To be honest...

5th March 2010 at 00:00
Parents, policy overload, inspection - and then there are the children. But why do so many teachers suffer in silence? It's better out than in

Christine Fielder* would never admit it out loud, but says of her pupils: "Some I'd happily take home and others I'd happily thump".

The primary teacher is not that keen on her teaching assistant either, who lacks basic grammatical skills. She also purposefully overruns interesting activities so that there is no time for "boring" parts of the lesson, such as guided reading.

Such confessions are cathartic, says Ms Fielder, but she would never dare reveal her real name. To her parents, colleagues and pupils, she remains the epitome of contentedness and professionalism.

There are many teachers who would never vent their innermost frustrations with the job. Hating kids, perhaps the ultimate teaching taboo, is thankfully rare. Teachers with a burning dislike of children are unlikely to last long in the profession, according to Hazel Bennett, a primary teacher and writer.

"People go into teaching because they like children, not because they hate them," she says. "If you didn't like children, the job would drive you mad. Those who begin to lose interest in kids fall away pretty quickly."

But there are plenty who feel ground down by persistent low-level disruption in the classroom - or worse, extreme bouts of bad behaviour, language and attitude. On a bad day, feelings towards the worst offenders can teeter on the edge of hatred.

"We know it's our job to be adults, and we know that kids are, by definition, emerging from their grimy chrysalides into the mature form of the human animal, but by God it's frustrating being face-to-face with their hostility and often open rejection," says Tom Bennett (no relation), a teacher at Raine's Foundation School in east London. "Sometimes they refuse to accept that anything you have to say could be important or relevant to them."

Even Mr Bennett, an experienced head of RE and philosophy and The TES online behaviour expert, can be left feeling more like a charity worker than a teacher. "It's not pretty and you don't get much thanks for it," he adds.

"Frankly, there are times when you wish you were allowed to brain them with a frying pan, just to make your point."

That thought may have crossed Francis Gilbert's mind, too. His book, I'm a Teacher, Get Me Out of Here, is full of confessions about life as a new young teacher in an inner-city London school. He admits to manhandling children, writing the pupils' coursework for them and being a controlling bully.

"I had such poor classroom-management skills that my pupils pushed all the furniture out of my room," admits Mr Gilbert, who currently teaches part- time English and media studies at a comprehensive.

As well as admitting his "controlaholic" obsession with maintaining silence while he ploughed through English texts, he says he felt totally drained by his pupils' seemingly endless capacity for causing trouble.

Rather than hide his shortcomings, Mr Gilbert took the unusual step of documenting them for all to see in his bestselling book. Such honesty is crucial if the teaching profession is to develop and change in the right direction, he believes. "Teachers cover up a lot and, as a result, the status quo prevails," he says.

Walter Humes, research professor in education at the Ayr campus of the University of the West of Scotland, spotted this reticence to speak up several years ago. Teacher trainees and newly qualified teachers often report that they are cautious about expressing their views in case they are perceived as troublemakers, he says. He has also heard of experienced staff being silenced in an effort to save the blushes of the senior management team.

As a result, painful but important issues can be glossed over. "There are deeply conformist pressures embedded within the institutional norms and rituals of most schools," Professor Humes adds. "They often inhibit the kind of open exchanges which, if sensitively conducted, might begin to address difficult but important issues."

Their gripes rarely start and stop with problem pupils, although that is one of the most common bones of contention. It is everything else on top that can be debilitating, including an inconsistently applied or weak school behaviour policy.

Some teachers also report that they could do without setting homework, taking assemblies, marking, report writing, whiteboards and lesson planning - all things that the Government insists are essential.

This chasm between what decision makers think is best and how practitioners feel about putting it into practice fuels discontent, according to Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University.

"Political interference is one of the greatest bugbears in teachers' working lives," he says. "Teaching is such a political football. Parties of all persuasion want to improve their image through schools so are constantly interfering, judging and naming and shaming."

If these central government initiatives are seen as a waste of money, it can be especially galling when schools are being asked to cut back. Teachers who have spoken to TES Magazine insist that everything from educational consultants to Ofsted inspectors, personalised learning strategies and neuro linguistic programming are not always welcome or effective additions to class life.

Taking time to pilot these schemes thoroughly before they are rolled out nationally would save money and ensure only the best survive, says Professor Cooper. Involving more teachers in the decision-making process would also help, he believes.

Politicians and educationalists talk a lot about the need for greater involvement in schools, but they are usually talking about parents rather than teachers. In return, parents have been promised a far greater say in their children's education. If parents think teachers are failing their child, they can even call in school inspectors. It all points towards a society that does not look up to, or trust, teachers in the way it used to, believes Professor Cooper. "Teaching used to be a very high-status profession but now teachers are expected to deliver a service," he says. "If it's viewed as good, no one will tell them. If it's viewed as bad, they will be told straight by everyone."

Perversely, it is those standing in judgment who can inadvertently prevent teachers from delivering the outstanding service they so crave. In an attempt to please parents and politicians, teachers can be distracted from their fundamental job: teaching.

"Secretly, many teachers feel like parents are the enemy," confides Mr Bennett. "Clearly they aren't, but sometimes they pretend to be."

Parents who are not strong enough disciplinarians and let their children play on the computer rather than do their homework, fit into this category. As do those who make professional judgments on teachers' pedagogy, based on their own experiences as a pupil.

Families that always fight their child's corner rather than their teacher's can also shatter the image of a united adult front. "One parent backed his child up to the last, despite me informing him that their little cherub was seen standing on a bus shelter, peeing from the top of it," says Mr Bennett. It is hard to know what sort of message that kind of parental support sends out.

