Burnt out and out of love with the job

6th July 2012 at 01:00
Few classes will pay attention to a husk. So we must stop overworking our teachers, writes Paul Dix

I understand the motivation of politicians when they tell teachers that they should work for as many hours as necessary and that a "no excuses" culture is the way to turn around schools.

When teachers are forced to use their personal time to plug the gaps in funding for social work, educational welfare, attendance, the care system, educational psychology and parenting, it makes a difference. With phenomenal effort, above and beyond what is contractual, moral or even advisable, teachers can create an oasis of calm in communities that thrive on chaos. But it has casualties.

The work rate of "no excuses" is not sustainable. My job providing coaching in behaviour management takes me to a huge number of schools in diverse settings. I see teachers' health sacrificed to this short-term approach. Every teacher I coach these days seems close to tears, if not actually weeping with exhaustion. I meet teachers on six-day contracts with two duties a day who rarely see their own children; headteachers who have no choice but to work from noon on a Saturday just to stay afloat; teaching assistants who are emotionally exhausted by the intensity of their interaction with chaotic and hurt children.

I see behind the PR and into the dark heart of schools where the exhaustion has become normalised. Places where the staff are on stronger energy drinks than the children. I see it in the damp eyes of teachers who are falling out of love with the job because "no excuses" has consumed them.

I have watched outstanding, inspirational teachers crumble through simple exhaustion. When they gasp for air and breathe in the world outside they see a tide of mistrust and blame.

I have been part of a few "no excuses" cultures. I remember days of supping Benylin and popping ibuprofen like Smarties just to get into work. Turning round a special measures judgement in a school on a notorious estate - 11 per cent A-C grades at GCSE, 85 per cent local male unemployment, and so on - meant that we had to patch a lot of holes. I remember listening to the action plan that was being handed down to us. It was immediately clear that working time directives were not just being stepped on, they had been ground into the concrete with an iron boot.

Tired adults deal with the behaviour of children badly. We exhaust our teachers and then expect them to be inspirational. They can't. We overload teachers with work and then demand the emotional resilience of an undertaker from them. When teachers start struggling with the workload and the pressure we heap observation, performance management and inspection on them.

For the past decade, I have tried to promote a kinder approach to teachers who are sinking and not swimming. It doesn't grab headlines, it is not snake oil, but it works beautifully. It starts with encouraging relationships, conversations, trust and respect. A thoroughly collaborative approach to school and staff improvement has sustainable results.

If we want excellent teaching and transformational behaviour management, we need to give teachers time to focus on it. If we really believe that outstanding teaching will unlock opportunity in the system, we should lock up the data trolls, burn the target sheets, call off the monitoring dogs and stop the emails.

Free their talent

If you want sustainable transformation, change the working routines of teachers. Give them the time and energy to be inspirational, creative and innovative.

I go to many schools where teachers have been completely freed from additional tasks to focus on excellence in teaching. Where school leaders protect their staff. Where meetings are focused on innovative and creative ideas for teaching that excite and engage. They do not waste their time trawling through the latest Ofsted titbit, hammering staff with progression targets or planning ridiculous Saturday morning detentions. Unfortunately these schools are not in the state sector, and most are not in the UK.

The idea that working teachers to the point of exhaustion will result in a huge increase in the number of them who are outstanding is ridiculous. There are a number of routes to being an outstanding school, many of which don't involve ignoring simple work-life balances.

Why recruit the most dedicated and enthusiastic teachers to work in the toughest communities and then work them until they don't want to teach again?

Paul Dix is touring the UK with his one-man behaviour show, keynotes and seminars. To contact him go to www.pivotaleducation.com.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


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, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today