'Not good enough’: the words I can’t stop hearing

This teacher is close to walking away for good. Why? Exhaustion, workload and the constant – and dominating – doubt

Unless we can fix the workload and accountability pressures, teachers will walk for good, writes this teacher

“Who’s she again?” I ask. 

My partner finally loses patience and switches off the TV: “Let’s watch this another time.”
 
Protest is futile. “OK, can you pass me the, er, um, black thing for changing channels…? Actually, I might just go to bed.” With another glass of wine.
 
Sighs of relief all round. Bed is the holy grail just now. The safe place. The place where I spend as much time as I can get away with. The place where nobody can ask anything of me.
 
It’s the noise, I think. The persistent, relentless, inescapable noise. I used to be full of FOMO. To have a role in every social group, an appearance at every occasion was the aim. To feel part of it all. To play a role in it all. Nowadays it’s something closer to FOJI. Joining in is something I spend the majority of my non-working time trying to avoid. “Another cold, Nina? Another family commitment? Really?”

I’m really tired. Not just "in need of a holiday" tired – actually, we’ve just had one of those (have we? Really?!) but bone-achingly exhausted. I’ve been like this, I realise suddenly, for weeks. Maybe months.
 
Here’s the chant. Here’s the noise. The all-invading noise.
 
Not good enough.
Not good enough.
Not good enough.

 
Are you hearing it? A crotchet then a triplet. A refrain. A drum beat.
 
Not good enough.
Not good enough.
Not good enough.

 
My outwards face is persistently, infuriatingly, shrilly positive about being a teacher. I train others, I lead others, I have, for those who value such things, more letters after my name than in my name. I’m an AST, a HOD, an aspiring HT. No mind that those outside teaching would make nothing of these acronyms. I work hard. I paste on the make-up. I smile. I model what I expect to see. I wear heels that make my feet bleed. I even have a separate "business" wardrobe. I cover my tattoo.
 
That email you sent? Not clear enough.
 
That trainee you’re training? Not smart enough.
 
That KPI? Not detailed enough.
 
That jacket? Not tailored enough.
 
Not enough extra revision. Not enough weekends. Not enough pace. Not enough rigour. Not enough high standards. Not enough. Not enough. Not enough.

Teachers drowning in workload

It’s session two on Wednesday. The objective is on the board. Year 8 have made it to their seats. Eyes are – at this very second – all "this way". “So today, we’re going to be doing fractions and… THIS WAY! I’m THIS WAY!” “But Miss, he took my…” From the corner, “I need the TOILET!” From the far side, “Miss, I can’t find my –”
 
“THIS WAY!”
 
Ten seconds. A turn to the board. A "what the actual fuck?" to the board. And breathe.
 
And the noise again. The inner one this time. A derisive laugh. "You want to be a head? You can’t even bloody teach!"
 
Low voices. “She’s angry now. Look at that face.”
 
And, back to normal. The 15-year-old strategies kick in and the lesson proceeds. Good enough? Probably not. But they’re smiling. And they’re learning.
 
My line manager wants to see me. Urgently. I plaster on a rictus smile and go through the catalogue of things I might have done wrong. There are plenty to work through. It’s the latest exam results. Double science well below other subjects. More needed. More. More. More. Not good enough. Not good enough.

I’m so tired. I’m all out of words. “Yes, sir. No, sir. No, clearly not good eno-” 

Yes, I’ll interrogate the head of biology. Yes, I’ll tell the team that it’s not good enough. Yes, I’ll perform transubstantiation. Yes, I’ll work out how to be in my revision session and supporting my NQT and being on duty at the same time. Yes, I’ll find the holy grail. Failure to do so would simply not be…
 
I’m so tired. I’m in my office. I can’t read the 15th item on my to-do list. I flick at a pile of papers and they fall into the bin. They can stay there.
 
Do I blame my line manager and those above him? No. They are also beleaguered by the same chant. Different people react to feeling fundamentally useless in different ways. The "no excuses" mantra. The ‘"I have no words" disappointment. The "do what I say, not what I do" decrees. The micro-management, the eagle eyes, the tattoo I’ve apparently failed to hide today. My transgression of professional standards. Again. Not good enough.
 
It’s the toxins, you see. The poison that has seeped into the blood and bones of our profession. I fear the inner-and outer-voices are so truly conditioned to believing that it’s not – it’s never – good enough, that the rictus smile is harder and harder to impose, the make-up not thick enough.
 
To the government: I lay this at your door. 

The weekly chipping away at teachers has gone on for decades now. We cannot be your social workers, your parents, your weapons-checkers and your drug-sniffers. We are educators who once had a burning passion to change the world and who now can barely keep the flame alight. 

Even the most positive among us, if we feel this utter defeat more often than we don’t, will one day walk. We will walk because the only other options left to us are broken marriages, resentful children and fucked-up livers. We will walk because the cost of making the difference we want to make is alienating our loved ones or leaving them to early graves. We will walk because we’d like to stand a fighting chance of being grandparents one day. We will walk because we are broken and would rather stack shelves than face another day as puffy, worn-down husks. We will walk because the system wasn’t good enough to recognise and nurture passion and moral purpose when it was in their faces.
 
Sort it out. You don’t trust us to tell you how? You find the answers.
 
I’m with Harry at the end of period 6. “Harry, I really don’t care what grade you get. You will always be humorous, engaging Harry to me.” And the magic and lightness slip through for a moment and there’s a moment when I remember what I do.
 
Then the data analysis meeting begins…

The teacher is a head of science in the UK 

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