'Rather than asking why teachers leave the profession, we should wonder that they remain'

2nd May 2017 at 13:05
For too many teachers, the line between professional and martyr needs to be drawn to avoid the kind of stress that will ensure a premature exit from the classroom, writes one head of department

The recent Higher Education Policy Institute report on the state of teacher training markets –Whither teacher education and training? by John Cater, vice-chancellor of Edge Hill University – provides a fascinating and depressing history of the fraught relationship between government departments and PGCE providers.

The deepening crisis in recruitment shows that we still have a lot to learn about sustaining a large enough pool of well-qualified professionals in the classrooms. A bulge in the school population makes the problem more urgent.

Throwing money into 'golden hellos'

The most obvious lesson from the report is that in spite of – or perhaps because of – a plethora of government interventions, supply has failed to keep pace with demand. How else can we explain the escalation of incentives for graduates in shortage subjects just to train as teachers?

Cater is right to conclude that throwing money into incentives (in the form of large training bursaries of up to £30.000) is neither effective nor sustainable, given the high drop-out rate from teaching. In an increasingly cash-starved public service, it’s time to rethink the connection between "golden hellos" and long-term sustainability.

What the report does not consider is the message that such excessive incentivising sends to practising teachers.

The profession has lost ground over many years because of pay restraint in the public sector and restructuring of its salary scales, not to mention the attacks on its pension rights. This unfairness is accentuated by the fact that teachers put in more unpaid overtime than any other profession, and are buckling under a workload that has never been properly evaluated.

What keeps teachers in the classroom?

Perhaps, rather than asking why teachers leave, we should wonder that they remain.

As Cater puts it: “The focus on bursary support for trainees damages rather than enhances the status of the profession: if one has to be 'bribed' to the tune of up to £30,000 simply to train, just how demanding is the role seen to be and, with press stories of teachers wearing body cameras, how unsatisfactory are the working conditions?”

The answers to those questions reveal just how crass current incentives for trainees are. It seems that lavish enticements wear off too quickly – or attract the wrong kind of graduate. An outstanding degree in a shortage subject is not enough to survive, let alone thrive, in a classroom.  

Individuals attracted to teaching are by nature caring and conscientious. They are conservative, in it for the long game. 

They don’t expect megabucks; but everyone needs money to support themselves and their families. And this is perhaps their undoing. For too many, the line between professional and martyr needs to be drawn to avoid the kind of stress that will ensure a premature exit from the classroom. 

Their good natures and high mortgages give them no leverage. If the pot is limited, as it undoubtedly is, then overpaying a few means there is less to reward the constancy and professional values of the many.

Burn-out is more likely than reward

Performance-related pay (PRP) was sold to the profession as a fairer, more immediate way of rewarding hard work and excellent performance in the classroom than increments based on length of service.

PRP was meant to be about showing appreciation. The theory is that linking obvious financial reward to successful outcomes for some has a strong motivational impact on those around them to aspire to achieve such heights of achievement and reward. 

But – let’s be frank – vicious cuts to the education budget mean that schools are in no position to retain all their staff, let alone reward them more fairly. Thus the bar is raised so high, and the financial benefits are so meagre, that PRP fails the first tests of effective incentivising, ie, that it must be attainable and it must be worth the extra effort.

With the vast majority putting in endless hours to achieve ever-harder targets, there is a greater certainty of burn-out than reward. 

What all this demonstrates is that high ethical values and endurance cannot be rewarded while the system for teacher recruitment is so ineffective. 

It is time to address other forms of motivation to retain teachers and compensate for the shortfall.

Squeezing the joy out of teaching

The obvious consideration really needs to be the ways in which teaching can be made more pleasurable and intrinsically rewarding.  The current mismatch between teachers’ aspirations, interests, strengths and knowledge and the job they are expected to do is so demotivating that it leads to an annual exodus.

What needs to be overturned is an accountability system that squeezes the last drop of joy out of day-to-day teaching.

That workload should be radically reduced goes without saying. Teachers are not attracted to the job by bureaucracy and data-crunching. They are independent thinkers, creative, outgoing individuals, at best frustrated by the micro-management of their daily routine, at worst crumbling under intense scrutiny and hours of misspent effort.

If we are to keep teachers in situ then we need to re-energise what brought them into education in the first place. 

Teaching was once a collegiate profession which meant parity of esteem and close connections with other professionals through subject associations, local authority courses and, for the lucky few, a chance to return to university for a quick, invigorating injection of their favourite subject.   

It is time we returned to that land of lost content.

Yvonne Williams is a head of English in the south of England.  The views expressed in this article are her own.

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