Saturday 23 March 2013

Blogsync 3: A candle in the darkness or a forklift in the library

Why do so many teachers leave after a few years of training?
This is my response to this month's blog synch. Check out more here.

A doctor’s job is finished when the patient is healed.
A chef’s job is finished when the meal is cooked.
A detective’s job is finished when the criminal is arrested.
A mechanic’s job is finished when the car is fixed.
A shop assistant’s job is finished when the shop is closed.
A teacher’s job is never finished.

Before some people reading this assume that I am reducing the whole of these valuable occupations to a mere point, I am not. I know how important these roles are and how complex they are. I also know how they are swamped by bureaucracy. But, generally, when these occupations finish work, they finish work. The doctor doesn’t go home and write a letter to a patient saying how impressed they were with how they behaved in the surgery. The mechanic doesn’t go home and then write a report on how hatchback cars generally underperform in relation to other cars. The shop assistant doesn’t go home and plan a new layout for the clothes as some items are not selling because customers cannot see them. Most occupations leave work at work. Teaching doesn’t. There, I think lies one of the problems for people entering the world of teaching.

What about the holidays? In truth, the holidays are great, but what most people forget or ignore or don’t know about is that the job extends outside of the classroom. On average, I will work past nine o’clock most nights. I will work for a large part of a Sunday planning and marking. It isn’t because I am a slow worker; it’s because the job demands it. If a set of books are not marked, I can’t push the students further. If I don’t plan the lesson carefully, then the class could miss out on a valuable learning opportunity. The holidays are great, but they are where I can get back my ‘down-time’, my relaxing time. Or, the holidays are just another chance for me to do some more work. I’d love a camera crew to follow me for a term and watch what teaching involves. Most people when they have a two week holiday will not do any work. It is a break. It is a chance to refresh their batteries. A teacher will have some marking to do. A teacher will plan. A teacher may even go into school to sort some resources out. This isn’t something that people in other occupations do. They have that mental padlock. It locks as soon as they leave work.

You could be reading this thinking that I have no understanding of ‘real work’. Sadly, I do.  A friend at school once said to me, ‘Is there anything you haven’t done?’. I did not leave university and start a PGCE. In fact, I saw quite a bit of the business world. In fact, I spent years in it. I worked in a call centre for a year, selling insurance. I spent just under three years working for a building firm on a graduate programme. I even spent time in a factory, making boxes. The common thing in all of those jobs was that when the job was done, it was done. I could walk away and live to see another day. I can vividly recall watching the clock tick away with my coat on ready to go home.

Psychologically, the job’s demands are taxing on established teachers let alone anyone new coming into the job.  They don’t know the ropes. The ropes have no end and they are knotted and constantly moving. Some will leave for this reason alone. Another reason is for the benefits. I have friends who earn more than me, and they work at home some days. Furthermore, some of them have something called ‘flexi-time’. They can leave early on a Friday if they need to. Gosh, the grass does sound greener on the other side. Plus, they might get paid a bonus if they do really well. My brother-in-law often gets bonuses of more than £1000. Yeah, but I’m not in it for the money. But, if you are a young career minded person, then all these factors will influence you. It is a difficult job that you rarely get on top of and there aren’t that many perks – unless unlimited supply of lined paper and pens are perks for you.  

So, there are no perks and you have very little free time during term time. You can live with that. The money isn’t that bad compared to some jobs. That is true. However, other jobs have a consistent daily routine. John goes for his daily toilet break at 10am. Jenny always pops out at 11.15am to visit the bank and get sarnies for lunch. In schools, there is a routine, but real life interrupts it. I don’t have a steady day. I know what I am teaching and who I am teaching, but there could be a number of things that stops the flow of the day. There might be a fight a lunchtime. There might be a student crying over something at home. There might be a student being bullied. There might be a fire alarm.  In other jobs, there has been a consistent day. Life didn’t get in the way. So when you are new to teaching, getting used to the ebbs and flows of life in a school is hard.  Wind, snow, rain, sun and hail all have a dramatic impact on teaching and the behaviour of students. Sadly, Ofsted don’t take these factors when judging teaching, as all of these can change the simple routine of a day.

Yeah, but then you have other people with you and it is the people that make the job bearable. I have been at my loneliest I have ever been in teaching.  For twenty one or less hours a week, it is you on your own in the classroom. Yes, you have the students to teach. But, some days you may never see an adult. A like minded person.  When people apply for a job as a teacher, the skills they show off their skills of working with people. Yet for most of the week they will not work with people.  They will work in isolation and separated from other teachers by classrooms. I think humans can deal with most things, if they can whinge or moan about it with some friends. I have in the past. You often have a bad day and you need to offload it somehow. That’s where friends come in. However, you need to find them. Some big schools are so big that these friendships are rarely formed and people don’t feel comfortable because of the pecking order in their department.  If I moan, it shows weakness.

