An impossible career?

13th June 2019

Music teacher Andrew Clarke talks about landing the job of his dreams.

I vividly recall when I knew that I wanted to become a teacher. It was 1987 and I was at high school in Doncaster. Mr Birch was my music teacher; he was the most inspirational teacher I have ever met. 

I was bullied and don’t have many happy recollections of secondary school. I was the lankiest child in my year and had a spotty complexion. I wasn’t tormented for that; I was bullied because I couldn’t speak. I had a horrendous stammer and became the target for children who figured out that I wasn’t going to fight back. I had one sanctuary, a refuge where I felt safe and away from it all: the music room, with its treasures and amazing sounds. I loved it. 

I had one sanctuary, a refuge where I felt safe and away from it all: the music room, with its treasures and amazing sounds. I loved it. 

I played an instrument so I joined extra-curricular groups and had a lunch pass, meaning I could get into dinner first and avoid the bullies. The music rooms were the only place I could be myself. The bands I joined were made up of all sorts of children, but we were all there for one purpose: to make music. I started to overcome my nerves and complete absence of confidence, and Mr Birch helped me through the hardest times of my life. I’m forever grateful; I don’t know what happened to him but I hope he knows what he did for me.

I’ve always had an enormous passion for music. I just get it. I had to do something with it when I left school and told my parents that I wanted to become a music teacher, but it seemed that becoming the next Mr Birch might be impossible. 

Fast forward ten years…

With an ambition to teach, I left university in 1996. By now, my stammer had improved and talking to friends and family was OK but I’d avoid public speaking. Out of the blue I met my future wife on holiday. At 22 I and knew quickly that if I wanted to be with her I would need a career.

I applied for teacher training. On the first day, when the course leader asked me to introduce myself in front of everyone, I stuttered badly but eventually said what I needed to and although uncomfortable, was pleased that at least everyone now knew. I think that’s a huge part of it. I try to hide it, but when people find out, it’s never as bad I perceived. 

I had started the training with the idea of becoming a peripatetic teacher, because I didn’t think I’d be able to teach a whole class of teenagers. However, with practice I soon realised that my place was in the classroom. After shadowing teachers, I started to take whole classes.

My first lesson was teaching drumming. “Petrified” would be just about right but I was speaking in front of 30 teenagers and doing OK! I’d told my mentor about my stammer and he said he had no idea why I was worried. I felt confident enough to carry on.

Teacher training went well and spending time in classrooms was a real boost to my confidence. Things seemed to get easier as I got used to it, although at times students noticed that I’m not great at eye contact and often cover my mouth when stammering because my jaw opens and closes dramatically. 

I thought this career would be impossible for someone like me when I was young.

The worst moment came in a peer presentation. I’d failed to prepare appropriately and my stammer was terrible. I remember stopping mid-sentence at one point and telling myself off, which amused the audience and settled them down. Everyone knew I’d find it hard and were supportive. However, presenting to peers remained a problem and it’s only now, almost 20 years later, that I can stand and present to a group of adults.

Unfortunately, saying my name has always been difficult. I still don’t like introducing myself or anyone else for that matter. A few weeks into my first job a teaching assistant sarcastically introduced me to someone as “Mr Communication”, frustrated that I hadn’t introduced her to a class. I told her about my stammer and she was horrified and instantly really supportive.

I’ve always found that the vast majority of children are supportive. They appreciate my honesty and maybe it shows that I’m human. When, very rarely, children laugh or make stuttering noises, I choose to ignore it. If it continues I usually stop and calmly explain. I sometimes show the video of Musharaf, from Educating Yorkshire. My stammer was similar to his and I tell them that I’m proud of where I’ve come from. I once had a round of applause! Honesty is the best policy. 

I thought this career would be impossible for someone like me when I was young. I still stammer quite badly at times, but have good and bad days. I presented to 30 teachers only yesterday and found it difficult, but I persevered and feel better for doing it. 

To others who stammer, I would recommend teaching. It’s not impossible. Nothing is.

For pointers on coping with stammering in the workplace, visit our Stammering at work page.

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A speaker on stage at STAMMAFest 2023

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