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.

28 thoughts on “Improper teacher: dishing the dirt on life as a peri”

  1. You need a room to teach? Whatever next! With a window, power, chairs and a table to put your expensive instruments on? The music stands are at the other end of the school, and no, you can’t use the room with a piano. A sound system to play backing tracks/aural tests. Bring you own, in addition to all your instruments, teaching books, music stand, etc etc.

    1. Ha! – love it. I asked at one of my schools if we could have a height adjustable piano stool (HOW audacious!!) The Head actually approved my request but asked me to buy it initially. That was two months ago. I do hope it’s just the summer holidays that are holding up the reimbursement. Hmm. I do get a room with a piano purely because that’s the only instrument I teach, but in one school it’s an electric one with two broken keys, a broken sustain pedal and with dirty, sticky residue smeared over the remaining keys courtesy of the year 8s who stick reinforcement rings on them. Gross!

  2. I always enjoy your posts, but never like to put myself out there and write a comment. However, on this occasion I can’t keep my sniggers in any longer!
    How was YOUR day today? Was your practice room scorching or freezing? I was lucky today, I had a freezing one! I had to open the window to let the heat in- and I’m really not exaggerating.
    I also had a fainter today (poor thing), not only did he almost faint but then reacted by going into shock! I had to run fur help- not being in the school where a panic button is fitted, at least it got me out of teaching for 20 minutes (the next kids didn’t turn up, and in all the excitement no-one remembered to send for them!)
    In my 19 years of teaching as a peri (can’t believe I’m that old?) I have had 5 other fainters. It occurred to me today that they were nearly all clarinettists!? Apart from one year 11 saxophone student who walked in on a scorcher of a day during his study leave, wearing his best clothes including a new leather jacket. He didn’t look so cool when he was flat on the floor unconscious! I’ve also had 2 vomiters and one unfortunate child who wet themselves- plus 2 evacuations due to fire,one bomb scare and the most worrying- an invac because a crazy resident in the street the school was in had threatened to blow himself and his house up! Two hours we had to wait in school!!! I was very late for the next school that day. But yes, usually the reply to “how was your day?” is “yeah ok.” before the asker moves on….
    I quite enjoy a bit of drama to add a bit of spice. Is that wrong?

    1. Oh my word … I don’t think I could deal with a vomiter, but I do live in fear of it, teaching in a medical room one day a week! Thank you for the brilliant reply, Claire. I’ve never yet had a fainter but then all mine are piano so they’re sitting down and not doing too much lung work. I was a fainter once myself in a school, however, after teaching my ocarina group (how pathetic!?) You’ve had some pretty unnerving moments in your career, but I’m certain you’ll have dealt with them all far better than I would. Then again, a bit of drama might liven things up! My day was … pretty OK, actually. I was at the school where I have to pay room hire, and I’m in a nice classroom with a freshly tuned piano and a height adjustable piano stool (for which I’ve paid out and am now awaiting reimbursement). What is annoying is when teachers come in and root around in the room and then go on their laptops. It seems out of order when I’m paying for the hire of the room!

  3. Excellent! Should be required reading for every music undergraduate. All so true. But have never regretted entering this strange profession, despite all its quirks and frustrations. Still the best job ever.

    1. Thank you so much for the kind words, Jenny. Very much appreciated. I’ve never regretted going into teaching either, but writing that post made me realise just how much I am missing the classroom side of things.

  4. Been there, got the teeshirt, taught in cloakrooms, corridors, gym cupboards, next to the staff photocopier, in the vicars office with carol service practice next door, no music stands, no piano, no lights, resting music on cookers in D/S room, bought all the books and gave kids photocopies as parents wldnt buy music, raided old music cupboards finding bits if violins, did all repairs myself at my cost etcetcetc………..

    1. Barbara, you are a saint! Argh, parents who won’t buy the music – yes, a real bugbear of mine. I teach in a medical room at one of my schools. Often kids will be in there with bleeding noses or a bump on the head – I’m just waiting for the day when someone bursts into the room and throws up everywhere. I’ve been without a piano before too (which is great when I teach piano!), and for months had to drag my increasingly battered keyboard to and from a school. Good job we appreciate the intrinsic value of what we’re doing, isn’t it!?

  5. I have just laughed my way through your post. It is so true on so many levels! I love my job and wouldn’t consider doing anything else but yes it annoys and amazes me when parents find it hard to get their heads around the fact that this is my living not a hobby and that their child is not the only child I teach.

