- the drop out
- the country
- the work that led me there
- the escape
- the journey that changed me
- the man
- the graduate
- the start
Perched, at the back of the portacabin the teacher dares call “classroom”. My blue, saude Timberlands are resting on the table as I scratch my name into the wall to my left with the nub of an inkless biro pen. Nat woz ere. Gunks of thick, brown mud fall off the souls of my boots. Gemma shuffles in her seat, restless, waiting impatiently for us to get kicked out so she can have a smoke. The teacher with the comb over whose name I don’t know shouts from across the room in that painfully shrieking voice:
‘FEET OFF NATALIE OR YOU’LL BE OUT’.
It’s the same every Geography lesson. We stroll in: late. Cause a commotion. Wait for the threat of being kicked out. Wait for the teacher to actually commit. Then spend the rest of the class period truanting, either on site fagging it up in the girls toilets, pretending we’re not there when a teacher busts in, or down by the local sewer where we often spend the day learning how to tunnel run in anticipation of The Flush.
“You too Gemma, stop laughing and get your workbook out!” His tone grows impatient. Gemma looks at me and laughs.
‘As-if she has a book, SIR!’ I shout back. My eyebrows sit in the permanent V my teenage self has come to master.
“Aww don’t Sir, we like this class’ Gemma shouts back from behind the sleeve of her blazer.
“I need a cig. Come on!” I stand up and pull at the collar of her shirt.
“Wait” She shrugs me off, but I’m already on my way toward the front of the class. Gemma was never good with the transitions. “Are you comin’ or woh?”
The whole class stares. For some, it has become a source of entertainment, a distraction from figuring out keys and map analysis. For others, they are waiting, frustratingly, for us to simply get out.
“This class is a f**** joke, sir. You don’t even know how to read a map!” It was a softer version of my usual word choices. I simply wanted to leave but didn’t quite have the energy to add zest to my protest. They all knew the routine by now. I’d arrive in class, most likely after being dragged in by a teacher having been caught skiving. I’d sit for a moment, always at the back of the class. Some days I may have even tried to do the work prescribed, but most of the time, I knew there was no point. Eventually, I would kick up a fuss. Complain of one thing or another, insult the teacher, get into a fight with another student, or simply, walk out. The fact of the matter was, I didn’t want to be in school, nor did the teachers nor other students want me there, so being kicked-out or leaving was a win-win for everyone. As long as they didn’t put up any form of resistance, we’d all be happy.
“Natalie. Sit. Down.” The words squeezed out of gritted teeth. He messes with a pile of books on his desk then raises his thumb and forefinger to pinch the bridge of his nose.
“F*** off sir.” I replied. It was a gentle sort of f*** off. He seemed to be having a bad day. I didn’t have the energy to take it any further. He rolled his eyes. Effortlessly, I glided passed desks in the front row, still waiting for Gemma to catch up behind me. With my blazer tied around my waste, a half inch longer than the skirt I had rolled up three times, I picked up the pace with the exit in sight, Gemma’s dolly shoes scurrying behind me.
“I will be calling your mothers, BOTH OF YOU!”
“Whatever!” We shouted back in unison.
Now we are running toward the nearby farm, cutting across the bull field, hiding our red and black striped ties for fear we’ll get charged at. In the background, a teacher is shouting our names, ‘f*** off’ I yell between fits of laughter and a stitch in my side. We find our usual spot, under the bridge where the rabbit holes are, sitting down to light a Benson and Hedges that Gemma will smoke the most of. These were our secondary school days.
Fast forward 13 years later, I am standing in a year 8 classroom in a state comprehensive, being told to ‘f*** off’ by a girl with a similar distaste for schooling and teachers as my younger self.
Karma, I think to myself. Must be karma.
“What are you doing there then, working behind a bar?” Granie shouts down a scraggled connection.
“Teaching.” I say. I know what’s to come.
“TEACHING? What yu’ teaching um’, Oldhum slang?” She laughs.
“No. I’m teaching English. Well, it’s not really English, it’s pre-K, small kids. We teach them how to read and write, vocabulary building, math – like adding n’stuff, Science, PE, swimming, you know – all that.”
“You have to know how to speak English before you can teach it, Natalie.”
“Granie… it’s not just English. It’s.. oh forget it!”
