'Teachers lose too much family time trying to live up to their own professionalism – let alone the demands of their many masters'

The only people who can really understand the stress of teaching are teachers: they are the ones the dealing with the new exam specifications, changes to inspection and the never-ending demands from the hydra of accountability

Yvonne Williams

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I watched with some interest the debate on teacher wellbeing and status taking place on World Teachers’ Day. Tes and Cognita were on to a winner in headlining teacher wellbeing and workload. Time after time, this topic hits the number one spot in the ratings for online Tes articles.

However, at the risk of seeming churlish, I would say there was a missing element: even those who have taught in the past are not doing so in the present. And to be an expert you need to be in the thick of it today: in the thick of the new specifications; in the thick of new inspection systems, which change virtually every year; and in the thick of never-ending demands from the hydra of accountability. 

Teachers are under huge stress. They lose a lot of their personal and family time trying to live up to their own professionalism – let alone the demands of their many masters. But they are not as passive and needy as some might suggest. Their talents are not confined to planning, teaching and marking.

They can produce materials on a daily basis at a rate that would be the envy of a BBC current affairs programme – I would like to see Jeremy Paxman working at the rate and pay of a classroom teacher in today’s classroom. And a pastoral team can knock up a quiz in far less time than the whole team of University Challenge question setters.

Teachers’ administrative efficiency would be the envy of the civil service because they have to whack in the data in between lessons, clubs and meetings. But that does not mean that more should be heaped on their plates.

They switch mindsets in the blink of an eye (or the ring of the bell) from a Year 7 to a Year 13 class  – or, for the Renaissance teacher, with multi-discipline timetables, from one subject to the next. Their intellectual agility has to be at its peak in these times of snap inspection and surprise visitors, and maintained right up to the end-of-day bell. 

Because of the knowledge-rich curriculum and new overloaded GCSE specifications, many teachers work an extended day, starting after-school revision and catch-up sessions almost from the start of the autumn term. 

Array of talents

The appetite for the fully-rounded student is becoming a kind of arms race in which schools compete for the most extensive catalogue of lunchtime and after-school clubs. The exotic school trips to Tanzania, New York, China, Iceland and all other points of the globe produce wonderful photos and memories, thanks to those in the background who make it all possible – and lose valuable sleep over arrangements beforehand, as well as on day and night duty during the trip itself.

Ordinary teachers have the combined skills of a travel agent and health and safety executive as they progress through the many electronic pages of online planning systems. In the past, they also took the money. They even have to chase late payments with all the persistence of a debt collector, because no trip can run at a loss.

No school can stand still in the marketing stakes. Wonderful wall displays materialise much faster than Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel. OK, teachers don’t have his level of genius, but in the time given, they do their best.

And teachers make wonderful audiences for school plays, presentations, awards evenings and social events. Thanks to the year-on-year augmentation of school calendars, they need a Tardis to operate all the events.

In the quest to produce a holistic experience for the well-rounded student, teachers have gained a dazzling array of talents and lost a lot of personal time. And too many burn out along the way.

So, Tes and Cognita, thank you for organising this high-profile event. It was entertaining and there were some very useful points made, especially about the shortcomings of yoga sessions in high-stress schools. However, the real experts are the ones in the classrooms. 

The writer is a head of English and a former member of the government's marking workload group. The views expressed are her own.

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Yvonne Williams

Yvonne Williams is a head of English and drama in a school in the south of England

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