    My biggest gripe however is with architects. I have been teaching more than a few years now and have seen 3 big renovations of music departments. Why oh why do they think a musicians natural habitat is a black airless hole they call a practice room. I teach at 4 schools and a Uni and there is not a window to be had in any of the rooms I teach in. In winter I go to school in the dark, come home in the dark and don’t see any daylight in between. They are alternatively unbearably stuffy which makes you headachey, lethargic or absolutely freezing. I much prefer freezing myself at least you can wrap up.
    Examples of architects complete failure to understand what it is to teach in their caves of practice rooms:- 1 school went to the expense of soundproof doors and special plaster board that was meant to reduce the sound while somehow forgetting that having a completely hollow ceiling (with just those grey polystyrene looking tiles that lift up)that stretches not only over all the practice rooms but also into the hall also means that not only does teaching have to stop when exams are taking place in the hall but also that you teach in close proximity to a saxophone, drum kit and amped up electric guitar just the other side of the wall.

    Another set of practice rooms have movement sensitive lights. Something that is an applaudable trendy green idea, so the lights can never be left on etc. However why did nobody realise that if you sit playing the piano for more than 5 mins without getting up that the lights go off plunging you into complete darkness! (remember no windows).

    Above all else is the lack of air. Architects oviously don’t breathe in the same way as musicians and see an airless room as a warm and inviting place. They don’t think that as a wind player we go through the oxygen levels quite quickly and that it takes a certain amount of physicality, therefore creating heat, to actually play an instrument.

    Never mind at least I have a room to teach in these days thanks to the creation of these practice rooms. Like many peris I have taught in cupboards, corridors, chapels, vestries, even a boys dormitory ( never pleasant in the mornings). Been shuffled around mid lesson as teachers turn up and say you can’t possibly teach in here because …….

    Despite it all, I wouldn’t change this wonderful job for anything. I consider myself to be amongst the privileged few in this world who are lucky enough to get paid for something they love doing.

    1. Thank you for this thoughtful, excellent reply Sarah – I found it absolutely fascinating. I wish I’d included more on actual teaching conditions in my post, and as I said to LADW I’m considering adding a bullet point list at the end, detailing some of the unbelievably inappropriate locations in which peri staff have been made to teach (please may I include that boys’ dormintory!?) And yes, being turfed out of rooms. I’ve fared better than some others because I teach piano, so they can’t really turf me out of the piano room, although at one school I did have to resort to bringing my keyboard along for a while and setting up wherever I could. And I’ve had to teach in a really grotty practice room attached to the main music classroom, with intolerable noise levels (30 year 8 students in a samba band, for instance). I feel bad for the parents and the pupils when this kind of thing happens; I want to stamp my little foot and say “It’s just unacceptable; can’t you see that!?” But then you’re just labelled as a pain in the arse. Another wind teacher mentioned the extremes of hot and cold too (another thing I forgot to include – dammit!), and said she has had several fainters over the years. This could well be related to what you say about poorly thought out architecture. Thank you again for taking the time to respond, and for the kind words.x

  6. Fantastic!! You’ve absolutely hit the nail on the head with every comment. My personal favourite is the silence that comes in the staff room after you explain what you do, and the response is “Oh! Right.” Not to mention the child that forgets their book every week, despite notes home every single week, to which the parent will ask why no progress has been made. The parent I remember all too clearly asked me why a grade hadn’t been taken in the two terms of maternity cover I did at one school, as she wanted a return “on the investment of expensive (!) piano lessons”. I pointed out that her daughter had a broken wrist for the first month, and was then taken to Australia for the next month. One can’t win! Keep smiling-it sounds like you have been winning the battle! Good luck to all of us!

    1. Brilliant reply, Jen – and thanks a million for the kind words. You made me laugh and wince in equal measures – those pushy parents – argh! When you want to laugh in their face and say “Are you KIDDING me!?” but you somehow have to give a smiling, friendly, reasonable response to their totally unreasonable request. Absolutely – good luck to all of us!x

  7. Love it! By the way your last comment I miss being known . All I got to say to that is anyone can be known it’s only the great people that are remembered . And I remember that young girl playing the piano in the music hall and thinking wow I wish I had that talent , what better way to contribute in this world than to teach your amazing talent to others. Look at me all I ever wanted was to be an actress when I grew up and make millions of people laugh all around the world , I wanted to be known . But it’s ok because in my eyes I am . Everyday I get laughter from my children and friends they see the actress in me just as I see the famous pianist in you , xxxxxxxx

