar scowl for the evening and watch something with lots of swearing in it.

10) You crave adult company. Please know that I love children. I adore children. I love how a single hilarious phrase (“I’ve just done a carrot poo”, for instance) or clumsily worded compliment can brighten my day. All ages are brilliant; I even like teenagers. But oh, how I miss having colleagues. Good schools value their peripatetic staff. I am fortunate to teach in good schools. But the sad truth is you’re never really part of things; you’re on the periphery (in this sense the common abbreviation of ‘peri’ works doubly well). I don’t regret leaving the stress, the paperwork, the responsibilities and the crowd control aspects of classroom teaching, but I do miss being an integral cog in the crazy, complex, emotionally charged wheel that is school life. I miss belonging; I miss being known.

How strange. I thought I was such an introvert.