The pressure of understaffing is unbearable: how long can we last?

13th July 2018 at 00:00
You won’t find a more dedicated profession, but the excessive workload resulting from staff shortages is causing more and more people to consider quitting to avoid burnout, warns one secondary teacher

The Shortage of teachers is becoming obvious. Hats off to headteachers and senior managers for finding clever workarounds for the lack of staff in some subjects. Home economics is probably a unifying example, but lots of teachers I approached while writing this piece highlighted shortages in maths, English and languages (some schools have had to mothball entire language options). In many cases, there was a lack of support-for-learning teachers, especially in primary schools, where they are seen as the fast-track option for filling other staffing gaps.

Parents are aware of these issues: there is nothing wrong with honesty, and most schools are upfront about it all. With ever-decreasing options available, schools that used to operate with a small surplus of capacity, of around 60 to 80 periods of cover – three or four teachers’ worth – are now lucky to have one teacher’s worth of surplus capacity. Supply teachers are a rarity, even though pressure has returned their pay to a fairer system, and getting gaps filled is not easy.

The cheap seats

Schools, again, are often open with parents about the problems that these gaps present. They do this with the aim of explaining why children have been watching DVDs while sitting for three hours in the hall, often with condensation dripping down the windows owing to the lack of ventilation and the natural build-up of heat when 100 pupils are forced to sit on plastic chairs that make the Odeon’s cheap seats seem luxurious. One highly paid usher in this “cinema”, often a member of the senior management team, parades up and down, offering no popcorn for sale …

There is a problem brewing in our schools. Staffing is flailing in the wind, pay is starting to look like one of those boats offered as prizes on Bullseye (shiny and appealing many years ago but cringeworthy, mouldy and probably rather unfit for use now). Staff are at the end of their tether.

We have seen a lot of extra pressure being put on to the workforce: support-for-learning staff are being asked to take primary classes and abandon their usual role, as it is all about bums on seats. Those in high schools are finding that they are being forced to teach their substantive mainstream subject on top of the support-for-learning remit, without any duties being taken out. Staff are being refused collaboration opportunities because senior managers can’t afford the absence. The examples go on and on.

Recently, I heard a manager call a probationer and tell them that their observed lesson, due to start in a matter of minutes, was cancelled because of cover needs. At least the pupils all got teachers, and no DVDs, as a result of this. But it isn’t OK that we can’t afford staff time to help probationers develop. They must be observed a set number of times, and I don’t doubt this will happen, but there was an absence of staffing so this observation was binned. We all know that you aren’t supposed to make extra effort for observed lessons, but we also know that this just isn’t realistic. And so stress levels rise.

I used to listen to the whingeing and countdowns to the next holidays. I hated those noises. I did think, “Monday morning already?”, but then the first student to greet me made it all feel good. I loved my job.

Now, there are not enough staff to be able to attend events outside school, and pupils are arriving in class hyper or frustrated by their hour or two of watching TV; things have changed. That isn’t a good feeling. I am not alone in experiencing it.

The issue of staffing seems to be prevalent in discussions at every level. I was headhunted by a headteacher at another school, but I turned the offer down as it would have meant simply moving a problem of understaffing from his school to my school.

Denied relief

My partner is also a teacher, and the pressures mean that she has been too busy doing extra classes and extra development work because of the lack of staffing (while this was going on, we were redoing the Higher courses for next year). She asked to go part-time, as she is at risk of burnout. She never worked part-time during the years of having babies but was told “no”. This means that there is only one option left – to quit totally. How many people has this happened to?

Monday, Monday, a day of reflection. For the first time, one week last term, I arrived at school and wished I hadn’t. For the first time, I looked for new jobs. I am not going to make any rash decisions about quitting, as we don’t want two of us out of work with children to feed and clothe.

No, now I have simply joined the dark side, counting down to my holidays and quoting the Working Time Agreement every time I am asked to do anything.

Notice this, though: while we are overworked and underpaid, pay is not what is causing me to feel like this – it is the lack of staffing. Perhaps (just perhaps) more pay will increase the staffing again, and then I can attend the occasional course of my choosing, observe a colleague who teaches at the same time as me and possibly even keep up with course changes. Perhaps?

The writer, who wishes to remain anonymous, is a secondary teacher in Scotland

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