My journey into education. From a Teaching Assistant to a teacher... and i'm still travelling.
When people ask me how I got into teaching, I often start off the story explaining that I was a teaching assistant, because it’s the very reason I am a teacher. It’s very clear to me that my role as a TA played a big part in how and why I do what I do now.
When I first got involved in education, I was actually a sports coach, running lunch time and after school clubs in schools within Tower Hamlets. I had just left university and didn’t have a job so I worked as a multi-sports coach for a couple of hours in the week. Those times were tough!
At one of the schools, I realised I worked well with the kids and had a good rapport with the staff. I asked the head teacher if I could do some voluntary work [ considering I had so much free time during the day]. She offered me a two-week placement, covering someone who was on paternity leave. Those two-weeks turned into 5 months. 5 months turned into 4 years.
The best part about being a TA was the relationship I was able to build with the children. I don’t know what it is, but there seemed to be a different dynamic between teaching assistants and teachers. That doesn’t mean the students hated the teachers or vice versa but there always seemed to be a bit more of a closer relationship between TAs and teachers.
My first ever role required me to work as a 1:1 support assistant with a non-verbal, self harming autistic child. When they offered me the role, I agreed without thinking too much about it. I had no experience working in a school let alone working with an autistic child but at the time I fancied my chances of having a positive impact. The change in my timetable was pretty drastic. One week I was coaching football at lunch times and after school clubs. The next week, I was I was running down the corridor after a child who was spitting at people. Lovely.
A new academic year started and I was given my second role as a 1:1 support assistant. This time it was with a student who had Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder(ADHD) and behavioural difficulties. This was where my real personal development began. Before I even had a chance to work with him, he was described to me as “Impulsive, loud, disruptive, challenging and potentially very dangerous”. I was told that the child rarely made it into lessons and If he did, he could only work for 15 minutes before going to play football outside. When I first met him, he was a small, chubby, quirky boy, who, was lively but very endearing. He nodded at me as if to say “sup” and I nodded back. I found my match. A young man that reminded me of myself at the age of 10.
The expectations for him were very low. As long as we could keep him from damaging anymore of the school’s property and engage him through 15 minutes of work, that was success. However, my expectations for him were higher and I wasn’t shy to let him and his parent know that. By the time he left school, he sat all of his SAT papers and exceeded every expected outcome. He became one of the star players in the football team I was fortunate to coach, winning a number of tournaments within the borough. More importantly, he remained in school, something that he was at risk of not doing.
I wish I could tell you about the horror stories that happened in that time; like the tables he threw across the classroom, the children he bullied and the teachers he placed in a coma. But this was far from the case. Contrary to the report that was given to me when I first started my post, he was delightful [most of the time]. A personality you missed when he was off from school, a heart that was sincere and compassionate for others and a mouth that was brutality honest. It was while I worked with this student that I realised two things.
1. I definitely want to be in education
2. I want to work with children where there is very little hope for them.
Those who have read my previous posts, know about my personal experience of school.I was excluded twice; first in Primary and then in Secondary school. My personal experience fused with the impact I made in this child’s life were the reasons why I wanted to work with young people. It was also chance to make a difference in my community and change the narrative for young black men.
I loved my role at the school. I mean why wouldn’t I? I worked with children who looked up to me, I was the lead football coach (who many kids thought was God himself in boots), I took a group of pupils to France every year and I made some great friendships. However, I was struggling to make ends meet with my current salary and I was feeling quite unfulfilled in my role towards the end of my tenure. I had a choice to make; Go into teaching and give myself more work to do or be content in my current role.
I had no desire to be a teacher, although many times I felt like I might as well had been one. After serving in the school as a 1:1 learning support, I became more of a general teaching assistant who had extra responsibilities. I had taught and covered so many classes, I started to wonder what the difference between me and the teachers were. Then i’d see my class teacher, tired and stressed and I was reminded why I didn’t want to go into teaching. I didn’t want that stress; eating tuna and ketchup because there's no time for a real lunch. The long hours of marking, the long meetings and the constant paper work just never attracted me to teaching but I realised that remaining in my comfort zone limited my chances of growth.
I was fortunate to have a supportive and nurturing headteacher. She was integral to my decision to become a teacher when I doubted my own capabilities. She sat me in her office and talked me through my options and even supported me with my application for my teachers training. To top it all off, at the interview for my teachers training, she was 1 of 5 head teachers on the panel who accepted me onto the teachers training programme!
The fairy tale continued when she was able to request for me to do my teachers training at her school (my current place of employment at the time) .This definitely helped because I remained in a familiar setting and knew I had the full support and backing of my head. She clearly saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself.
However, that year was bloody hard.
