'We are entering educational death row. Human bodies cannot sustain the impact of teaching in its current form'
Teaching has always been a lifestyle for me and not just a job. Everything else has played second fiddle, especially in recent years: my hobbies and interests, my friends and family, my health and my marriage. I have frequently heard: “You are never ‘here’ in the moment. It’s like you are constantly somewhere else in your mind. Come Back!" I became a ghost of my former self. When I’ve not been working, I've been thinking about work. Even holidays have been at least partly dominated by my working life. Perhaps this is partly a personal deficiency in me but also a true reflection of the demands of teaching in the UK today.
In eight years in the profession, I’ve had what one might call a successful career, being hailed as a “leader of tomorrow” by the SSAT and counting no less than three TLR positions on my CV, the most recent being head of department. I’ve been fortunate to have an observation record that has never fallen below “good”. My salary had become “expert” and my responsibilities greater. So, it may surprise you (and it certainly surprised my friends and colleagues) to learn, that a few weeks ago I formally handed in my letter of resignation and became another brick in the wall – a casualty of the profession. Yes, this is a decision of monumental gravitas for me but, to reference one of my heroes, Johnny Cash: “you can have it all, my empire of dirt”. Alas, the end is nigh – I'm going at Christmas.
I have realised what is important in life and it might not be too late for me.
'Teaching is in my blood'
I have never once questioned the work I was doing that I knew had an impact and I believed made a difference. That was mainly teaching lessons. I come from a family of teachers: my dad (a former head of history and teacher of 34 years), my mum (former maths teacher for 30 years), my nan and grandad (both primary school heads). Even my brother has just taken up a full-time teaching role at a school in France after living there for several years. In essence, teaching is in my blood. However, as time has progressed, I have become bitter about everything required around it: the spreadsheets, the data, the meetings, the marking, the measuring. More recently, I have also struggled to marry my belief in personal responsibility with the complete lack of accountability our young people seem to revel in. This was most galling for me on GCSE results day, when although my departmental results weren't a disaster, they didn't go as I had planned or predicted. The students who had chosen not to engage with anything I’d offered over two years walked away. I was left to pick up the pieces and walk around for a year with the millstone of failure around my neck, such is the belief in this country today that if a student fails, a teacher must have failed too and “let down their students”. The result of all of this was a feeling of never being good enough – a feeling I know I don’t need or deserve.
I've been fortunate to work in two great schools, for two great headteachers. I can’t blame them for these feelings. The first, a caring and compassionate head teacher who always tried to put his staff first, and the second, similarly commanded by a strong moral compass. Both strive to protect their staff, but there are such powerful forces at play in our educational world, that such a moral imperative can't change the fundamental demands on them and their schools.
Neither of them could lock the doors on the ideological and misguided education secretaries, the vindictive media, the social and behavioural changes in our society and the ever-increasing immorality of our education system. Above all, the spectre of Ofsted was and still is hanging above their heads, ready to come in and devour them if their Progress 8 measure declines. Careers are on the line. No one can afford to do what they want, what they feel, or what their gut instinct tells them – especially if they have families and mortgages. The threat of academisation, special measures or even school closure is always there along with recent cuts to school budgets, making any desired changes to teachers' working conditions untenable. Working 50, 60, 70 hours a week means that some of my great educational heroes have become foreigners to their own children. Now, headlines report massive teacher shortages that are only going to get worse as Nick Gibb proclaims that “it’s never been a better time to be a teacher”.
'The best teachers are leaving'
The most frightening thing is, it’s the most competent who are leaving the classroom – either moving up and out (to assistant headship and leadership) or away completely to start new lives. That leaves three groups left: those who want to leave but can’t (perhaps a majority), those that aren't good enough to be teachers anyway so don’t care as much about their own practice (a very small minority despite what Wilshaw and co say) and the righteous few – those who still have the fire, the passion and the belief – usually those new to the profession, whose chances of “burning out” increase by the day. We really are entering educational death row. Human bodies cannot sustain the impact of this job in its current form. The evidence is there for all to see.
With a mixture of hope, fear, excitement and adrenaline, I've decided it’s time for me to go (for now, at least). I’m setting up my own business in online tutoring, a dream I have had for a few years now. Some might call me brave, others stupid, but whatever happens, I’m determined to bring the same passion I did into the classroom into running this business and can still have an impact on the lives of young people (which is essential for me) and also help some teachers – on my terms.
Beyond this, I am also interested in re-engaging with charity work and volunteering. I’m going to keep blogging about my journey as I go along to provide some litmus test to those in the same boat as me. Whether I succeed or fail, it’s going to be one hell of an adventure. Of course, my wage is going to be decimated, especially to begin with, but “wealth” isn't only measured in money. Time is a commodity that you just can’t buy back. Time to reflect, time to love, time to think, time to live. I intend to become rich in time. Who knows what the fruits of that may be?
I won’t only lose the money, but also day to day contact with students, who I have always loved teaching. I’ve never struggled to accommodate and deal with teenage behaviour – that’s something I will miss fondly. I’m not leaving because of the children. To quote from Matthew 16:25 “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” I'm not seeing this as an end to my teaching career but a new chapter in it. I hope I can actually spend more time actually teaching.
So, I will say to my esteemed colleagues who are still in the game; “bonne chance” and “vive l’education”. Perhaps we will cross paths again in an actual school, when this country realises its teachers are people, not machines or when there are no teachers left standing, and the whole “game” simply has to change.
The Rogers History Online Academy will launch on 3 January 2016