'My rapid transformation from idealist, 'Dead Poets Society' inspired young teacher to disillusioned drop-out is not that uncommon'

18th September 2016 at 10:02
Teacher wellbeing
After spending nine months inside the system, one former trainee teacher says we are at risk of leaving school children with a workforce of teachers which is in, at worst, short supply or, at best, perpetual turnover

Last year I was one of 28,000 or so trainee teachers working in schools across England. Now summer has ended, I should be entering the classroom as a fully-fledged teacher, disseminating my high level of subject knowledge and inspiring children. But I am not.

Before embarking on my PGCE course last September, I was warned by friends and family that I should not go into the profession lightly, that teaching was a much more thankless, relentless and demanding job than the idea of it might seem.

But my youthful enthusiasm and idealism convinced me to ignore the cynics. I wanted to give something back to the state sector education system which I had done very well out of.

Twelve months later, I have a very different view.


From September to June teaching consumed my life in an unsustainable way. Without let-up, each long, draining day in school was followed by a pressured evening of preparation and marking. Large chunks of both days of my weekend, as well as those fabled long holidays, were given over to schoolwork.

It was clear that the vast majority of my fully qualified colleagues were investing equally copious amounts of time and energy into their work.

Across two school placements, I worked with countless highly committed, talented and selfless teachers. But the morale of many was being chipped away at by the demands our education system increasingly puts on them.

On more than one occasion, exasperated teachers asked me in all seriousness: “Are you sure you want to do this job?”

In a seminar specifically dealing with the issue of work-life balance in the profession, a member of senior management plainly stated to trainees that even experienced teachers at this and other schools very typically worked 70 or more hours a week teaching, planning, marking and dealing with the unforeseeable pastoral issues that arise in daily school life.

In the end, I took the decision not to continue into my first year as a newly qualified teacher. It may be that the passion I thought I had was not actually there, or more brutally that I wasn’t tough enough to hack it. But it appears as though my rapid transformation from idealist, Dead Poets Society inspired young teacher to disillusioned drop-out is not that uncommon.

In July, the IFS reported that four in ten trainee teachers leave the profession within five years.  At the same time, attracting new teacher is a growing problem.

The Department for Education’s own figures show that, in each of the last four years, it has missed its trainee teacher recruitment target by an increased margin. Set these figures against the forecast that the number of required secondary school places is to rise by nine per cent in the next five years and it seems that a national teacher supply problem is on the horizon.

Expensive temporary plaster

Aware of this, the Department for Education has in recent years adopted the policy of throwing huge amounts of money at top young graduates to entice them into teaching. For graduates like me, with a first-class degree in a shortage science subject, a bursary of up to £30,000 is available.

But, this does little more than to place an expensive temporary plaster over a gaping educational sector wound which is bleeding teachers at an ever-increasing rate.

Graduates may go for the initial bait, but there is no evidence to suggest they are persuaded to stay in education for the long run. There are many industrial jobs for a chemistry or physics graduate in which pay is better than teaching, and which all-importantly allow for a much more reasonable work-life balance.

Of course teachers don’t go into it for the money or free time, but economic considerations are never totally off the agenda.

I never became a proper teacher.

I now speak as a citizen who, after spending nine months inside the system, sees with a keener eye the problems of educating our children towards which we, as a society, are heading at increased pace. We might not want to face up to the “unionist ranting” of another public sector workforce, but soon or later we will have to confront the problem of teacher recruitment and retention to which it is linked.

Never mind teachers, the millions of children in our schools have a right to be taught by people who have top-level qualifications in their subject and have stayed in the profession long enough to properly learn their trade.

As a society, are we prepared to invest not only the required money, but perhaps more fundamentally the long-term thinking about our education system needed to ensure this? If not, we risk leaving pupils in our schools with a workforce of teachers which is in, at worst, short supply or, at best, perpetual turnover.

Callum Cartwright is a newly qualified, and summarily retired, teacher

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