Last week, I was invited to speak to the latest cohort of training teachers at Now Teach – which helps people to switch career into teaching – for the second time. I was humbled and inspired by the wealth of experience and expertise in the room. There was a genuine, burning desire to make a difference to the lives of young people and, for many, a desire to “give back” following a successful career in marketing, the media or law.
After consulting almost 6,000 teachers during my time as a writer and researcher, I thought I’d pretty much covered all the bases of teacher wellbeing. But this cohort really got me thinking. These people had given up highly paid jobs in which they were widely respected to place themselves in the position of an amateur. You have to admit that this is quite a leap and I’d defy anyone not to respect their intentions.
There are elements of teaching that leave most of them, as experienced professionals, unfazed. Not only this, but they bring with them a wealth of skills that any school would be foolish to ignore.
One Now Teach trainee said this: “Some of the corporate mindset will be a healthy injection into the system, particularly when it comes to efficient resource use, time management, having a sense of one's own value. Learning the procedures or dealing with the office politics, or managing the expectations of other adults, such as parents or the school senior leadership team – all come fairly naturally, as they rely on techniques we learnt in the corporate world.”
Craving a uniform approach
Teachers – myself included – often complain vociferously about "overly prescriptive" practices in the classroom. But I was taken aback by the strength of feeling from many in the room that teachers should be following uniform lesson plans using the same or similar resources.
One participant said: “Why doesn’t the government just tell us what has to be taught each lesson and provide the resources? I mean, teachers could tweak it, but this would save hugely on workload.”
This gave me food for thought. In my blood and bones, I believe teaching to be a craft, a passion and a creative endeavour. But then I am reminded that it is, after all, a job, and I wonder if there is a valid point here. After all, this is what they do in France.
Unlike many school leaders, these trainees are not perturbed by either being in the presence of, or being perceived as, a maverick. In fact, there is an expectation in many professions of questioning and robust challenge, the absence of which can become a cause for concern.
The things that are dogging many teachers today in the UK often aren’t the things that are bothering these life-experienced trainees. So what are the challenges of the job, according to new Now Teach teachers?
The elephant in the room: behaviour
I felt naïve and somewhat insensitive not to have anticipated this, but the elephant in the room for some of the teachers I spoke to was pupil behaviour. Unconsciously, over the years we develop thousands of strategies, "looks" and pauses that help us to engage learners. Of course, we all know the howl of bloodlust that can accompany the sight of a new supply teacher, and much as we may bless their little cotton socks and believe in their inner goodness, we know that teenagers like to test new people. My cousin – also an experienced professional – left her first lesson in this country as a broken woman following a paper fight in a lesson in which all students insisted they were called Mohammed. This was in an outstanding-rated school.
One trainee in the Now Teach cohort gave a pretty damning insight into how he had been treated by students. “New teachers are routinely 'destruction tested' by the students, and wild, offensive behaviour is actually the norm in the first term," he said. "Paradoxically, having children of one's own can actually be a disadvantage here; my own parenting style is very different to the hard, direct approach that seems to be needed to take control of a difficult class.”
Of course, he added, he was well supported by the senior leadership team, which can make a huge difference. But we’d be foolish to deny the behavioural mountain that has to be scaled for people new to the profession, however experienced they are in other careers.
Then there’s the issue of personal investment. I think we all recognise this phenomenon and it never really gets less intense (nor should it, we might argue), but I thought this trainee put it particularly beautifully: “What is so exhausting and stressful, and probably pushes people to the brink, is this simple reality: [the teaching role] is deeply personal and requires a level of emotional attachment that does not exist in any other job. You are responsible for 30 young people who are alone in the room with you. They get attached and focus on you because that's what children do – they don't know any other way to be. Their good and bad behaviour is all connected to things they want and need from you.
"Yes, it's not personal when they misbehave because they do that to any teacher and to their parents, but at that moment when it happens, it is still you who cares about their wellbeing and learning, and both are jeopardised; it is you whose instructions they are not following; it is you who reflects on what could have been done differently.
"Teachers who don't feel that way should not be teachers. I surely wouldn't want my children to be taught at the hands of a jaded adult who couldn’t care less what they did and how much they learnt. Only good teachers think they are rubbish.”
The undervaluing of teachers in society is a concern shared by experienced newcomers and established professionals alike. As another trainee put it: “With the skillset [of a teacher], they could do any meaningless City job that's way easier for five times the income. In my view, [teachers] don't leave [the profession] because they feel underpaid. They leave because they feel undervalued – and if you are going to feel undervalued and pushed around, you might find it more comfortable to get treated badly somewhere where there is less pressure.”
Here are some other bugbears of the cohort that made me alternately smile and wince:
1. The infantilisation of professionals
“Is it because teachers spend most of their time with children that they feel they need to patronise other adults?” asked one. This was followed with a description of having a finger wagged in her face, as she was reprimanded for not responding to a (non-existent, it transpired) email.
2. The novelty of being called 'Miss' by fellow grown-ups wears off quite quickly
I winced at this. Guilty as charged. Often, of course, it’s a great cover for having forgotten someone's name, but nevertheless, I vow to do better.
3. Answer my ****ing emails!
Nobody answers my emails, bemoaned several trainees. One was sick as a dog at home one day and received not the slightest "get well soon" response to his morning email about cover work.
Dr Emma Kell is a secondary teacher in north-east London and author of How to Survive in Teaching