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‘After four weeks of 15-hour days and constant tellings-off, this talented teacher simply collapsed’

A significant minority of toxic schools has a very real responsibility for the 'teacher retention crisis’, writes one teacher. This is the moment for teachers to say enough is enough

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A significant minority of toxic schools has a very real responsibility for the 'teacher retention crisis’, writes one teacher. This is the moment for teachers to say enough is enough

"Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil." C.S. Lewis

The significant minority of schools burning through teachers at a rate of knots, with turnover rates of 40-50 per cent each year, bear the brunt of the responsibility for our current "teacher crisis". A significant piece of research has proved the point.  

My trademark optimism is stubborn, but not blind. If there is a time to rage, this is it. Below is a sample of the stories I’ve been told. Some are enough to induce nightmares – and indeed, many of these (former-)teachers speak of recurring nightmares of bumping into former bosses in dark alleyways.

Two years ago, I was introduced to a talented woman with a record of excellence in senior leadership. After four weeks of 15-hour days and constant tellings-off, she collapsed at work. Anaemia and extreme exhaustion, said the doctor she visited the next day. "Take time out," advised the doctor. She didn’t, of course – she was new and trying to make her mark. When she returned the very next day, the headteacher made a snide comment about her "taking time off for no reason".

More recently, a member of my own family arrived from overseas with high hopes for teaching in the UK. The first students she met told her they were all called Mohammed and that they’d laid bets on how long she would last, as they’d had three geography teachers in the past six months, two of whom left crying. She walked away after a week without ever having met her mentor.

'Toxic environments'

Then there was the deputy head who took a job at a struggling school with the aim of making a difference to the young people’s lives. Every morning, his SLT picked through the absence list (absence calls went straight through to the headteacher – this was thought to be a deterrent). "Stressed? They don’t know what stress is!" they would mock. Then there was the one who kept taking time off for hospital tests. "Another cancer scare!" said the HT. "I’ll believe that when I see it!" (The teacher in question has just finished her second round of chemo).

If you’re stuck in a toxic environment, know this: if you’ve been dreading going to work for more than half a term, get out. It will be harder than ever to say goodbye to your students, knowing that you’re their fourth maths teacher this year, but with the best will in the world, if the ethos isn’t right for you, you’ll never make the difference you hope for. Know that there are great schools with principled leaders out there. Know that you are never alone. And spread the word – carefully and privately (beware social networks) – the stubborn optimist in me says these schools will get their just deserts.

Details in each of these accounts have been changed to protect the identity of the individuals.

Emma Kell is a secondary teacher in north-east London and author of How to Survive in Teaching

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