Teacher Retention : More Than Just An Image Problem

This is long. If you don’t like long, don’t read it. If anyone posts a comment saying “It’s too long”, after reading this warning, they’re a bit silly. It’s also personal: you’re reading essentially my internal argument about whether – and when – to give up teaching. As such, it’s a rambling muse more than an impassioned rant. It may prompt some thoughts about what we can, or should, do to retain experienced teachers. Or it may not. Sorry if anyone is disappointed by the absence of shouting. However, I make up for that by linking all my sub-headings to appropriate cheesy pop songs. Can’t say fairer than that.

This morning, Nicky Morgan was quoted (rather bizarrely) as blaming the teacher recruitment problem on “the media” . This is, of course, a story which can be used to redefine the terms “brass neck”, “chutzpah” and “total and complete absence of self-awareness” for future generations, coming, as it does, from the woman who wasted no time after the election to deliver a bill designed to address “failing” and “coasting” schools, and a much-publicised commitment to sack “failing headteachers”. And of course, we don’t need to go back into “blobby”, “enemies of promise” Gove. Please God, don’t make us go back to Gove.

Let’s give Morgan the benefit of the doubt, and assume that there’s been no impact of the last 5 years of being told that teachers are so shockingly poor that they need carpet salesmen , failed journalists and dodgy hedge-fund shysters with odd links to assaulted Lithuanian prostitutes, to show them how to do their jobs. Likewise, the endless tough-sounding speeches making damning-but-pointless comparisons with other countries, the very public attacks on teachers’ pay and conditions through PRP and pension cuts, and the official policy that teaching is such a piece of piss that nobody actually needs to be qualified to do it – anyone can walk in off the street and do a better job than these so-called “professionals”. Yes, none of that had any impact, Nicky, none of it. You’re right about the media – it’s all their fault.


Morgan tries to work out how many teachers she needs to keep

There is something she’s right about though, and that is the forthcoming teacher shortage. I’ve written about this before and lo, it has come to pass. I’d love to claim that I was particularly prescient, but every bugger with eyes in their head and a brain to think with, has seen this one coming for a while. We’ve a lot more kids coming through, so we need more teachers, just at a time when the economy is picking up (never great news for teacher recruitment), teachers’ pay has been decreasing fairly rapidly in real terms making it uncompetitive, and the government has, for its own batty ideological reasons, decided to utterly trash the previously functioning teacher recruitment and training system. So focused have Gove and She-Gove been on creating their beloved privatised “market” of schools, that they forgot that there’s no point having lovely branded chains of edufranchises (previously known as schools) each with a dozen personal flags of a Tory donor outside, or free schools in every disused warehouse run by any religious nut or megalomaniac fantasist you can find, if you can’t put enough teachers in front of the classes.

Schools outside the major metropolitan areas are already finding it extremely difficult to recruit anyone, and even in the cities the traditional gold-dust Physics and Languages teachers are now being joined on the shortage list by normally plentiful English and Geography teachers. Speaking to someone high up in one of the remaining Universities with a teacher training programme, I was told recently that even prospective History teachers are now in short supply. Believe me, when History teachers are in short supply, you’ve REALLY got a problem – we’re like the cockroaches of the school workforce. I’m very secondary focused, but I understand in the primary sector, headteacher applicants are now so rare that packs of governors are wandering around our towns with large nets, hoping to catch their next candidate.


Baby if you’ve got to go away
Don’t think I can take the pain
Won’t you stay another day

So the panic behind Morgan’s attack on the media this morning is entirely justified, even if her target is somewhat misplaced. Attention is thus duly – and belatedly – turning to recruitment and retention. Let’s be honest, though, mostly it’s been about recruitment. After all, what’s not to like about shiny, idealistic graduates, fresh out of university, desperate to work themselves into nervous breakdowns to repair the damage they know all the useless old teachers have been doing to the students (the media told them so)? The problem is, they’re running out. Which suggests we might need to look at retention. The Govian government haven’t been so hot on retention, as we older types tend to be (a) more expensive, (b) more opinionated, and (c) more resistant to the idea that we should live in the stock cupboard and not have any children of our own, as that might prevent us working 24/7/52. Still, as my old Yorkshire housemate used to say, “Needs must, when the devil farts in your teapot” (of course, I have no idea what this means, nevertheless I like to say it and watch students’ faces do the human equivalent of the Blue Screen of Death; but I digress).