Gervase Phinn, a former teacher, school inspector and now a writer and lecturer, agrees that parents often come in for criticism from teachers for a number of reasons. He cites pushy, neurotic, bolshy and know-it-all parents as the source of much displeasure in staffrooms. Blaming parents for the sins of the children is common practice among teachers, he says.

But teachers will rarely convey home truths to even the most deserving of parents - the possible repercussions are too great. It was different in 1871. Then, the headmistress of Brampton New National Schools wrote to parents that "much of the impertinence, bad language and ill behaviour" of pupils can be traced to "the want of due care in setting a good example and enforcing it at home; and not, as is falsely and wickedly attributed, to the fault of the school".

Twenty first-century teachers must look back enviously to a time when teachers were "respected, supported, held in awe and even feared", Mr Phinn believes.

In the absence of a supportive local community, colleagues may provide a more understanding ear. Revealing your inner feelings is a good way of letting off steam, psychologists say. But what if fear prevents this pent- up frustration from spilling out within the staffroom?

Even constructive criticism about possible changes to the curriculum, assessment policy and the scope for teacher initiative can be misconceived as personal criticism of the head, says Professor Humes.

In such an environment, the word of senior staff is gospel, organisational loyalty is more important than truth and perceived criticism of colleagues or new policies is discouraged.

"Professionalism often acts as a constraint and inhibits frank discussion," says Professor Humes. "Staff are more likely to be rewarded for adherence to prevailing orthodoxies than for divergent thinking."

If workers feel they can never express or reveal these issues, mental and physical health will suffer, warns Professor Cooper. "If something really bothers someone but they keep it all buried, that is likely to have long- term implications," he says. "Men are more likely to keep things buried. Women typically share with female friends as a vehicle to get help or ascertain other people's opinions."

But not all teachers are pressure cookers waiting to implode. Kate Aspin, a former deputy head and now senior lecturer in primary education at Huddersfield University, says most primary school teachers love the job, but still moan a great deal.

"I always say the collective noun for teachers is `a whinge', but there is not a great deal of cynicism at the primary level," she says.

There are, however, certain universal truths that most primary school teachers can relate to, she adds. No one appears to like or see the point of Assessing Pupils' Progress; everyone does "basket work" every now and again (throwing handouts straight into the bin) and some will always play "Ofsted bullshit bingo" in meetings (the first teacher with a row of given acronyms or buzzwords wins).

As for the children, smelly ones may not be asked to come up and read unless swimming is scheduled beforehand, and annoying ones are unlikely to take centre stage in the school play. However, it would be very hard to do the job if you hated it, Ms Aspin insists.

John Dabell, a primary teacher from Nottingham, agrees that beyond the normal everyday annoyances, primary teaching is mostly a delight. But unsaid problems arise from being a man in a woman's world. He has often avoided the staffroom in order to escape discussions about period pains, boyfriend problems and childbirth.

"Not for the first time have I been sandwiched between two colleagues talking over me about Braxton Hicks as I've been munching on my lunch," says Mr Dabell. "For weeks I laboured under the illusion he was a naughty boy in Year 5."

But while gripes like this may be laughed about with colleagues or partners, sharing more serious issues is important, says Emma Donaldson- Feilder, an occupational psychologist. Not only does it help you gauge other people's opinions and perspectives, it may lead to solutions. "Research shows that good social support is an important way to reduce stress and improve well-being, so not sharing problems could be detrimental," she says.

There are always persistent moaners who seem to suck all the oxygen from a room, however. They undermine the morale of a workforce and create a negative environment, Professor Cooper says. "I call it the `wooden leg syndrome'," he says. "Solutions may be given, but they will never be taken up. The person will keep on moaning."

Work overload, poor management, too much paperwork and a lack of autonomy take their toll on many teachers. Heads, in particular, need more training if they are to become better managers who involve staff in decisions that affect their lives, Professor Cooper says.

But many teachers will moan in the staffroom without ever taking their concerns any higher. "They may sit and store up their problems, with little outbursts for colleagues or partners, but they are not telling the people who can actually bring about change," he says.

As Professor Humes says, this may be because people do not want to jeopardise their job or their chance of promotion. It is up to heads to create an environment where open, non-aggressive dialogue can take place without fear of reprisals.

As well as hesitating before talking to their line manager, teachers may have learnt that non-teaching friends or family are not that receptive to their confessions either. This, Mr Bennett says, is because "teachers moaning about teaching is incredibly boring if you're not a teacher and sometimes if you are".

Parents won't always want to hear it either - mostly because they "don't appreciate being told by someone in a cardigan that they have the parenting skills of dingos", he adds. "I believe it is called tact."

Which leaves a slight dearth of people ready, willing or able to lend an ear. And a surplus of teachers too scared to speak up beyond the confines of the staffroom, if at all.

Mr Bennett still stops short of identifying a culture of silence in teaching. Instead, he sees a profession with too few outlets where professional opinions can be expressed. "So much of modern teaching is prescribed and dictated to from above that teachers stagger under the weight of people's expectations. Maybe if we spoke up more, others would have to listen."

First, a difficult hurdle must be overcome. Teachers must confess, if not exactly all, then at least their most pressing grievances: the ineffectual practices in the classroom and the pressures that drive teachers out of the profession in their droves. At least then, politicians can be better informed about the issues that matter most. Whether they do anything with that information is another question.

* Name has been changed

Confessions on TES forums

I love going on courses for one reason and one reason only - biscuits and a free lunch.

  • Mis_informed
    • I like a class to work in silence.

      • WolfPaul
        • I don't see why I have to put displays up in the corridor when no one ever looks at them.

          • Sillow
            • My paperwork is often so drastically behind that if the headteacher asked to see it at once, I would have to do a Basil Fawlty-style faint.

              • Professor Dumbledore
                • I hate it when children ask if they can stay and do jobs - no, I need a break from you!


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today