'There is a culture that asks too much of teachers, who in turn embrace the personal sacrifice of burn-out'

6th September 2016 at 12:47
Too often school staff will give everything they have to their work, and then a bit more, says one teacher-writer

If you're like anything like me - and God help you if you are - you love a good action film. Among my favourites are the Jason Bourne films, starring Matt Damon as a government assassin seeking revenge on those who left him to die.

There's a lot about these films I love:   the choreographed biffo, high-level governmental intrigue and the scenic foreign locales that Bourne smashes up along the way. Amidst the arse-kicking, however, there's a little moment in the first film, The Bourne Identity that has stuck with me during my teaching career.

The scene in question takes place after Bourne takes out Clive Owen's character, 'The Professor', another assassin sent by the CIA. Slumped in a French country field, dying of blood loss, The Professor looks at Bourne, his fellow assassin and sadly mutters: 'Look at us. Look what they make you give.'

Now, I'm not trying to compare those of us who have served in the classroom to deadly assassins, but this cinematic moment, however, has resonated with me as school resumes for the year. It echoed most loudly as I read the recent TES piece, 'My heart says I'm successful, the data says I'm a failure'.

'Extraordinary measures'

In this piece, the anonymous author describes the extraordinary measures she puts in, in an attempt to meet the expectations of her job.

It reads, in part: 'I work long hours, I work for a good proportion of my holidays, I bring food and drink into revision classes to keep attendance respectable, to keep them motivated and to show to them that I value their effort. I scour teaching books and blogs for the latest good practice. I spend hundreds of pounds on resources that my sub £200 department budget could never stretch to...'..

Later in the piece comes the most poignant line, that begins, 'My job devours my life, there is nothing much left of me except what I do...'.

I identify with these sentiments. I could have written them.

'Burnout and exhaustion' 

Teaching tends to attract those who give, people with a wonderful generosity of spirit. Teachers, more than those in many other professions, go the extra yard to ensure the success of those they work with. Indeed, I would suggest that you can't teach effectively without throwing yourself deeply in the role.

Teachers, unfortunately, will give everything they have, especially if there is an expectation that they do so. This is not sustainable. This is what leads to burnout and exhaustion. This is what causes young teachers to leave the profession after a few years pouring their time, their energy, their own money into their job.

Nobody has checked on them, made sure that they are coping. Rather, this sort of sacrifice has been expected of them by SLT. If they're not willing to spend their weekends hosting revision sessions, throwing their own cash in to buy resources or feverishly following new edicts from above they're not 'team players', unlikely to remain in their post - forget about career progression. 

Even more regrettably, older colleagues have pressured them into 'carrying their weight', forgetting what it's like to be an early career teacher.

'It took months to put myself back together again'

I've met too many young people who have left teaching. I've spent far too long sitting in pubs with mates leaving teaching who, with a distant expression, detail how they hit the wall. Since January this year, I am amongst their number. As I've detailed elsewhere in TES, I had a breakdown and made the wrenching decision to leave the classroom. It took me months to put myself back together again, let alone be able to work.

If we're serious about stemming the flood from the teaching profession, two things must happen.

Teachers must be encouraged and helped to identify their limits regarding workload, and their decisions respected. They simply can't be expected to give away their evenings and weekends, or spend their own money on resources.

Secondly, those who manage teachers must understand that teachers will stretch themselves inhumanly thin in order to meet the targets set for them. Make unachievable goals the norm and SLT will break staff, accruing huge costs in terms of finances and student's learning.

In the coming school year, let us hope that more teaching and leadership teams, alongside the government, understand that teachers can only be stretched so far, and put measures in place to keep staff healthy and enervated.

Let us hope that they look at us, and consider what they make us give. 

Mike Stuchbery is a teacher at a school in Luton and tweets at @MrMStuchbery

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