‘My quitting teaching had very little to do with the kids and everything to do with the grown-ups’

It wasn't the students that drove this teacher out of the profession. Instead, the focus on data, surveillance and teachers' declining autonomy were to blame for his quitting teaching

Callum Jacobs

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It took 24 years of marking dog-eared exercise books, resolving "friendship issues", planning lessons (and then planning new ones as the entire syllabus was changed, again) and preparing anxiously for the next Ofsted inspection, but they’ve finally got rid of me. And to most teachers, it will come as no surprise that it has very little to do with the kids and everything to do with the grown-ups.

Things began well in my teaching career; in the early days, when meeting someone at a party who asked me what I did, I would reply with barely contained pride, “I’m a teacher.”

But, like trying to explain to a Year 9 history class why you can’t pin down the exact date the Cold War began, it’s hard to find the origin of the pernicious changes in the state education system that I’m about to describe. There are many things that I don’t like about our current education system, but I’ll confine myself to the three worst culprits: data, surveillance and declining autonomy.

Growing levels of surveillance

The use of data to inform teaching is at its heart a very good idea. When used with intelligence, data can guide teaching like a laser to its target. However, data is often misleading and those charged with the task of interpreting it can lack any understanding of statistics or, in the worst cases, basic numeracy; I was once told by a senior leader that he’d like all our students to be “above average for the school”. While data is useful if you want to spot the groups across a large population that are underperforming, it becomes less meaningful if you try to apply the findings to individuals. Too many people believe that if it’s on an Excel spreadsheet, it must be true.

The second problem is the growing level of surveillance. The first clue that things were changing came one September when we returned from our summer break to find that every classroom door had been fitted with a window, introduced to staff as “viewing panels” with true Orwellian linguistic trickery. Although ostensibly a prudent child safety measure, the true intention behind this subtle change to the classroom landscape soon became clear. At any moment, a prying head might appear at the door, before these drive-by visits morphed into the dreaded “learning walk”, marketed as a benign strategy for evaluating the student’s learning but in reality a method of keeping tabs on the staff. I’m not suggesting for a moment that teachers should be left entirely to their own devices, but the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. Part of the joy of teaching was to be yourself, to break away from the lesson plan and follow up on an idea that’s just popped out of an inquisitive student’s mouth. It’s hard to do when your classroom feels more like a fishbowl and you’re constantly being gawped at to check whether you’re achieving today’s learning objectives.

Lost creativity

This brings me to the third issue: the erosion of the autonomy of the teacher. Over my many years in teaching, I’ve brought my students’ attention to Epicurus’ simple formula for leading a happy life: friends, the time to think about things, and a bit of autonomy. When students enquired as to whether teaching was a job that had autonomy, I would explain that it was an interesting case. On the one hand, your time is strictly managed by lesson bells and terms dates, but on the other, you can shape the classroom experience how you want. In recent years, this level of freedom has largely vanished as lesson plans are dictated to ensure strict adherence to a set of institutional aims and the achievement of KPIs. This is partly a result of an unshakable belief by the people at the top of the educational chain that if it works in the world of “business” then we should find a way to do it in schools. Again, I’m not advocating that teachers start writing their own curricula, but if the creativity and decision-making are taken away then a lot of the joy goes with it. Sometimes it’s okay to ditch the textbooks and recreate the Battle of Hastings in the playground, or count the wildlife in one square metre of the playing field.

For most of my 24 years at the chalkface, I loved my job. I liked being around young people and helping them learn; they were the reason I went to work each day, even when the pressures from above grew faster than they did. But, finally, those pressures have come to outweigh the rewards. Good luck to those of you that manage to keep at it: you’re doing a great job.

Callum Jacobs is director of education at DEALS Training

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