Teaching in a tough school: 'Kids are angry. I am, too'

After moving to a challenging school, this experienced teacher found the discrepancies and difficulties too much to bear

challenging school

I’m half a term into my new job and I love it. I have lost a stone and half, I enjoy going to work and I feel like I am able to teach my subject again. 

After 15 years of working in the state sector, I have taken a job in a private school, something I never thought I would do.

Just over a year ago, after many years of teaching in a relatively affluent state school, I had decided to move to a school in a poorer area with a reputation for challenging behaviour. 


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It seemed unfair that children living a mile apart were experiencing such a difference in provision and I wanted to serve those children whose life chances were stacked against them. I joined my new school full of hope and pride.

At the end of my first day, I was shocked. I had failed to get any of the three groups I was starting with to the point where any learning could take place. I started to wonder if I’d made a mistake. 

I persevered and worked there for more than a year. I learned more about myself and my teaching during that period than I had done since my PGCE. 

The pressure

But it was a challenging year.

The results had not improved enough in 2018 for the academy sponsors and they put the pressure on the head, who left halfway through the year as a result of the stress of trying to improve a school where you can’t staff lessons. 

With a change of management, the decision was made to re-timetable the school to prioritise year 11. Everyone was teaching more. It was for the good of year 11s.

Who could argue with that? SLT picked up the teaching of core subjects and were overworked. Staff sickness and cover was impossibly high.

I was shocked at the resources. Children were sharing copies of textbooks, many of which were missing pages. 

The students were angry. “I hate this fucking school” was a common refrain. 

Exhaustion

But it is not the school’s fault. The staff who work there are exhausted, working longer hours, marking more and managing significant emotional labour that is not experienced in more affluent schools. 

There are not enough support staff. Classes with significant educational needs have not been adequately supported and teachers choose to either plan low-challenge lessons for an easy life or risk significant behaviour issues, including fighting, swearing, bullying, vandalism, defiance, eating, climbing on tables, running out of the classroom.

I wanted to help them, but after a year it felt relentless, and my own children were suffering. At night I was arriving home with nothing left; no energy to help with homework or listen to them read. 

On my last day, a Year 7 student asked to hug me. They asked me why all the good teachers were leaving and I reassured her that if I could have stayed I would have and that they would be all right. 

Unfixable problems

But I am not sure they will be all right. I couldn’t fix this problem. Teachers alone cannot fix this problem. This problem is society’s problem because these children are angry – and I don’t blame them. I’m angry, too. 

I wish I could have stayed and continued fighting for them but the working conditions had been so detrimental to my health that I found myself needing to stare into the nothingness of colours and drink to soothe myself through the experience. I put on two stone over the course of the year and my relationship with my husband and children suffered.  

It’s not easy to recruit staff to work in such challenging schools and the children who need the best teachers are often left with exhausted non-subject specialists who are working over their agreed contracts. I know I was when I had taught every lesson for two weeks.

Instead of paying them more, looking after them and allocating more resources, we are stripping these schools of funding. 

If the government is serious about wanting to improve failing schools and close the poverty gap, we need a much more radical and strategic approach to funding, recruitment, retention and working conditions in our most challenging schools. 

The hours and emotional labour I put into my job in the past year was more than ever before. I worked harder, had fewer free periods, less support, shorter breaks and fewer resources. It was a different job. I was a teacher, social worker, law enforcer, counsellor.

I couldn’t sustain working there without serious implications for my health and wellbeing. We need to acknowledge that teaching is not the same job in every school and respond accordingly with pay and working conditions. 

Otherwise, we will fail another generation of children who will leave school without fulfilling anywhere near their potential, to the detriment of both them and society at large.  

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