At the end of this year, I’ll have spent five years in this teaching game. In this time, I’ve seen so many teachers I’ve trained and worked with leave the classroom for good. And yet I’m still here. Am I the unusual one?
Statistics from the Department for Education show that around 30 per cent of new teachers left the classroom between 2012 and 2017 and that we have the lowest number of teachers since 2013. Conversations online and in person reveal the reasons you’d expect: workload is too high, pay is too low, the contrast between the "Get into Teaching" Instagram profile and the exhausted-permanently-covered-with-purple-ink reality is too stark… we know all this.
In 2018, the DfE said that the three key reasons people were giving for leaving were "workload, government policy and lack of support from leadership". It also noted that "not enough early career teachers receive the support they need to build a successful career".
Support makes a huge difference: with more content to teach to ever-growing classes and less staff and money to deliver even basic lessons, it’s no surprise that teachers don’t have time to support newbies.
It’s also no surprise that keen, efficient (and, quite often, broke and needing a pay rise) trainees get quickly funnelled into roles that aren’t right for them far too early on.
If it’s not the lack of support that drives a teacher away, then it’s because they’ve burned out.
In other industries, coaching models discuss the importance of focused, personal improvement time and buddies. Why are we getting it so wrong?
Well, meet Rosie. She completed her school-centred initial teacher training at the same time as me, and left the profession after her initial teacher training (ITT) year.
She graduated in music and drama and has a room-filling personality. She told me that she’ll "never return" to the classroom and now happily works in PR.
When Rosie started ITT she was excited to share her two biggest loves with teenagers – and was left devastated to find that teaching wasn’t everything she’d hoped for. She left feeling totally burned out.
Lack of support
Despite training to teach the arts, she struggled with the "constant big show and dance" that trainees often feel compelled to perform throughout training. She felt that she never settled into her own personality in front of students.
The pressure was difficult, too. She told me: “No one gets into teaching to fill out spreadsheets. I couldn’t believe that ITT was as good as my career was going to get in terms of time and support. The idea of having to get through more lessons, more data, more pressure – I just couldn’t do it.”
At her PR firm, Rose works alongside three other former teachers who all cite similar reasons for leaving. Sadly for the profession, they are all happier outside of the classroom. They love the time they can give to their jobs, their lives and their families. And the wages? Significantly higher than they were in education.
Shortcuts over substance
Now let me introduce to you to Leonie. She taught secondary English.
Leonie made it to the golden five-year point, but left shortly afterwards. I was lucky enough to work with her for two amazing years and witness so much incredible teaching in her classroom. She left the UK in July 2018, is now teaching abroad and happier than ever.
She entered the profession aware of the statistics, but wasn’t deterred. Her and her fellow trainee teachers “were passionate about teaching and helping young people, enjoying both the challenges and successes of the job”.
But with the introduction of the new GCSEs, declining results and pressure to fill sixth form, the workload rose substantially over her time in her school. But it wasn’t workload that pushed her out of the door. She left because she felt that most of the time, the work she was doing was having a limited impact on the students.
She said that staff were shown "shortcuts" to try and help to manage the workload. These amounted to spending less time planning and resourcing lessons (but she had to have the stuff "to show" completed, such as data entry, skim marking and intervention forms). For Leonie, It just didn't make sense to spend less and less time on the things that actually helped students to progress.
“I entered a sort of survival mode in order to get through the workload, but it became increasingly obvious to me that my teaching, and so the progress of the students, was suffering as a result. I felt I was no longer doing a good enough job to stay as a full-time teacher,” she said.
And now to me. I’m Lauran. I teach English in a secondary school. I understand how my colleagues leaving the profession feel. I’m tired.
I’m tired of thinking of my amazing Year 11 students – who have spent two years working so hard – as bits of data.
I’m tired of waking up every morning and running through the same list of questions: what’s X’s target grade? What’s their working grade? How will I close that gap? What other lunchtimes, afternoons, evenings and weekends can I give up to help them?
I’m tired of how much other stuff there is to do (emails/meetings/tutor group admin… it goes on). It’s no surprise I can’t stay up past 10pm and spend the first 3 days of any holiday sleeping.
Mentally, a shift has happened though. For my most recent observation, I received a "good with outstanding features". It was my first not "outstanding" observation for a really long time. And then I realised I didn’t care.
It wasn’t an all-singing-all-dancing one-off lesson where I proved "progress" in 55 minutes: it was one of a planned series, and someone saw one little puzzle piece of a nine-month plan of how I’m going to help those Year 8s in front of me. The powers that be could grade it however they liked (as we know, observations are subjective) but I wasn’t going to spend hours on a useless card sort and disrupt my actual teaching for these arbitrary standards.
I know, more strongly than ever, that I love working with teenagers. Their energies and characters inspire me every day.
I’ve got a growing desire to follow in Leonie’s footsteps and work outside of the UK. I’ve read about people who have gone to work in Africa, Asia and Italy, and I have a desire to make a difference beyond my four walls and feel it might be time for a break.
Ultimately, I want to take that love and passion – which has only grown over the past five years – and channel it into a field where I feel that both I and the students matter beyond spreadsheets. Until the pressure starts to let up in England, maybe that’s the secret to staying in teaching for more than five years.
And perhaps if Rosie was given the support when she most needed it, she’d be in my shoes, too. Ones that are itching for a change, but not ready to step out of the classroom altogether.
Lauran Hampshire is a secondary school English teacher in England