Being on your own isn’t that bad. You always have the students to talk to. As long as the whole school is supportive, you can live with this. But, sadly some are not. There does seem to be a train of thought about ‘sink or swim’ with some NQTs. It is tough. You have to learn the hard way. Speaking from experience outside education, this is one of the most flawed ideas in education. You never give Year 1 students a copy of ‘War and Peace’ to read, because you are separating the wheat from the chaff by doing that. However, I do think in some schools there is this train of thought is going on in some of the decisions. Some of these decisions are made by people who escaped the classroom as soon as they could and became member of 'management'. (Note: I don't think this is the case of all and most people in management) All the nice things are kept for the experienced and established teachers and all the ‘difficult’ things are given to the newer members of staff. How many NQTs are given the low sets? How many NQTs are given top sets? Top sets at times can teach themselves, yet the low sets need several suitcases of tricks for behaviour, engagement that a new member of staff will not always have. I walked out of my job in the building industry because the man in charge of me treated me in exactly that way. Rather than nurture my talents, he gave me every terrible job possible. He sat on his bottom getting fatter and fatter while I did all of his work for him. I left and I have a sense of pride from doing that.

In my seven years of teaching, I have been shouted at, ignored, isolated and insulted by teachers. Thankfully, none of these have taken place in my current school. The teachers may have all been under some pressure. Maybe, they were having a tough time. But, surprisingly, I was too, and their actions never helped me, as a young teacher. The strangest one is the teacher that insulted me. I had just returned from a funeral of a relative, when one of the students in my tutor group told me about the teacher who covered my registration. The students asked where I was. The teacher replied that I had been, ‘involved with something to do with sheep’. Gobsmacked, I stormed straight to SLT, who fudged up the incident by trying to defuse the situation and telling me he meant that I was ‘feeding sheep’.  I got my apology from him (the idiot), but with colleagues like that who needs enemies. There have also been times in teaching where I have witnessed fallouts over sharing cupboards, display boards and the use of set texts.

Why do people leave teaching?  The workload? The perks? The constant changes? The isolation? The management? Very little rewards? The staff? They all may have some influence, but the biggest is about ‘making mistakes’. It is ironic that this blog is called ‘learning from my mistakes’, because I think NQTs and new teachers should be embracing mistakes. Yet, the culture that we have is about producing perfect teachers from day one. I was not perfect when I started. I don’t even think I am perfect now. I am better than I was then.  That is progress.

Sadly, I have been in situations where I have been scared of making a mistake because others would frown at me. They would tut verbally or mentally. I have heard so many times the follow phrase, ‘I wouldn’t do it like that’. When there is a culture of perfection around you it is so hard to think logically.  You start by feeling inadequate and end by feeling inadequate. This is then exaggerated by the fact that you don’t see the other teachers teaching from one lesson to another and see the pratfalls that happen to all teachers. Then, all those other elements I have talked about kick in. The isolation makes it worse. The workload means you can’t see the end of things. The perks of other jobs seem more tempting. The staff are too busy to help and support – one is just plain rude to you. The management dictate a new initiative for you to do. All these then make you ask that one question: Is it really worth it?

Let’s change how we treat new teachers. Share in our mistakes. Explain how becoming excellent teachers takes time. Share the idea that you cannot be outstanding every time and right from the start of your teaching career.  We don’t expect students to master a skill the first time they use it. The GCSE course is a two year course. The idea being that students progress over time. Let’s treat NQTs as being a course. A three. A four. A five year course. At the end of that time, they should be good, excellent or outstanding.  And it seems that I am not the only one to think that as this other blogsync agrees.

Oh, dear must go. Mr Ofsted has arrived:

Mr Ofsted: Hello. I am just going to ask you a few questions. What level are you working at?  
Me: It depends. Sometime good. Sometimes good with outstanding features. Sometimes outstanding when you are not breathing down my neck.
Mr Ofsted: What’s your target?  
Me:  Outstanding. No, ignore that. Brilliant.
Ofsted: Do you know what to do to improve?
Me: Umm, not really.
Ofsted: Ah, let me mark down your teacher as being a bad teacher. This clearly can’t be a good or outstanding lesson.
Me:   Actually, in a way you are the teacher in this case. You tell me what I need to do.
Ofsted: Ummm. Errr. Ummmm.
Me: That’s the problem, is it? How do you quantify something that isn’t concrete?
Ofsted: Ahhh, you haven’t put any PE into this lesson. I will now mark you down.
Me: This is an English lesson.
Ofsted: Yes, but we think you need to have some aspect of PE in your lesson for it to be an outstanding lesson.

I love my subject and that is why I love teaching and I try to put a lot of 'the crap' in a box in my head and just get on with things. From time to time, I do ask myself, ‘Is it really worth it?’. Most days it is, but there is the odd day when it isn’t and that is usually a day when Mr Gove speaks.

Thanks for reading,

P.S. Why a forklift in a library? I think I must be one of the few English teachers that has a licence to drive a forklift truck. Part of my training for being in the building industry was using a forklift. I am still waiting for the moment when I need to step up and use this unqiue skill for an English teacher.


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  2. Will be directing some of my NQTs towards this post - excellently put. Thank you!

  3. Thank you. The NQTs might like my other post 'a letter to an NQT'.


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