With my mum, my friends, my aunt, uncle, cousins and sister, it was all the same. ‘Natalie? Teaching? How did that happen?’
Traveling around South East Asia alone at 19? Yes. I was the same girl who thought I could get an elephant through customs if I just knew where to find the paperwork. The same child who tried to dig a swimming pool on our local football field with nothing but a spade and a crowd of disbelieving adults and children watching. The same child who, in year 3, took her cats in to Show and Tell, because the teacher hadn’t specified I couldn’t. Chloe brought her hamster in, why can’t I bring my cat?
But teaching? It was just as much of a surprise to me as it was to everyone else. How could a young nineteen year old girl who had left school without a single GCSE, had never attended university, and whom despised school, for lack of a stronger word, end up a becoming a teacher?
the work that led me there
Up until I had arrived in Cambodia back in 2009, I had no desire to get into the field of education. To nobody’s surprise, I had left school at fifteen, officially excluded, free from the chains I had felt myself trapped in. At that point, I got a job on my local market, loading and unloading boxes onto a stall for twenty-five pounds for three days work. When I turned 16, I could get a real job, earning minimum wage at a retail shop in my local town. I learnt to use a cash register, count change, talk about prices and changing price tags on clothes to resemble current discounts. I learned to market, be of help to people while shopping, interact and converse with the customers to make them feel welcome in the shop. Other times, when I didn’t work on the shop floor, I would take stock of the clothes in the warehouse, keeping a record of what was left to sell and make marketing decisions based on what we had the most of in the cellar. Addition, subtraction, percentages, verbal reasoning, listening skills, writing skills, data analysis, were things I had never spent the time learning in school, but they were all skills I learnt to do while on the job.
Even from a young age, I had learnt to be resourceful. Growing up on a council estate, there was no parent sitting me down around a solid oak dining table helping me do my homework, it’s no surprise I lacked any interest in school. The one time I do remember asking my mum for help, she told me she had no idea what it meant and I should just figure it out on my own. My mum was a council estate kid, as was her mum and her mum before her. Not a single person in my family had ever attended university. On our estate, it was considered an accomplishment if you made it to sixteen without getting pregnant or falling into the pit of addiction. Like all disruptive and volatile children, there was a reason for my bitter perspective on authority and distaste for schooling. I came from a house of abuse, where witnessing dysfunctional relationships, alcoholism and narcissism was a norm. On our estate, hearing of robberies, seeing riot police, overdoses, suicide, violence, drugs and alcohol abuse, were part and parcel of our childhood. Naturally, I was never encouraged from my own parents to get good grades in school or go to university. We were all just trying to survive. My experience of growing up in this way and being the reluctant student I was in school has of course, been a real impact on the way I choose to teach in my own classrooms, especially with ‘difficult’ children.
In school, due to my volatile nature, I was often even told by many of my teachers that I would never amount to anything. One teacher told me I would be nothing but a factory worker or cleaner. I remember the sourness in her face as she said it, as though she had been waiting years to tell me that and she was finally happy she had (only, she wasn’t, she looked angrier, more bitter, if anything).
I’ll be the first to admit, I was a horrible child. The words that came out of my mouth were hurtful, things that I would never hear myself saying today, and in turn would never want spoken to me in my own classroom. But what I do know is that, from my own experiences, those who are the most hurtful are in pain. Some are of the opinion these words were warranted by my teachers were warranted because of my behaviour. I’d like to think that our education system has advanced further than teacher’s resorting to shaming tactics instead of getting to the route cause of the issue. I’m not quite sure where I got it from, but I am glad I had the innate desire to outline my own path in life, regardless of what anyone thought. It’s what led me to my escape.
Before I had officially been excluded, my learning mentor, the only adult in my life who I ever felt was on my side, had managed to get me enrolled onto an under 16’s college course where I did Dance & Drama one day per week. I excelled so much on the course that I was then accepted onto the full time BTEC Diploma in Dance. At 17, I passed with distinctions and was accepted at a college in Manchester for the National Diploma. My experience in college was exceptionally different from my experience in school and I know exactly why I thrived there, but more on that in another post. With my new found independence, my desire to work and earn my own money, and my love of dance, I was a thriving young teenager out in the real world.
