‘Politicians need to remember that education is about more than just grades’

17th April 2017 at 18:03
The human aspect of education is too often discounted by policymakers, who are focused on raising academic achievement, says a former teacher

It’s nearly the end of the day and Beth is sitting at the desk outside the English office. She catches my eye as I approach and immediately looks down again – she knows that I’ll be disappointed to see her there.

Beth is one of those students who have a reputation that precedes them. She’s in Year 11 and just a few weeks away from going on study leave for her GCSEs.

After I spent the morning praising her for how hard she has been working, not just on her coursework, but also at staying calm when other students were trying to wind her up, the last thing she wants is for me to see her thrown out of somebody else’s lesson.

A feeling of being powerless

“I know, Miss,” Beth says, before I can even open my mouth, “You don’t have to tell me. I already know.”

I left teaching more than six years ago, but I still think about Beth sometimes. In fact, I think about many of the students I used to teach. I wonder where they are and whether they are doing okay.

When I quit the profession, it was for the same reasons as many who leave early in their careers: workload, stress and a feeling of being powerless to change a system that I could quite clearly see was broken. I was miserable and not coping, so I knew that I had to go.

However, that doesn’t mean that I wanted to stop being a teacher and it certainly doesn’t mean that I stopped caring about my students.

Unfortunately, though, our education system is driven by people who don't take the human element of teaching into account nearly often enough. Ministers don't seem to realise that, with a student like Beth, just keeping her calm, in the lesson and trying her best at a piece of work is an achievement for a teacher to feel proud of. 

And if, despite all best efforts, that student goes on to achieve a D instead of a C in the final exam, does that mean that all the work with her was a waste of time? I am sure that Beth wouldn't think so.

Focus on grade boundaries

Of course, grades have an impact on students' job prospects and life chances, but they are not the be all and end all. There is plenty that happens in school ─ like teaching students to cooperate, coaching them to manage their emotions and helping them to understand more about the world ─ that can have an equal; or even greater impact on their lives.

On the whole, teaching attracts people who care. But, caring too much and then not being able to live up to the demands placed upon them is what ultimately drives many good teachers out of the profession.

If building strong working relationships with students and helping them to develop a lifelong interest in learning was valued as highly as getting everyone over the next grade boundary, I would probably still be teaching. Instead, I work in the city, as many of my former colleagues now do.

I still miss teaching; I miss the students. I used to think that I would return to the classroom one day, but that is looking increasingly unlikely, because nothing seems to be changing. The stories I read in the news tell me how much schools are struggling under the weight of budget cuts and never-ending changes to the curriculum and exam systems. 

Policymakers need to start basing their decisions on the understanding that students and teachers are human beings, not robots, and that education is about so much more than just grades.

Until that happens, the profession will continue to lose dedicated teachers who simply aren't prepared to put themselves through the pain anymore. And it isn't people like me who will be hurt the most by the teacher retention crisis ─ it is students like Beth, who don't have the option of simply handing in their notice and leaving it all behind.

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