It’s not a great time to be a classroom teacher. Tales of recruitment and retention problems abound and a recent report by the National Audit Office found that the number of teachers leaving the profession has increased by 11 per cent over the past three years.
And it’s not just a case of newly qualified staff buckling under the strain. The report also found that the proportion of staff who choose to leave before retirement has increased from 64 per cent to 75 per cent1.
Why would you abandon a job that you’ve been doing successfully for many years? While many class teachers climb the ladder into leadership roles, many more don’t. They choose to stay in the classroom and simply teach. In theory, taking this path should lead to a growth in confidence and enthusiasm for the job. Children being what they are, you’re never going to get bored or complacent – every day brings a new challenge of some sort and experience can only help with that.
But confidence and enthusiasm among experienced staff seems to be running low. Whether it’s the breathtaking pace of educational reform, the absolute obsession with evidence, data and testing, or the energysapping workload , the irony is that so much in the current climate that goes under the name of progress is exactly what’s pushing good teachers away.
It doesn’t have to be like this. With the right approach (even taking into account the current situation), school leadership teams could re-energise even their most weary classroom stalwarts. Here’s how.
CPD for all
Things are starting to change, but too many schools still see CPD as something for new teachers or those seeking promotion. For those classroom teachers aiming to stay in the classroom, there is little, if any, professional development beyond the weekly staff meeting – and any requests for extra training are usually dismissed as an unnecessary expense. This means that some teachers could go years without ever seeing another teacher teach, meeting up with staff from other schools or simply getting face-to-face training from subject experts. Given that teaching is a lifelong learning curve, it’s important that all staff get access to quality CPD. Learning new skills and finding ways to improve the skills you have can only build morale and confidence, as well as improve your teaching.
Don’t be ageist
Sadly, ageism in schools seems to be becoming an increasingly common problem. In these days of budget cuts and performance-related pay there are plenty of headteachers who see experienced (and therefore expensive) staff who choose not to move into leadership roles as hugely undesirable. With teachers who are young, malleable and cheap in high demand (preferably ones who can be fast-tracked into leadership), more experienced classroom teachers can find themselves distinctly side-lined. Whether it’s automatically choosing less experienced staff to mentor NQTs, replacing all outgoing staff with newly or recently qualified teachers, or simply showing preference for the views of younger teachers in staff meetings, it can be all too easy to send out the message that youth is the most desirable quality in teaching staff.
Only allowed to hand in planning if it’s on a school-approved template with standardised colour coding? Does your timetable get handed down from above complete with detailed instructions as to how you must spend every minute of your day? Do you have to justify every decision you make in writing, backed up with spreadsheets and data? Whether it’s fear of Ofsted or panic about teacher accountability, some school leadership teams find it nigh on impossible to keep their staff on anything but the tightest of reins.
For a very small minority of teachers, this kind of direction might be reassuring, but too much interference from on high is unlikely to play to the strengths of all. Most experienced teachers can remember a time when they were put in a classroom and told to get on with it and while it’s perfectly reasonable for school leaders to impose their vision on the staff, too much micromanagement will have a detrimental effect. Experienced staff who don’t feel trusted to make decisions are unlikely to perform at their best.
Make sure you value the classroom practitioner
Getting the best and brightest in the profession to progress up the ladder to leadership is important, but it’s equally important to keep some exactly where they are. Quite apart from the fact that schools simply won’t function if the system becomes all chiefs and no Indians, very few school leaders, however inspirational and visionary, actually teach children on a daily basis. While teaching ability is not something that comes with age (I’m sure you get as many brilliant new teachers as you do mediocre experienced ones), this is still a job in which experience helps. When it comes to behaviour management, taking children on school trips or placating angry parents, it’s a definite advantage if you’ve done it before. To fill your classrooms with newly qualified staff just because they’re young and/or cheap might just prove to be a mistake.
Jo Brighouse is a primary teacher and TES columnist