At hell's gate with Year 10

11th March 2005 at 00:00
Pre-threshold: Coping with long hours, heavy workloads and difficult classes

Hands up if you've ever felt like quitting. Go on, hands up. That's more like it. While the Teacher Training Agency is spreading the word that teachers get to work with "most exciting people in the world", those at the chalk face may beg to differ. Exciting they may be, but children can also be the most difficult, unco-operative and frustrating people to work with.

Add to that a long-hours culture, constant change and crippling workloads and it's hardly surprising that many new teachers consider throwing in the towel.

For Nicola Deacon, it was teaching the class from hell that had her heading for the door. "I thought I'd got over the worst," says the English teacher from Hertfordshire. "I'd got through my NQT year and although I was putting in long hours, I thought I was doing OK.

"Then, at the beginning of my second year, I inherited a Year 10 class from a teacher who'd been off sick for most of the previous year.

"I expected the class to be unsettled because they'd had a string of supply teachers, but I had no idea how bad it would be. At first it was low-level disruption - people clowning around, constant interruptions - but it got worse and worse. They wouldn't listen to a word I said and carried on their conversations as if I wasn't there."

Worried her colleagues would think she wasn't coping, Ms Deacon chose to battle on in silence. She began to dread teaching the class and, when she felt she couldn't face them, even called in sick on a number of occasions.

When the sleepless nights started, she knew she had to take action. "I drafted my resignation letter, gave it to the head and the relief was amazing," she says.

But her head had other ideas. "He called me in to his office and asked me why I'd resigned. The floodgates opened. I sobbed my heart out and admitted I wasn't coping with this class. He was shocked and, I think, a bit guilty that I hadn't felt able to confide in him or another colleague.

"He reassured me that I was a good teacher, that he didn't want me to leave, and that he'd make it his business to get me the support I needed if I promised to stay and give things a try for another term. I agreed, reluctantly, and he arranged for a senior member of staff to mentor and support me."

Although most stop short of a resignation, many teachers in the early part of their career go through the "I want to quit" phase, says Gill Clayton, head of English and new teacher mentor at Great Torrington community school in north Devon. "It's important for newbies to recognise that most teachers feel like this in the early stages and, in fact, beyond," she says. "Any experienced teacher who tells you they've never felt like this is lying."

According to Ms Clayton, the key is to keep communicating.

"New teachers who feel like they can't cope shouldn't feel isolated or that they're the only ones feeling like this. They're not. It does get better and it does get easier. But it is vital to confide in someone, either your mentor, your head of department, a trusted colleague or senior member of staff."

As well as providing a listening ear, mentors and senior colleagues may also be able to offer practical advice or solutions to difficulties or challenging situations. They should also be able to reassure new teachers that they aren't the first or last teachers to find it difficult in the early years of the profession.

This worked for Colette Davies, who found juggling school and family life difficult in her NQT year. "As a single mum of three and a latecomer to the profession, I was being pushed and pulled in all directions," says the Year 3 teacher from Basingstoke.

"I got to the point where I said to the deputy head 'If I don't make some big changes, I'm going to have to resign'. She sat down with me and helped me make a list of what I was doing at work every day, then looked at how I could save time by planning ahead, delegating to classroom assistants and cutting corners, without reducing the quality of my work. She also organised some non-contact time for me each week, which has really helped."

According to James Williams, PGCE convenor at the University of Sussex, unhappy teachers need to ask themselves some tough questions.

"Resign in haste, repent at leisure," he says. "Teachers who find themselves in this position need to try and work out what exactly it is that's bothering them. If difficulties with colleagues are at the root of the problem, they need to talk things through with a non-judgmental colleague.

"It may be that the problem is boredom. In which case, it might be time to discuss the possibility of taking on more responsibility with senior colleagues.

"The other question to ask yourself is if you're in the right school. There are many different kinds of schools out there. Would you thrive better in a different kind of school?"

As Ms Deacon says: "I had to ask myself whether I was committed enough to teaching to face my problems head on. With the support of a senior colleague, I was able to turn that class around.

"That restored my confidence, and although it's hard work, I do love my job. If I'd given up without a fight, I'm sure I would have regretted it."

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