Amid all the analysis about the retention crisis in teaching, one aspect frequently left off the list of causes is arguably one of the most important: have the teachers who are leaving simply not found the right school for them?
On the surface, it seems an absurd question: teaching is teaching, right? And schools are broad churches in which every teacher should be able to thrive.
But that would be to misunderstand just how varied schools can be – in mission, ideology, leadership, curriculum, pedagogy, pupil population...I could go on. And don’t underestimate the potential impact of variables such as where the teacher is living, their ambitions, their preferences and their personality.
If a teacher has a 40-minute commute in heavy traffic to a school larger than one they would ideally wish to work in, and it is somewhere that prioritises subjects the teacher feels are less important than others, then dissastisfaction will quickly creep in.
One way we can tackle this issue is by legitimising teachers to be picky when selecting a new school to work in. By using a list of pre-application checks, teachers have a better chance of teaching in schools that are the right fit for them at that point in their lives.
So what checks might teachers want to run? Here are seven to get you started. Some may seem obvious but, too often, these are the ones that are overlooked.
This may seem like an aspect you would carefully consider. However, so many teachers compromise on distance (either selecting schools closer or further away than they had originally intended) because they like a school.
The commute that is 10 minutes longer than you were hoping for may seem manageable for the first few weeks, but you need to think about whether you will be as tolerant of it in the depths of winter on the fourth day of a road diversion that makes that 10 minutes more like 30 minutes.
And at the other end of the scale, perhaps you want to teach far enough away from work to have a personal life, but the school down the road seems so perfect, you decide that the risk of running into students is worth it. How will you feel when stopped for the third time in Aldi by a parent who spends half the conversation inspecting your trolley contents?
Think through every eventuality and be sure that if you compromise your original boundaries, it is for good reasons.
Likewise, be sure of your reasons for a specified search area. For new teachers, this can be particularly important.
If you are a young teacher beginning your career, deciding where you want to teach is “all about personality”, says Peter Mattock, director of maths and numeracy at Brockington College in Leicester.
“If you are the sort of person who wants to go and explore, and who thrives on independence, then you can use teaching as an opportunity to see new places, meet new people and work in a different environment,” he explains.
“If you prefer a settled life and you like having friends close by, then applying for jobs in and around your local area is probably best for you in terms of your own mental health and wellbeing.”
2. Size of school
Just as some people prefer the bustle of a city centre to the tranquility of a village green, teachers have a preference for the size of school they wish to work in.
For some, the all-hands-on-deck, multi-tasking environment of a small school, where everyone mucks in and you know every child and family like your own, is perfect. For others, being in a huge school with a defined role and a wide mix of children and backgrounds is ideal. And there are large areas of grey in between.
Think about what makes you tick as a teacher and as a person, and try to map that on to how a school operates.
For example, in a smaller school, you are less likely to have a department of five or six teachers with which to share your planning. Depending on the type of person you are, that will be a good or a bad thing.
3. Support networks
Schools differ in how closely they scaffold support for teachers. For some, it is all about compulsory team-building days, yoga after school and bans on any school work being done after 7pm. For others, there is less compulsory support, and more networks and interventions if and when they are needed.
Are you someone who needs the former or latter approach? Neither is better or worse than the other, but individuals will respond differently to each.
Talk to teachers on your visit or interview day and suss out how things are done in that school.
4. Multiple jobs available
If a school you are applying for is advertising multiple jobs at once, then you need to think about why that might be.
It could be that teachers are leaving because of unhappiness. It may be simply that one teacher announced they were leaving and it sparked several others to think about their own careers. It may be that a new headteacher has arrived with new systems and those that do not buy into the new way of working are seeking employment elsewhere. Never assume that it is any one of these scenarios without doing some research, and talking to the headteacher and staff.
5. Job progression
It’s a job-interview cliché, but knowing where you see yourself in five years is something you need to be clear about.
From there, you can work out whether the school you are applying to fits your proposed career path. Will it offer you the opportunities, training and support you need?
6. Is a mainstream school really for you?
Ask yourself which students you want to teach, as this is helpful in allowing you to narrow down your job search.
“If you’ve found you’ve really enjoyed working with certain groups of students, you may want to explore working in a setting that specialises in supporting students with special educational needs and disability or a pupil referral unit,” says Rebecca Foster, head of English at St Edmund’s Girls School in Salisbury.
Many teachers find their way to alternative provision and suddenly feel at home for the first time. Think carefully about what you enjoy most about your job – it may be that mainstream schools are not the right fit for you.
7. Pedagogy matters
The majority of schools will enable a degree of freedom in how you teach, but some may have a preferred method, and a few may dictate your teaching style.
You need to do in-depth homework on how the school likes its teachers to teach and how much prescription is involved.
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