'It's easier dealing with drunks'

11th July 2008 at 01:00
Two out of five teachers drop out of the profession within a year of qualifying. Jonathan Milne finds a woman who prefers life as an air hostess

Two out of five teachers drop out of the profession within a year of qualifying. Jonathan Milne finds a woman who prefers life as an air hostess

Brigit Stevens has been sworn at by both aggressive inner-London primary children and drunken passengers on transatlantic flights.

She prefers the drunks.

Belligerent pupils are the reason why 31-year-old Miss Stevens has left teaching after nearly three years in London schools to start a new career as an international air hostess.

She is one of many: a year after qualifying, two out of five teachers are neither working in schools nor registered. The largest proportion have been driven out of the profession by their unhappiness with pupil behaviour, new research from England's General Teaching Council shows. Others cite family commitments and workload, and the difficulty of finding a job.

Still more say they plan to leave in the next three years, seeking the Holy Grail of better pay and better work-life balance.

Miss Stevens, a New Zealander with an interest in behavioural management, says she enjoyed the challenge of working with children from tough backgrounds. But there were neither the resources nor the space in Camden, where she worked, to give troubled pupils the help they needed. With no fields for play, teachers were forced to run them up and down the stairs to burn off energy.

"I wasn't used to 11-year-olds still throwing tantrums," she says. "They could kill you with body language, they're so aggressive."

Teachers were so overwhelmed with managing their own pupils and workloads that they were unable to help colleagues in difficulty, she says. But on long-haul flights to America and Asia, airline cabin crews work together as teams.

"If you're unable to deal with a person because they're drunk or offensive, you've got a strong team to back you up," she says. "They're in the trenches with you."

Unsurprisingly, the people management skills she had developed as a teacher transferred well to her new career - as they do to many other professions.

Perhaps that is why only 60.8 per cent of the 34,499 teachers who qualified in 2006 were registered and working in schools the following year, according to the GTC.

Experts speculated that some of those young teachers might be taking time out for travel or to raise families. But GTC research shows that most (60 per cent) are bound for new careers outside education.

Of those who had left, 19 per cent cited pupil behaviour and discipline as the reason. Others said the job market (14 per cent) and workload (12 per cent) pushed them out of the profession. "Family commitments", cited by 19 per cent, were thought by researchers to be a euphemism for workload.

The researchers - from Nottingham and Leeds universities - interviewed some resigning teachers in depth. One male primary teacher in his forties said: "The workload is exhausting because it's just week after week." And the pay was less than he expected.

A young female primary teacher reported: "The headteacher seemed to try to reduce me to tears on several occasions. He humiliated me."

Few professions keep good data on those who leave. Perhaps they would rather not know why people leave. But there is no doubt the attrition rate for teaching is very high.

A British Medical Association study showed that 10 years after doctors graduated, only 3 per cent had left the profession. One would expect fewer doctors to leave because they spend seven years gaining their qualification and the financial rewards are higher - but nevertheless the difference between doctors and teachers is stark.

The high drop-out rate is disappointing for the Government and the GTC, which want teachers to enjoy a similar status to doctors, lawyers and architects.

But Miss Stevens says the best way to raise the status of the profession is not to advertise it as something it isn't. It is better that teachers realise early if education is not for them, and take their skills elsewhere. Otherwise, the profession will be left with older teachers who discover, after 20 years, that they are stuck in a career they no longer love, with nowhere to go.


Top tips for keeping new teachers

- Initial teacher trainers: introduce trainees to the practice of critical reflection on their own work, so they are not entirely reliant on others' criticisms.

- Headteachers: make it a priority to guarantee new staff mentoring, on- the-job training in behaviour and workload management, and 10 per cent "time out" for preparation and planning.

- Colleagues: encourage positive relationships with other teachers and support staff who are important to beginners.

- Ministers: introduce new initiatives to woo people who leave back into the profession. Source: "Becoming a Teacher": GTC.

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