'I've quit teaching without a job to go to – I just can't handle the workload anymore'

25th November 2017 at 18:02
After 20 years at the same school, this school leader has reached breaking point. Here, he reflects on the relentless workload and bittersweet ending to his teaching career

At Christmas, I will have worked in my current school for 20 years. I've often joked that if I was a stick of rock, the name of the school would run through the middle. I’ve been a teacher, held a variety of leadership positions, and seen us in just about every Ofsted category.

The life of a deputy headteacher in a small school is a busy one. No two days are the same and there are few teachers to share the workload. My role includes leading on curriculum and data, being the designated school lead for looked-after children, exams officer for Joint Council for Qualifications centres, quality assurance for several different vocational qualifications, and many lesser roles (showing parents around, fire marshall, school PR, etc).

I also teach for half the week, so my priorities constantly flick between teaching getting in the way of being a deputy headteacher and leadership responsibilities getting in the way of being a teacher.

I’ve always been ruthlessly organised with the help of technology – and while I’ve resented having to work on a Sunday (don’t most teachers?) I’ve always got on with the job. My original plan was to stop at age 50, as I’ve always known I couldn’t manage this pace until retirement.  

Unfortunately, I found myself in the position of having to make a hurried and life-changing decision sooner rather than later. 

Leaving teaching

On the day before the half-term break, I had my performance management meeting. While setting my targets for next year, we had a discussion about the data I had exported from the system for a report.  It quickly dawned on me that the expectation was for me to go through the data line by line – despite having a data manager. Suddenly, the penny dropped about the hours I was doing.

Perhaps the phrase: “what would you like me not to do to fit this in?” wasn’t the best response but sometimes you have to stop and think about your personal health and wellbeing. We agreed that I would go home and think about my position and how I felt about the job.

I’ve thought briefly about leaving in the past, but my love of the school and the students had always been enough to make me stop.

This time I spoke to family, friends and contacts who all gave the same advice – if you can afford to leave, then leave. I spoke to my leadership union, who were next to useless – £27 a month buys you very little practical help, apart from a listening ear and some words of wisdom about notice dates. I learned that the problem isn’t unique to education or even the public sector. Several friends I spoke to outside of education had left their jobs for similar reasons. 

The hardest thing to deal with is how powerless you are to change your situation. You can’t refuse to work if you expect to keep your job and you aren’t in a position to make the work go away. The decision to leave was a hard one, affecting not only my short-term income but also my pension,  which the government expects me to hold off drawing for 20 years.

'Fed up'

It’s hard to turn your back on a school you’ve worked at for 20 years (with a £60K salary) without good reason, especially when you enjoy your job, are good at it and are well respected by colleagues and students.

I hear about teachers leaving because they can’t do their job, but that isn’t the case for me – I’m leaving purely because I’m fed up with six-day weeks. I’m tired, disillusioned and ready for a change.

Unfortunately, the expectation is that teachers, regardless of position or experience, will work long and tiring hours to get the job done.

I leave my position without a job to go to. But, I’m more fortunate than most, I have a good network of contacts and financial security so thankfully, I don’t have to rush to find something else.

Stuck in a rut

I plan on taking some time out while I investigate the opportunities that are open to me.  Four weeks on from making the decision to leave, I’ve come to terms with it, although I’m still apprehensive about my long-term financial position. I leave with the backing and support of my colleagues, friends and family, as I prepare to start a new chapter in my life.

The most frustrating thing about being in my position is the seeing the same story play out in schools across the country.

Most schools are stuck in a rut, unable to see any way other than what they do now.  I'm waiting for a sheep or two to break away from the flock and try something different, but with the Department for Education wolf nipping at their heels, I don’t expect it to happen anytime soon. 

The writer is a deputy head in England. 

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