Shock to the system

27th February 2015 at 00:00

Twelve years of teaching, and it took two and a half months in a British secondary school to make me reconsider my vocation.

Arriving in coastal Norfolk to teach at an academy, I thought I had no illusions about what I was about to face. I had recoiled in mock horror at the tales of sudden Ofsted inspections. I'd followed every twist and turn of the "Trojan Horse" case, amazed at the contortions of the government. I understood that this would be a much more data-driven system than the Australian and International Baccalaureate systems I had worked in before. I had prepared myself. Boy, was I naive.

It was when members of the senior leadership team appeared in the corner of my room for the fourth time in three weeks, clipboards in hand, that I began to question what was going on in British classrooms. I'm no stranger to observations and I enjoy feedback on my teaching, but I found the constant scrutiny restrictive. There was a determined urge to ensure that all my classes hit a certain number of "notes".

This was in stark contrast to my years in the Australian system, where a common understanding had us shaping our own classes to suit their strengths and weaknesses. Didn't capture the learning today? No peer marking? That's OK - we can do that next time.

Spending meetings hunched over spreadsheets full of levels also clashed with my years in Australian public schools. It seemed inconceivable to me that our focus should be on shifting the numbers, whereas our strategic process back home always began with discussions of class dynamics and the needs of individual students. Sure, not every kid hit their end-of-year target. But they did know that their teachers knew how to bring out their best.

I guess, at the heart of things, I missed two separate but equally important aspects of my teaching.

The first was autonomy and trust in my ability to gauge my students' needs. Instead, I was handed a recipe and told to follow it to the letter. When I didn't, I heard about it.

The second was the sense of connection with students. Instead of an egalitarian, positive rapport, I felt I was being asked to erect arbitrary, unnecessary barriers. I felt that in having conversations with young people, I was somehow betraying a secretive brotherhood.

I experienced the absence of these two things fiercely. To begin with, it manifested in a growing weariness and sense of disconnection. Then I actively began to feel anxious. Coupled with mountains of marking, it had a significant impact on my health. That horrible questioning that gnaws away at the soul in the wee, small hours began to appear.

I knew that I loved teaching and would always be dedicated to increasing the understanding of young people, which is why I decided to find somewhere else to work. I did a lot of research to ensure that my next school aligned with my values as an educator and produced happy, healthy kids, not numbers.

It worked. I am now much, much happier.

Mike Stuchbery teaches history, geography and PSHE at East Point Academy, Lowestoft

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