First of all, I was doing the school's direct teachers training programme as opposed to the traditional PGCE route. This meant that I would train to be a teacher through "practice" and spent less days at uni studying the theory aspect of things.
Secondly, the step up from TA to teacher was a bigger deal than I wanted and expected it to be. The students could no longer approach me as “Manny” [the name I was called all these years], I had to be called Mr A. This was a reminder that my last name "Awoyelu" was still causing headaches since 1994 when I started Nursery. The seriousness of it all wasn’t really an issue until I realised I couldn’t do things like go out at lunch time and play football because I had a lesson to prepare for. My friends [who were TAs] would make little jibes like “Hey BIG TIME, can’t come and hang with us anymore?” and I genuinely couldn’t. I didn’t have the time.
Aside from losing contact with my friends, It felt as if I wasn't gaining new ones from the teaching staff. Many of them still saw me as the “newly graduated TA”.
To make matters worse, the person assigned to be my mentor was too pre-occupied in her new leadership role and I was sharing a class with her and another teacher. Very quickly into my training year, I started to regret my decision to apply for it. I felt like I had no idea what I was doing at times but there was this confusing expectancy for me to just know what to do because I had been a TA at the school. Without a shadow of a doubt, the type of programme I chose made it a little more challenging but more importantly, If I had better support, the year would have been more bearable.
Fortunately for me, this was all part of the process. It was all part of that journey to being the teacher I am today. Many people are unaware that just 5 months into my training programme, I approached the course facilitator and told her I was going to quit. I had enough. I was tired. My health had deteriorated and I was on the road to depression. If it wasn’t for the stern word of advice from my course facilitator and my supportive head teacher, I would have quit and never looked back. Who knows where i’d be now.
A couple months later, I completed the year... Well... more like stumbled over the line.
The rest is history. I opted to not do my Newly Qualified Teachers year straight away and instead use that time to think about my career path. I knew I wanted to work with children who had behavioural difficulties so those were the schools I started looking into and I was always honest with my head about my intentions. After sending out emails to every PRU and specialist school in London, one in particular got back to me and offered me a chance to do my NQT year. In fact, I was the first NQT they had ever employed. Brave but wise;)
I have now been teaching in this specialist school for two years with the pupils I prayed to work with when I was a TA. The experience has been phenomenal. I have met some amazing young people whose names and memories will remain in my heart forever. I have learnt about things I couldn't dream of learning If I hadn't left my comfort zone and remained in mainstream teaching. I've developed a deepened understanding of the different needs that affect a child’s academic and social development and my teaching practice has developed as a result. I was so enthused with my current school that I even started my National award in Special Education Needs Co-ordination last September and i’m 2,345 words away from being a qualified SENCO. I have spoken at conferences, completed leadership courses, I have written blogs for UCAS and I have had revolutionary talks over some tea with some fantastic educators from around the country! The fun, the opportunities and the progression doesn’t stop. Not if you dare to dream and dictate your own narrative.
A message to Teaching Assistants:
If you are considering becoming a teacher, do not let fear stop you from being what you were destined to be. I am a black male from East Ham who left school with just 4 A-C GCSE’s and a couple exclusions on my rap sheet. No one could have predicted my journey. You create your own path and you don’t have to be limited by your circumstance. Don’t let laziness consume your thoughts. Nothing worth having comes easy. I had to sacrifice a year's salary to complete my teachers training. There were many sleepless nights, nights I cried and days I wanted to give up. If it wasn’t for that struggle, I wouldn’t have the resilience and character that I have now. Teaching can take you around the world and create a mass amount of opportunities but you have to work for it. Use every opportunity for personal development. Take on challenges/initiatives that will support your school’s vision and do it like there’s no one better at the job. Ask to go on courses that will benefit your school or the current cohort you work with. Save the work/files you used when you were doing interventions. You never know when all your experience will help you in your career. And if you are highly strategic, you will know exactly where it will help you in the future! Even If you are not considering being a teacher, the role of a TA is an amazing job. If you are feeling unfulfilled or unworthy, sometimes it’s not you, it’s the scenery. Find a school that has values that you appreciate and an environment you will feel best supported in.
A message to School Leaders:
Value the work of everyone that keeps your school ticking every day. The leader of the next generation could be the young lady doing interventions in your school corridors or the mentor you appointed to work with the school’s inclusion team.As leaders, train yourselves to recognise your unconscious bias and look for the gold in all your staff members irrespective of race, gender and even educational experience. The greatest impact on young people's education is effective leadership. Leadership encompasses developing your team and helping them to recognise their own ambitions. If you can help your TAs, sports coaches or NQTs understand themselves better, you are already sewing a seed that will grow to be very fruitful. This is what our education system should be about.