When I wasn’t in school, I was learning to develop new skills while trying to figure out my aspiration in life. I quit the National Diploma at my new college part way through because of comments teacher’s had made about girls needing to be skinny and beautiful, it became less about the art and more about moulding young girls into social acceptable commodities, which didn’t sit right with me. So I experimented in different lines of work, going from retail store assistant to local chip shop cashier and server, from a very wobbly waitress (who had the habit of spilling tea and coffee on customers) to a full of life barmaid who often found herself rolling in tips from dances on the bar. From ice-skating rink host to an 1830’s club rep in Ibiza to then becoming an extremely terrible waitress again, only this time in Cyprus. Eventually, I returned back to the UK and managed to find myself three jobs that would take up most of my life; working behind a bar, retail assistant and Holiday Inn Receptionist. In my ventures to Europe, I had caught the travel bug, and I knew I wanted to travel, this time for longer, and much farther afield.
With no gap-year travel fund gifted to me by wealthy parents, I worked as much as I could, taking every overtime shift in order to add another penny into my travel fund. In August 2009, with a backpack, some lightweight clothes, 3k in my bank account and my passport, I hopped on a flight to Phuket, Thailand and never looked back. It was a journey that would change the trajectory of my life.
the journey that changed me
Of course, they say travel opens minds because it does. In traveling alone I learnt so much about myself I didn’t know was possible. With a 19 year phobia of the sea, I went scuba diving in murky waters off the coast of Koh Phi Phi. Fearful of heights? I drifted through the jungles of Chang Mai on a zip line some 100 metres off the floor. Never being one for exercise, I learnt to enjoy long walks wherever I could possibly could go, around temples, up mountains, nearby lakes and through waterfalls, enjoying the exertion along the way. I learnt to talk to strangers, to say yes to opportunities and no to people or things I didn’t feel comfortable with. I learnt to listen more and talk less, to control my anger, to enjoy my own company. I read (a lot) and enjoyed being sat on buses for hours on end, listening to cheesy pop on my Bangkok’s finest mini iPod shuffle. I learnt that I didn’t need a boyfriend to make me happy. I learnt to be kind; to myself and others.
In October 2009, I arrived in Cambodia. The coach jerked into Phnom Penh at a dark 6pm, weaving in and out of the motorbikes and pot holes that then made up the roads. A Total Gas station was my biggest surprise. Up until then, Cambodia was more of a fictional world in my mind, made of mud huts and palm trees and wet markets selling all things unimaginable. I hadn’t suspected it would look anything like it actually did, a sort of trying-metropolis, some high rises with lights coming from the apartments illuminating the city, and make-shift shacks lining up the Mekong.
Just two months before arriving, I hadn’t even heard of the name Cambodia before. Today, it’s the most familiar place in the world to me, even more so than the UK. Having spent the last ten years here, it is a place I now call home. It is a place that has taught me (is still teaching me) so much about myself, about others, life and education.
Me, Tola, Natasha (left to right), October 2009, Bang Kak Lake (it no longer exists), Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
The 3k I thought would last me a year was somewhat depleted by the time I had arrived in Cambodia. Three months of random activities, all the pancakes and green curry I could eat, hostels and guesthouses, tuk-tuks, motordops, coaches, trains and one flight ticket, had eaten up my resources far quicker than I had anticipated. One thing was certain, I was in no way ready to go back home. Cambodia had captivated me, like an old friend creeping up behind me for a warm hug. I knew I wanted to stay. This is where I met him. A 23 year old Cambodian man, motordop slash undergraduate Finance and Banking major in his last year of university. Our first conversation entailed me haggling over a the price for him to take me to the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum.
“50 cent.” I kept saying, determined to get the price as low as possible. I avoided eye-contact for the fear he’d convince me to pay more.
He laughed. His smile met his eyes. Gentle, kind, nonjudgmental.
“No. Nobody pays that price. 2 dollars.” Now and then he pulled the tooth pick out from the corner of his mouth to say something in Khmer to his friend who was trying so hard to flirt with me.
It’s something we still laugh about today. How his friend liked me first. How he took me anyway, how stingy I was to only offer 50 cents for the journey, how I thought he looked cool and confident, how he still remembers wondering about the bandage wrapped around my leg.
A few weeks after being in Phnom Penh, I was certain I wanted to stay but unless I got a job, there was no way it was going to happen.
