In the world of education, cries have been increasingly urgent about the state of the profession – and as the window for teacher resignations nears, it's something that needs to be addressed in our schools.
The Education Support Partnership reports a 35 per cent rise in the number of educators contacting its helpline in the past 12 months – droves of gifted and dedicated teachers are throwing in the towel and announcing they've had enough. “I’ve lost the spark that kept me going," one teacher told me.
My attitude is one of stubborn – but not blind – optimism. Although even I admit that I have succumbed to moments of despondency as I regard my own children, aged 8 and 10, and hope to the heavens that enough passionate and talented teachers will be in the profession to inspire them through secondary school.
In my research for my book, I examined the challenges facing teachers and identified ways forward at three levels: national, institutional and personal. In this piece, I want to look at the challenges identified by almost 4,000 teachers on an institutional level and at the practical ways in which we can move forward.
Challenge 1: The unreasonable demands from leadership and an obsession with ‘consistency’
Tom Rogers recently wrote in Tes about this: the obsession with evidence has come to be known by a teacher I interviewed as "Look, I'm doing my job! If I’ve colour-coded my students, that proves they’re learning, yes?" Well, ahem. No, not really.
Sue Cowley’s tweet on this in 2016 was also apt: "It’s as if we're trying to spend our time weeding rather than growing our plants."
This isn’t an easy one. Schools are under immense pressure to demonstrate impact and to ensure every child is getting a good deal. Teachers in "outstanding" schools speak of the absolute paranoia around "losing our 'outstanding’" and those in "requires improvement" or "special measures" schools are frequently subjected to huge amounts of paperwork and scrutiny. One teacher told me how all teachers in their school had to submit their lessons plans for the week the Thursday before, so they could be checked by the deputy head.
Frankly, treat teachers like that, and I’ll join them in the race for the hills.
Helena Marsh, a successful school leader, speaks of "consistency of quality rather than of practice" and "deserved autonomy" – if a colleague is struggling, leaders may need to be more prescriptive with that member of staff. But taking a "blanket approach" risks alienating staff – "it’s like giving a whole-class detention to a naughty class".
Challenge 2: The workload of a five-lesson day and noise assault
The older I get, the more I appreciate actual, pure silence. It is a wonderful thing. Teaching is a really, really noisy job and teachers experience hundreds of thousands of interactions in a single day. If you’re a parent, too, your life can feel a bit like a cacophony of "Miss! Miss! Miss!" "Mum! Mum! Mum!"
A good teaching day can fly by like an Olympic sprint, leaving you exhausted and desperately in need of a wee, but with a real sense of achievement. A bad one can leave you feeling, as a colleague of mine put it, "as if the days has chewed you up and spat you out".
I have a sign above my desk which says, "Never forget a five-lesson day," stolen from headteacher Vic Goddard. Don’t send an email expecting for a response by break time. We barely have time to chase down the cardigan we left somewhere between the photocopier and the toilets, let alone to respond to admin requests. During teaching hours, let teachers get on with teaching. And if they look a little glazed at the data meeting which finishes at 5pm, don’t go too hard on them…
Challenge 3: The pressure (usually from others) to stay later than required
If you’ve lived this one, it will probably stay with you for life. Tearing down a single-track road at 60mph with a flat mobile phone in order to rescue my invariably anxious mother and grab a cuddle from the kids I haven’t seen awake for three days is not a state to which I ever wish to return (or would recommend).
You might be in in one of the places where there seems to be a clique of people who regularly stay in the building until well after dark and who must surely have had time to develop a sequence of secret handshakes. Frankly, if someone is working those kind of hours, they must be seriously lacking in time-management skills. And if school leaders are expecting this, they can only have themselves to blame when trying to recruit almost half a staffing body this coming term.
This one should be a no-brainer, but it’s amazingly easy to slip into, especially when everyone around you is doing it. As leaders, we must model our humanity. I don’t mean sobbing at the NQT, necessarily, but I do let my team know that on a Friday, I’m unlikely to be in the building after 3.30pm because that block is dedicated family time.
Now the crisis is really biting, it makes no sense at all to promote such toxic cultures. Some schools close the whole building at 6pm. Others have days when all staff are encouraged to leave the building soon after the bell. But it doesn’t have to be so obvious – it can be as simple as people skills, spotting people when they start to look run-down and making time for a cup of tea. Like most of this stuff, none of the answers are rocket science, but when the rot sets in, it can be genuinely traumatic for those caught up in it.
Challenge 4: Life happens
This was probably the most humbling element of my research. From house moves to sick pets to broken-down cars; divorces to sudden bereavement to mental illness, teachers are, of course, "living organisms working with other living organisms" (a headteacher I interviewed). This blog, by Matt Butcher, remains to this day the most powerful piece I have read from a former teacher. The death of his wife left him with no choice but to become a full-time parent to his young children.
I speak from experience when I say that how you are treated when you are at your most vulnerable is one of the most significant factors when considering how you feel about your work. The best schools support teachers as "whole humans" – not in an in-your-face kind of way, but sensitively and confidentially, respecting that some people prefer to throw themselves into work during difficult times and others need space and time to heal.
Emma Kell is a secondary teacher in north-east London and author of How to Survive in Teaching