'This is a job I love, yet it destroys me'

4th May 2012 at 01:00
I was born to teach, but the workload wore me down. I had to leave, writes Lily Morton

When I first started teaching, I heard that half of teachers leave the profession within their first five years. It sounded ridiculous and I just knew that it wouldn't be me. But after three years and one term, I am one of them. Will I go back? I haven't ruled it out. It should be the best job in the world. What could be more extraordinary than gaining the trust of a troubled young man, who one Monday morning, grinning, rushes in to tell you about the brilliant weekend he had with his new foster family? Or the pupil who has been giving you hell for three months finally engaging with you? Shouldn't educating and inspiring young people be the most distinguished of all jobs?

So what's the problem? A recent Department for Education report found that most departing teachers are in their first few years of the job or approaching retirement. Most cited heavy workload as their biggest reason for leaving, as do I. Perhaps I'm just not cut out to teach; some aspects of my personality aren't a natural fit with the job. But maybe all the others have told themselves that, too. Couldn't it be that the job is just too hard?

Looking back on my first year, I don't know how I worked so many hours and still cared. What I do know is that I very nearly lost my passion and every other aspect of my life went downhill: my boyfriend and I argued an awful lot; I developed one heck of a temper; I barely saw friends or relatives; I had panic attacks. Desperate, I sought counselling to find a way to keep doing the job I loved but also hated for taking everything away from me.

Terrified by the statutory increase in teaching hours in the second year, I reduced mine slightly. I began enjoying work more, though school still ruled my whole life. In my third year, I found a much better rhythm. I arrived at 8am and worked until 6pm, with a 20-minute break for lunch. I was pleased until a friend pointed out that working 10 hours without sitting down isn't normal. Even then, I couldn't do everything I was supposed to. I prioritised planning and teaching good lessons. Some were excellent. But I didn't set weekly homework. I didn't mark books as often as I was told to. I didn't set all the assessments I should have because I couldn't mark them. There was not enough time in the day. I was left with an overbearing disappointment with the impossible expectations of the job; a disappointment that breaks my heart.

I was exhausted. I had nothing left to give. I just needed a break. Leaving was the hardest decision I have ever made. Leaving my favourite classes and my tutor group was even harder. I cried, they cried, we had a giant 30-person hug. I will always think of them and wonder how they are getting on in life.

Three months later, I'm still recovering. I'm calm and full of energy. I sleep well every night. My relationship has vastly improved. I'm keeping up with friends and family. Best of all, I wake up feeling like me. But every day I mourn my loss and wrestle with my conscience. I feel I was made to teach. It is a job I love, yet it destroys me.

Training to be a teacher is a long, self-selecting process, not just a one-year placement. Those who are worn down by the workload and challenge eventually leave. For the remainder, something or somebody in their lives will be losing out. Trust me. It might be the children they teach whose books rarely get marked or whose lessons don't get well planned. It might be their friends, partners or children. It might be their health or well-being.

Thankfully, there will never be a shortage of teachers. People will continue to be inspired to enter the profession. But isn't it a shame to train so many keen new recruits and then lose half of them to exhaustion? Surely there must be a better way?

Lily Morton (not her real name) was a secondary school teacher in the South West of England.

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