    1. Aw, Gina, this is really lovely. Thank you so much. I don’t seek fame, I just miss being part of the sort of ‘family’ I was when I was a classroom teacher, rather than on the edge feeling a bit lonely and left out. But you’re right about focusing on the things and the people that matter. Lots of love.xx

  8. This is just the most precise and brilliant description of what is going in the life of a peri.
    The surprises the schools like to spring on them… Recently a peri teacher reported that the office of the school he was teaching musical instrument in for already a year, would not give him the newly attached code to the teachers’ toilets because “he was just an intruder”!
    The invisibility…. No one from the regular staff says to the peri “Good morning”. Or the office just forgets who the peri is even after 6 months of consistent teaching there.
    The parents attitude… The way a few parents (thankfully, a smaller percent) treat a peri as a verbal boxing cushion. Or treat the teacher as if he/she is a criminal, and presumed guilty of whatever the parent fancies at the moment.
    The ignorance… No formal announcements or school’s decisions reach any of the peris. The peri may loose a day travelling to teach, just to find out that the whole school has gone on a trip to the Globe, and no one has bothered to warn the peri. Hence the day has to be rearranged in what is already a bitty and busy working schedule. And a days salary evaporates without anyone caring.
    The terrible conditions some music instrumental teachers have to teach in.., I recently observed a piano lesson at a primary school. The piano, which used to stay at a lovely corner in a sunny library room, was moved away into a specially partitioned section off the girls toilets, where the actual water pipes were running through the partition. Every sound could be heard louder then the piano! And on top of it the partition was so small, that for the child to get in or out of lesson, the teacher had to carry the piano stool and her own int chair out of the “room”, let the child in, and then bring the chairs in again. For every single lesson…

    And yet… There is no shortage of peri teachers! The love they have for their music and the kids overcomes the thousand and one inconveniences they experience I a daily basis. The peris in my eyes are real heros!

    1. Thank you for the kind words and this wonderful reply, LADW. I’m feeling such solidarity with my fellow peri staff at the moment – it’s like a warm blanket. Being an anxious, slightly neurotic and naturally shy person I’ve often thought ‘Is it just me? Do I just need to be more outgoing?’ when it comes to school staff (and yes, often office staff in particular!) The other day a teacher stopped me in the corridor and asked about my summer, and we had a chat which lasted a good two minutes. I was so grateful, so taken aback, so touched I could have hugged her. But every time I give my biggest smile and most booming “Good morning!” to one particular office administrator and she responds with a lacklustre “Hello” without smiling or even looking up, I could cry. I love your bit about lessons in the girls’ loos (effectively) – I’m seriously considering reworking my article, or including a bullet point list at the end of all the amazingly insane and inappropriate locations peris have been made to teach in! And yet, yes, you’re right, we love the music and the kids and we keep on going! Bless you.x

      1. Hello, Have been following all the responses to your original post which have been such an accurate picture of a peri’s life! Think you have hit on such an important thing. Bringing together a community of musicians who love their work, but can feel isolated, put upon and end up thinking ‘is it just me?’ Hope you can reassure those who are new to the job or work independently that there are teachers out there who understand exactly where they are coming from! Maybe you could create a ‘virtual’ staffroom for peri’s?!!

        1. Hi Jenny. Thanks so much for your comment. I love your idea of the virtual peri staffroom! Will have to have a think about how I might get that up and running – not very good at tech, but I do have a 14 year old daughter who is!x

  9. Very informative and interesting. I have no experience of teaching, of course, but several issues you raise also relate to freelance IT work. Well done for getting on with it. X

    1. Thank you! A friend of mine said something similar (he also does freelance work in London). Thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment.x

      1. All these comments that I’ve read have made me smile. I’ve been a visiting piano teacher for over 30 years and I remember in the 1990’s when I was teaching in a private girls school, the violin teacher had to teach in the toilets. There was a row of 4 toilets, then a large floor space, then a row of hand basins on the opposite wall. Occasionally girls would come out of their academic lessons, go to the loo, flush etc and be serenaded at the same time!

        1. Thanks Jackie! I’ve loved all the comments too. I’m starting to think I’ve had it very easy, at least as far as teaching space is concerned. Actually teaching in the loos is the best yet. I’m definitely going to put together a list of the top ten outrageous places peri staff have had to teach, along with a tongue-in-cheek list of outrageous peri requests (i.e. a room; not to be freezing or boiling; to be spoken to, etc)

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