Thursday, September 03, 2009

Bark: I am not a personnel number, I AM A FREE MAN!

As I vaguely hinted at a couple of months ago, my life has taken a slight turn for the weird lately. And as my dear Hunter S. Thompson once said, when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.

If it appears that I've forsaken the internet in the last couple of months (as evidenced by an absolute dearth of new posts here and a very intermittent presence on MSN Messenger), well, there's a very good reason for that. I kind of have. For the last nine and a bit years, I've gotten very used to having the electric world at my fingertips for upwards of 12 hours a day, every day. This was a consequence of being sat behind an LCD monitor in my day job for 10 hours a day, and being stuck behind another LCD monitor for most of the evening, playing games, blogging or just surfing the websites I use to keep up with the events in a rapidly moving world. So, you might ask, what on Earth could tear me away from this wired, interconnected existence?

Well, rather devastatingly, a nagging sense that I wasn't doing all I could with my life. After nine years of work for a rather large multinational corporation, I found myself with a choice. I could either embrace the 80% work, 20% life culture that we laughably call a "work-life balance" and continue to be a slave to my job (albeit one with a decent salary), or I could quit my job, find another career and do something different. I made a decision a few months ago, the implications of which I'm still trying to get to grips with, even now.

To get to the bean-spilling, I left my life as a corporate worker bee behind at the beginning of July, and after the longest holiday of my entire life, in a little over a week, I go back to university. Me, a filthy student again. It's quite a bizarre notion, now that I'm on the wrong side of thirty years old. There are other details about my decision that I'm not going to go into here (for fairly obvious reasons); they're pretty much already in the public domain - so you don't need to read about them here - but that's the essence of it. Lots of people are absolutely fine with the 80%-20% work life balance you find in most large companies these days, but I found over the years that, increasingly, I'm not one of them. In fact, I consider myself lucky that not only did the people I used to work for help me make the decision more decisively than I might otherwise have done, but also helped make the whole thing a lot less financially painful than it might have been. I consider myself very lucky in this respect, and have no regrets about the time I spent with the company - it was a great place to spend my 20s and early 30s in the early part of my career, but I couldn't see myself there in another 20 years (or even 5 or 10 years), so when I saw the opportunity to move, I jumped at it like a lion pouncing on a wildebeest.

It takes someone very brave or very stupid to leave a well-paid career in the middle of the biggest recession since the 1920s, but the timing of everything was just too good to pass up the opportunity. In about a week, I start a PGCE in Secondary-level Science, with a specialism in Physics at Roehampton University. Science (and Physics in particular) has always been my first love, intellectually. I only really went into IT because it was a career a Physics graduate can get into pretty easily and get handsomely paid for doing so. Hell, the programming options in my Physics degree were my least favourite parts of the course (embarrassingly, I was a terrible programmer - there's a real irony that I was able to find someone willing to pay me to do it). What I really wanted to do was carry on with Physics, except that I spent too much time falling in love with Fleur in my second year and too much time playing Dark Forces and Duke Nukem 3D in my third year to really do myself justice academically (Again, I have no regrets - I'd do it all over again in an instant). So it's taken 12 years since I graduated, but I'm re-engaging with Science and Physics again in a major way, this time by teaching it, rather than studying or researching it.

Why become a teacher? Well, it's something I had a very long, very hard think about earlier in the year. There's an element of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em", since not only is Fleur a teacher, but so are her parents, one of her sisters, my brother and my sister-in-law... So it's not like I don't have a realistic idea of what the profession is like. And even better, I've literally got decades of experience to tap into whenever I need to ask one of them for advice. My brother has always joked with me that there are only two reasons to be a teacher: July and August. The truth is that you can't really argue with 13 weeks holiday a year. If you're going to get worked half to death in whatever profession you opt for, go for one with proper holidays. But the main reason for wanting to become a teacher is that not only are Physics specialists in real demand (only about 5% of the people applying to do a Science PGCE are Physics specialists - 80% are biologists, with the remaining 15% being chemists - so if you're a Physics specialist, you've picked quite a safe profession in the long term), but I also think the time is right for me now. It wouldn't have been if I'd gone straight into teaching after leaving university (indeed, I once swore at the time I would never go into teaching), but now I've mellowed a bit (yes, really!), got some real life experience, and the favourite part of my old job was mentoring the IT placement students on their industry placement year. To steal a gag from Mass Effect - knowledge is like herpes: if you've got it, spread it around - and I found that I really enjoyed doing the spreading. Knowledge, information, has always been my drug (well, other than alcohol), which is why I was constantly plugged into Wikipedia and read huge volumes of the Children's Encyclopedia Britannica (a set of 24, as I recall) that my parents bought for me and my brother when we were in our early teens. There's no doubt that teaching is a high-workload, high-stress, underpaid, under-appreciated career for the most part - but it's also a whole lot more existentially rewarding than shunting numbers around an Excel spreadsheet for 10 hours a day. As a teacher, you're helping shape lives and have far more of a hands-on impact on the fabric of society than any corporate job. I have to confess that I find the prospect both exciting and no small part daunting.

I will try and keep this blog up to date with my progress throughout the year, but I can't guarantee how regular updates will be, as I'm not going to be spending much time at a computer during my course and teaching placements. Wish me luck... I'm going to need it!
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