Why do teachers endure so much? Because we're women

If men formed the majority of the profession, would they have put up with the misery of this term? Yvonne Williams thinks not

Yvonne Williams

A woman, struggling to support an enormous boulder

This half term has been tough – relentlessly tough – for teachers. But we have kept going, because that’s our job. And because, really, what else was there to do? It wouldn’t occur to us to do otherwise.

But maybe that’s our downfall. I found my hackles rising when I read about an Education Policy Institute report focusing on a 10.6 per cent drop in the numbers of men remaining in the classroom since 2010.

Apparently, men are more responsive to wages than women, which could explain the pre-Covid drop in men applying to join the teaching profession, and the rise in those male teachers who, having joined, subsequently left. 

There was a lot of chest-beating about these figures. Such concern seems somehow mistimed, however, when seen against the pressures faced by schools across the country right now, and the vital service that – predominantly female – teachers are providing, in order to hold their communities together.

Recruitment and retention: Women are lost in the crowd

Of course, retention remains a constant concern for the future of teaching, despite a recent upsurge in applications. I don’t think it’s cynical to wonder whether there will be another mass exit of teachers, worn down by the impossible demands placed on the profession by ministers anxious to save the learning of the nation’s students – and their own reputations.

What seems to have escaped notice is that 9.8 per cent of women had also departed – hardly a statistically significantly smaller proportion. But nobody has speculated about the kinds of pressures in the classroom that might have prompted them to leave. 

Perhaps departing dissatisfied women get lost in the crowd, in a profession stuffed with other women. The nation simply takes it for granted that there will be an unlimited supply of eager female recruits to carry on – and remain – in the classroom, whatever the circumstances. 

The remaining men are more likely to be promoted to managerial roles with higher status, in charge of larger schools and academy trusts. Their voices dominate the airwaves in the national press, and their language is much more abstract and systems-focused. Men seem to be better at forming the kinds of networks that are listened to. They speak systems to systems-thinkers.

Coronavirus: Picking up the pieces

Yet it’s the teaching assistants, the teachers and heads – predominantly female – whom we see trying to pick up the pieces. Haili Hughes’s powerful article about teaching in Greater Manchester shows what it’s like to be caught in the epicentre of the pandemic. Her article captures the endurance that she and so many other teachers (largely, but not exclusively, female) are showing. 

And in Egremont Primary School, in the Wirral, the headteacher has spoken about the scale of the problem of feeding young children over weekends and holidays. Meanwhile, MPs yesterday voted against Marcus Rashford’s bid to increase free school meals over half-term. 

Somehow or other, the predominantly female “workforce” (no longer the profession) keeps delivering, making do and mending. But it’s a victim of the female virtue of conscientiousness. Still carrying the burden of performance-management on their back, while sanitising every desk in sight, classroom teachers are operating teaching in real, virtual and blended modes, in line with the authoritarian legislation to keep delivering daily learning, whatever the situation.

How long is all this sustainable, as more external demands are heaped on top of the task pile that was already over-onerous in normal times?

If men were in the majority

Obviously, studies that concentrate on the departure of men don’t set out to diminish women; that happens by default. But, by playing up the loss of departing men and homogenising the female majority, the EPI report reflects the way that society views women’s roles within schools and more widely in their localities. 

It’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that, if the men whose departure is so lamented were in the majority, things might be very different. Women endure the problems created by the situation, and are in danger of being exhausted by the unnecessary pressures of an inappropriate accountability framework. 

If the situation were reversed, and classrooms staffed predominantly by men, would the job be as ridiculously over-complicated and burdensome as it has been this term? Or would we be hearing male voices from the classroom, challenging the political discourse that allows this state of unvalued overworking not only to persist but to become unsustainable?

And might there finally be some much-needed change? 

Yvonne Williams is head of English and drama in a secondary school in the South of England. She has contributed chapters on workload and wellbeing to Mentoring English Teachers in the Secondary School, edited by Debbie Hickman (Routledge) 

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