“Teaching. That’s the only job you can get.” Tola says.
“What about working behind a bar? Or waitressing?” I ask.
He laughs, “No. You are foreigner. You can only teach.”
“I can’t teach! I don’t know how. I don’t even have a degree!”
“Here.” He opened a Word document on the PC we sat in front of. “Make a CV. Put that you have a degree.”
“I’m not lying!”
“Okay don’t. You will still get a job, I promise.” He said.
But he was right. I threw together a CV in no time. He took me shopping. I got fitted for the most affordable work clothes I will ever by again in my life. We drove to ten different English teaching schools and within 3 days I was hired. Back then, I thought, I must have been something special. Today, I know the only reason I got hired was white privelege and the globalization of English language teaching. I am so fortunate I did.
After two years working as a preschool teacher in Phnom Penh and reading every book I could get my hands on about early childhood development, teaching preschool children and how to teach well, I decided I wanted to become a fully qualified teacher. After speaking to the certified teachers I worked with, I knew it would be a minimum of a five year process. I applied to university twice via UCAS while in Cambodia and was rejected for my lack of formal secondary school qualifications. I knew I had to return to the UK, get my qualifications and get into university, if it was something I really wanted. Every college advisor I spoke to back in the UK told me that I needed to attend a one year college course to get my GCSE’s. This would add another year on top of getting my degree. I decided that would take too long, as I usually did, and so, ever the adapter, I decided to make out my own path to get there. I figured, if my course is a creative writing course, then surely, if I write a book and it’s good enough, my teacher will see my potential and let me on the course, right? So, I did just that. I wrote a nonfiction book about my journey traveling South East Asia alone. Reading it back now, it is a terrible read. Grammar, spelling and punctuation errors all over the place. But the story was interesting, and even back then, I liked to play with language conventions, so I could see why the course director saw potential in it. Instead of applying through UCAS again and risk the chance of getting rejected, I made my way into Salford University and approached the course director of English with Creative Writing herself. I handed her part of my manuscript, one chapter, and gave her a speil on how I would be the most hard working and grateful student on the course. I told her about my childhood, how I would be the first in my family to ever attend university, and told her about my journey into teaching. She welcomed me onto the course with an unconditional offer.
I graduated in 2014 with a BA in English Literature and Creative Writing. I continued to teach, at universities, at ESL institutes, as a private tutor and primary schools in Phnom Penh while completing the second and third year of my degree. Toward the end of my second year, I actually took a year out to give birth and raise my first child, who is now five years old. In 2017, I returned to the UK to complete my PGCE in Secondary English for key stages 3-5. I was accepted onto the course, but not without another hurdle. The GCSE’s I didn’t previously get were now a requirement for this course, I needed to have a GCSE in English and one in Math, despite already having a degree and my PGCE having nothing to do with math. It was frustrating to say the least, but it was one more hurdle to jump through before I crept closer to becoming a certified teacher. Again, I was unwilling to spend a year on a GCSE course to get onto my PGCE. Instead, I turned to Youtube and BBC Bitesize. An amazing channel called Mathantics taught me all I needed to know about GCSE math and I spent a month mastering concepts such as algebraic equations and square roots, that I had never, ever learnt in my entire life. As always, I knew what my goal was, to get onto the PGCE course and become a certified teacher, and I carefully planned out the steps I needed to take jn order to get there. The first step was figuring out how to pass both GCSE exams without attended any taught classes. The English GCSE didn’t phase me, I did no preparation for it whatsoever, any quite rightly so, given I already by that point had a degree in that area. But the math was a struggle for me then. I studied ruthlessly for 30 days straight, I got the train to Ormskirk on day 30 when my test was booked and strolled the long walk to Edge Hill University to my exam.
This is was one of the many experiences I have had in my life that bring me back to the conclusion that teacher led teaching is useless in this day and age. With innate will, students can figure it out on their own, just like I did. I graduated from my PGCE in August 2018 and continued my teaching career in international schools from then on. Since then, I have had the privilege to teach in all kinds of international schools teaching secondary English and online to kids in China. I love teaching, it’s where my heart resides, and I’m excited to see what the next ten years of my teaching career holds.
How did you get into teaching? What do you think about this unconventional route into education and becoming a certified teacher? Share your thoughts in the comments below, I’ll respond to every one! <3