26th January 2021
As someone who stammered, Paul Gilmore had never considered becoming a teacher. How then did he find himself standing in front of a class of 50 young people? Here he vividly describes his first day on the job and explains how he got there.
It was my first day on the job as a teacher. I was sitting in the school staffroom at a long table piled high with books and paperwork. The air was heavy with the aroma of coffee and all around me was hustle and bustle as everyone got ready to start the day.
I glanced at the surrounding faces; they all looked cool, confident and competent. I on the other hand was more nervous than I'd ever felt before. My palms were sweaty, my throat dry and my stomach was churning, but I returned their welcoming words with what I hoped were carefree, self-assured smiles. I felt like a new recruit about to go into combat for the first time. The bell rang and that was it, no turning back now.
Becoming a teacher is not exactly a logical career decision for someone with a stammer, some might think.
Becoming a teacher is not exactly a logical career decision for someone with a stammer, some might think. So how the hell did I find myself in a school staffroom one Monday morning waiting for my first class to begin?
That previous summer
Six months earlier I had arrived in Finland to spend the summer working on a farm. I was twenty-four, a graduate, reasonably well-travelled and eager to see more of the world and whatever experiences it had to offer.
It was a beautiful summer and even in the southern part of the country the days were long and the nights short and never fully dark. The farm was near a village and I soon made some good friends among the locals. There were few foreigners in the area and it was well off the tourist track, so I was something of a curiosity. People wanted to chat with me, some just to practise their English, but many were genuinely interested in me as a newcomer.
I realised that my stammer had not gone away at all. How could I possibly become a teacher?
Summer is short and sweet in those latitudes and as we drew towards the end of the August harvest I suddenly realised that my time in Finland was coming to an end. However, I wanted to stay longer. This was before Finland had joined the EU so a work visa wasn't easy to arrange, the general rule being that they were issued only for jobs that Finns could not do. Farming was definitely not on that list but, a friend suggested, what about teaching English?
Teaching was something I'd never considered. I didn't have the confidence and, after all, I had a stammer. Strangely though, my stammer had barely raised its ugly head all summer. Perhaps being among such friendly people, doing a job that I enjoyed and being far away from my 'old life' all combined to make it fade, if not disappear?
Baptism of fire
A few applications later and a teaching post in the north of the country was mine. I was happy but, at the same time, full of apprehension. While applying for posts I had had to make a number of phone calls as well as deal with officialdom and, in so doing, I realised that my stammer had not gone away at all. How could I possibly become a teacher?
I am — as my family and friends will agree — stubborn. I wanted to stay in Finland and, more importantly, I didn't want my stammer to define me as a person and prevent me from living the life I wanted. And so, there I was, on that Monday morning in the staffroom. At that point I hadn’t had any teaching experience or gained any teaching qualifications. All I had was a determination to succeed.
I didn't want my stammer to define me as a person and prevent me from living the life I wanted.
The headteacher kindly walked me to the classroom. My anxiety, which had been building up all that previous weekend, was at full strength — even though I kept telling myself that there was nothing to worry about. I'd been informed that I'd be meeting a small group of young teenagers who had opted for English conversation lessons. How hard could that be?
We paused outside a door. "Oh, one more thing," she said. "We've got some teacher absences today so I've had to give you some extra pupils, two full classes in fact. I hope that's okay with you?" It was too late to beg for mercy, too late to run, so we entered the room.
The headteacher introduced me and, suddenly, it was just me and 50 young people. It was indeed a baptism of fire but the kids were friendly and eager to practise their English. It didn't seem long before the bell signalled the end of the lesson and I was walking back to the staffroom with a definite swagger. The kids had been both engaged and engaging and, at least as important, I hadn't stammered at all. It hadn’t gone away, I knew that, but it was under control. I'd survived my first lesson!
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