‘Teaching drove me to a breakdown after 17 years in the classroom’

One former teacher explains how the workload and stress of teaching caused her to have a breakdown, forcing her to leave the profession that she loves

Anonymous

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The other night, I had an amazing dream. I was teaching Year 6, it was two weeks before Sats week and we were cramming for the first time. The children were laughing as I was jumping around the classroom and doing a really bad impression of a plant growing.

I woke up in tears. This dream was about something that had actually happened, before the job I loved drove me to a breakdown.

After 17 years in the classroom, something in me finally snapped. Perhaps it was the endless tracking and highlighting pieces of paper that no one ever looked at, but which we spent four hours of our evenings on, just in case.

The pupil progress meetings had become intense. “Yes, Miss,” I was told, “we do work in an area of socio-economic deprivation, but I still want to know why four children in your class of 30 didn’t even get a level 3 in their Sats. And don’t give me excuses about them starting key stage 2 on P scales; it just shows that your expectations of your children are too low.”

'Unrealistic' targets

Almost overnight, expectations not just on teachers but on children seemed to become higher and I was spending hours doing pointless marking in different-coloured pens. What for?  My children knew their next steps in lessons; I didn’t need to start writing it in books, alongside unrealistic layered targets. I was a good teacher with high expectations of all of my pupils. Why was I having to waste hours to prove this in their books, when I could have been planning an exciting lesson for them? And let’s not forget about little Bob, who couldn’t read, yet had to initial my comments so that I knew he had read them and could act on them.

Of course, no whinging ex-teacher worth their salt would forget to mention that no-man's land we entered when some bright spark in Westminster decided that we needed to scrap levels. Of course, nothing cohesive was put in place, just lots of schools taking ideas from each other and coming up with various ways to track progress, none of which made any sense. Even the people who led us didn’t have a clue what was going on.

But I still loved teaching, despite all of this, so I tried changing role. I thought that if I became a member of senior leadership, I might actually be able to make my voice heard and contribute to real change in education. How I laugh at my naivety now.

'Constant negativity'

This was the thing that finally broke me — finding out that I was completely powerless to fix things. One day I realised that all of the joy had been drained from education, not just for me but for the children, too. Later that same day I looked at my beautiful class as I tried to teach them how to use a noun phrase and my heart just broke.

Of course, this is a simplistic description of my breakdown. Leading up to it were 60-plus-hour weeks, constant negativity, appalling school leadership who insisted that children didn’t have time to do fun things such as outdoor learning or gymnastics because this was “wasted learning time”.

The sleepless nights, the panic attacks, the constant worrying about work, assessments, Sats, data — all of this contributed to the breakdown that took me six months to get over. 

I say "over", but I still grieve for the job that I love and for the children who are stuck in an endless cycle of assessment.

Ironically, three months after I left teaching, one of my old pupils from years ago saw me in a supermarket. He was over the moon to see me and proudly told me that he was doing his teaching degree, as he wanted to be a teacher just like me. I plastered a huge smile on my face and congratulated him. Inside, though, I’m still screaming.

The writer is a former primary teacher

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