The year of living arduously
There is an impending crisis of recruitment. Relatively few continue to find themselves intellectually and emotionally drawn to an increasingly demanding profession. The outlook is bleak indeed if schools cannot hold on to those few.
Teaching is a difficult and stressful job. It is often said that the classroom is like a theatre, and that teachers are above all performers. The simile is illuminating, but can disguise the fact that teachers are also the scriptwriters and directors of their performances, not to mention the people in charge of props, stage management, theatre administration and crowd control. A new show must be written and performed every day, and performances somehow differentiated to meet the diverse needs of a mixed-ability audience. For five hours a day the teacher is on stage, the lead in every scene, aware that, no matter how unruly or unreceptive the audience may become, the show must go on.
And at the end of each performance there are cast meetings to attend, publicity materials to be displayed, and the next day's scripts to be written and learned. To say nothing of the piles of children's work to be marked and assessed.
For most of us, teaching is a matter of survival. We have a dim sense of what it might be like to do the job well, with infinite time and energy, adequate resources and supportive parents; but it is usually as much as we can do just to keep going. We learn to live with the fact that lessons are not properly prepared, that work is not assessed in sufficient detail, that our performances are not as inspiring or stimulating as they should be. Teachers are too aware of their failings. It is their achievements that they lose sight of.
Given these circumstances, teachers are entitled to expect the support and appreciation of the society they serve. Instead they are under constant attack. The Government and its advisers perpetuate the message that schools are filled with idle and incompetent teachers, hell-bent on failing children in every conceivable way. The effect has been to erode public confidence in teachers, undermining the trust essential to partnership between parents and schools. There has been a cynical attempt to divide and rule the profession through the introduction of grant-maintained status, school league tables and the expensive Office for Standards in Education inspection programme.
One headteacher I know likes to compare teaching to fighting in the trenches of the First World War. This image conveys the feeling of heroic struggle in adversity which currently pervades the teaching profession. Teachers have earned the right to feel heroic; but that is scarcely sufficient reason to continue working under such conditions for those of us still young enough to have a choice.
Teaching will not be an attractive option for my generation unless the situation improves. Steps must be taken to make the job more manageable. The Herculean labour of curriculum planning, presently undertaken by schools and teachers in splendid isolation, needs to be tackled collectively, perhaps through the creation of a national pool of tried and tested teaching modules. And the demands of the mixed-ability classroom will remain impossible to meet without bolder, more imaginative and better-funded approaches.
A change in the debate about education is urgently needed. It is up to politicians to effect it. The climate of suspicion must be replaced by trust. The majority of teachers are competent, committed professionals who care deeply about the quality of children's education. Standards can undoubtedly be raised in Britain's schools, but it requires policies and spending programmes which support teachers.
Even with these changes in place, teaching will remain a difficult and stressful job. But teachers will know that society is behind them. They will know that time and money are being spent to enable them to do their jobs as effectively and creatively as possible. And then they may want to stay in their chosen profession for longer than a year.
Michael Hand is currently teaching at Greston junior school, Birmingham. In the autumn he will return to educational research at Manchester University.