It's a Friday and Jessica has a meeting with a member of the senior leadership team to discuss this week’s whole school book review.
Up to this moment, Jessica had thought she had successfully negotiated the week. She’d taught 20 lessons, she’d run detentions, she’d managed arguments between children in her form, she’d had nightmares about her upcoming Year 9 lesson and then she’d managed that 60-minute lesson, last lesson on a Friday. In between, she’d cooked dinner a couple of times for her partner, despite feeling as though her face would splat in the soup. So yes, she’d done pretty well, all things considered.
But now, when she least needed it, she was about to be made to doubt herself: the very person supposed to make her feel more secure, the same person who had only a comically cliched idea of what she’d actually done that day or that week, is about to pick up on something that will break her already brittle confidence.
“Why are there gaps in this child's book?" asks the senior leader.
"I think that girl was off school there," Jessica stuttered back.
"So why haven't they caught up?"
"I'm not sure, I think I told them to catch up on any missed work," she replied.
"So did you check the following week that this student had done what you'd told them to?"
“I think so, er” Jessica hesitates. “I can’t remember.”
“OK,” says her boss.
Jessica forlornly accepts she should have followed up with the absent student.
Teachers in tears
But she really shouldn't. In fact, it was the child's responsibility to catch up on that work. Even if it wasn't, Jessica teaches 400 students and the desire to "catch her out" seems to have overridden any desire for common sense or fairness.
The meeting ends, action points are agreed: make sure all pupil premium students catch up on any work missed. Because one of them hadn’t caught up. Although this action point, along with others, was sandwiched between some more positive overtures, it grated on Jessica as she let it whirl around her brain over and over again. “Maybe I’m just not good enough?” she asked herself as she left the meeting.
When driving home, she burst into tears. She just couldn’t have given any more this week.
While Jessica was told by SLT not to spoonfeed her students, she was simultaneously expected to take responsibility for them.
Despite her high standing with her students and colleagues, the thought of packing it all in before her exam review meeting next September crosses Jessica’s mind. She knows the results of her class will be poor. At that moment, despite her relative lack of experience, doubt will enter the mind of her headteacher and others over her capability. Despite her sincere mission to improve the lives of disadvantaged students, Jessica will be regarded a little less.
Needing to leave
To make matters worse, senior leaders have ranked all the teachers in the school. Jessica is near the bottom of the league, while John, across the corridor from Jessica, is well "in the green" with his lot. She knows, she just knows, that she is a better teacher than John and yet she's floundering "in the reds". The public availability of this data makes her feel like everyone is judging her.
One Spring morning, a few months later she concludes that she'd done everything she could with those kids and gave her heart and soul. Before the humiliation of having exam classes gently steered away from her and more "support" being offered, she chooses to leave. She doesn’t need to leave, because every observation report, every student interview, every parental questionnaire flags up her complete competency. But she feels like she has to.
She wonders whether she should have recorded the conversation she had with a Year 11 parent. She'd said her son loved the subject she taught so much and she'd really inspired him. She knows though, deep down, that no reliance on anecdotal tales of glory are going to save her from “the evidence”.
Jessica quits teaching and goes on to become one of the most successful civil servants in the country. In future, she will be judged on parameters she can control, her ethical code will be a shining light for others. Oh, and thousands of children who could have been taught by Jessica will never see her smiling face in the classroom. Instead, they will be treated as if they are on a conveyer belt of Jessica's, being plonked in front of a variety of teachers – some as talented as her, but many not – who will flitter in and out of their lives like paper in the wind. But those senior leaders who pressurised Jessica, made her feel worthless through ignorance or intention, will probably survive, purely because no one can hang those same results they destroyed Jessica’s confidence with, around their own necks.
This all could have been so different.
If only one of her senior colleagues had sought her out and told her that there is no evidence that currently exists that can link her performance with the attainment and progress of her students. Told her, as an esteemed and more experienced colleague, that she is doing a fantastic job. Told her you will be checking in on her to reassure. Told her that not all schools will devalue her in this way, and before she considers turning her back on teaching per se, she should consider another school first. Perhaps that would have saved Jessica.
If one of the other senior leaders in the school had shouted “stop” and presented a compelling argument against linking performance management targets to exam results, maybe that could have changed the “culture”. But to do that, they would have had to ignore those that would doubt if they believed in “the best for all children”. Sometimes, those who question this “system” are accused of getting in the way of the progress of children.
Jessica isn’t an anomaly and she certainly isn’t fiction, albeit an amalgamation of old friends and former acquittances. But Jessica's story explains why the profession has such a pronounced retention problem.
Thomas Rogers is a teacher who runs rogershistory.com and tweets @RogersHistory
For more columns by Tom, view his back catalogue
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