Sir Roger Bannister, who died this week, will for ever be remembered as the man who broke the record for running a mile in under four minutes, a feat previously thought to be unachievable.
However, it was not this achievement that made Bannister (pictured) most proud; it was his work in neurology. “I satisfactorily inched forward in our knowledge of a particular aspect of medicine,” he said. “I’m far more content with that than I am about any of the running I did earlier.”
The same could be said of teachers. The measurements with which the education system is so preoccupied are not the ones that give individuals satisfaction. That contentment comes from inching forward a child’s understanding, that slow but steady build-up of knowledge and skills that will help them to flourish as human beings.
This is what brings both the joy and the pain. An investment in the whole child and not just in their learning is what allows the job description to become more elastic than the waistband on a pair of pregnancy pants.
And while government (and society) expects teachers to deal with more and more, it ironically appears to trust them less and less by piling on more accountability and measuring what they do instead of helping them to do it. (It is sad that so far the institution the government set up to represent teachers professionally is “chartered”, much like the professions that count and measure – such as accountancy, surveying. One hopes that in future it will become “royal”, a la the medical professions with which it purportedly shares a desire for evidence-based practice.)
This lack of trust, this micromanagement and control over teachers’ professional lives is thoroughly undermining and there is plenty of research that shows how a low personal autonomy correlates to higher levels of stress and increased turnover of staff.
But the stress appears to be reaching new levels. Initial results of a survey of secondary and FE teachers by Leeds Beckett University shows that 56 per cent said they suffered from poor mental health and 76 per cent believed that this poor mental health had a detrimental effect on the progress of their students.
And now it’s taken another twist. Researchers say that this stress is not contained among teachers. Instead, they say, it can be passed on to pupils and “moves around the classroom like a contagion”.
Often, we talk about teacher stress, workload, recruitment, retention, high-stakes accountability and poor pupil mental health as separate things. But they are all inextricably linked as part of a single big problem. None can be tackled in isolation. If we want to solve one, we will have to try to alleviate them all.
Unfortunately, the solution won’t be found in government. There, they are too busy going back to basics with cynical Tory vote-winners such as grammar schools and faith schools while scratching their heads and wondering where all the new teachers have gone – they can count them but they can’t seem to count on them.
Like Bannister, who used his medical knowledge to devise his training regime and to look at the mechanics of running, the solution may have to come from the sector itself. The NAHT headteachers’ union has made a good start with its commission that will suggest changes to the accountability framework (see bit.ly/NAHTcommission) and the Association of School and College Leaders will be addressing leader and teacher workload at its conference this weekend.
Similarly, it is to be hoped that the NEU, the fledgling classroom “superunion”, will be rather more focused on professional autonomy and self-efficacy than grandstanding and politicking.
If we don’t want new graduates to run a mile from teaching, we have to refocus on what’s important – the craft, the subject knowledge and the relationship with students – and then have faith in teachers to get on with it.