I suspect we existing teachers are about to be verbally lovebombed, in a desperate attempt to keep us at our whiteboards until Osborne can manufacture the next depression and get the Conveyor Belt of Youth Lacking Other Opportunities running from our Universities again. The problem is, with school budgets being cut dramatically (still can’t quite believe this fact on the ground hasn’t been noticed by the media yet), there’s no cash for anything real like increased pay, reduced workload or sabbaticals. Indeed, most governors and headteachers will know only too well that the next few years promise to be a game of “Stretchy-Poundy”, with decreased non-contact time, increased class-sizes, and pretending that Textbooks are A Bad Pedagogical Thing, when really it’s just that we can’t afford any. So how do we do it ? How do we persuade those crusty old gits to stick around?

Well, reader, here I can help, because I am one of those crusty old gits, and I am currently looking for a way out. I’d say it’s more a case of The Shawshank Redemption than The Great Escape, in that I’m trying to approach this methodically, and make sure I’ve got a post-classroom plan which doesn’t involve food banks, rather than simply dashing for the gap in the wire. But I’m aware that I’m spending an increasingly significant portion of my daydream time trying to work out how to leave teaching. Some of these plans are starting to look half-possible, and so I thought I’d do a service for Morgan, and set out the push and pull factors which are at work here.

The first thing to note is that there’s no single over-riding issue. I do worry a bit about some of the “Secret Teacher”-type stories, which could basically be paraphrased as “I hate THIS THING, and because nobody is doing something about THIS THING, I’m off”. I don’t think major life decisions, like ending a career, should be taken on a whim or as a reaction to what might be a short-term development.

Secondly, I’m not going to do that “I’m an outstanding teacher, so you’ll all be sorry to lose me, you bastards” thing which is often the precursor to the Secret Teacher Moan-Of-The-Week. I know why they do it – it’s to get your retaliation in first against the Below-The-Line trolls, who will probably post their first message involving the word “failure” within 5 seconds of publication. I just think it’s irrelevant. It seems to me the issue of whether I’m super-dooper or plain old average is neither here nor there, anyway : we need bodies in our schools, and if we happily wave goodbye to anyone who isn’t an OFSTED-approved classroom demi-God, then that’s not helping. I’m not an outstanding teacher (think I said this before ), I’m just a teacher. Over eleven years I’ve averaged a little less than 1 day per year sick, I have no discipline problems, I do the things I’m supposed to do, and the students I teach get broadly what people expect them to get. I’m sure there’s better out there, and I’m sure there’s worse. Right now though, we need them all.


I’m suggesting this as the permanent masthead for “Secret Teacher” in The Guardian

So what’s driving the desire to escape? Let me summarise. These are in no particular priority order, and – as I always say to my students – you can’t simply count the number of arguments on both sides; different arguments may have different weights.

When your pride is on the floor
I’ll make you beg for more
Stay with me

Reasons to Stay

The students. I think my students are great. They make me laugh on a daily basis. They’re kind, curious, interested and interesting. I love that winning combination of attempted teenage cynicism with hopeless and clueless naiveté. I actually look forward to lessons with nearly all my classes, basically because I like the students. My school hasn’t adopted this growing model of “Let’s pretend to be a North Korean military school run by childophobic sadists”, and so relations between staff and students are overwhelmingly warm, caring, friendly and mutually respectful. I recognise that this doesn’t fit with the media’s depiction of battered teachers being bullied by semi-feral youths. Maybe I’m lucky. I like that every day has enough differences not to be too samey, and even teaching the same lesson can be different because of the different students. I hate being bored, and I’m rarely bored with the students. I will miss them when I go.

Colleagues. My Department is top notch. If I had one departing tip for Heads of Department, it’s that you only have one really important job : get the right people. Forget the spreadsheets, the targets, the Improvement Plans and all the rest of the managerialist chaff which will shower down upon you as the price for your pitiful TLR. Get the right people, and you, your colleagues, and your students, will fly. Get the wrong ones, and misery will ensue for all. I have had to fight and win some brutal battles (including with my ex-Head) over recruitment, but they’ve all been worth it. In any emotionally testing job, having the right team is vital. Too much focus is placed on the supportiveness of “leaders” these days, as if support only travels up or down. While that’s important, on a daily basis it doesn’t come close to the importance of horizontal support from your colleagues. My Department are great, and so are the rest of the staff in my school. A good bunch of people I don’t really want to leave.


The History Department puts its expertise to good use in planning the mass exit

Being useful. I think the whole “vocational calling” thing can be overdone a bit. I didn’t dream of being a teacher from a young age. I did, however, always have a desire to somehow make a contribution to wider society. That goal saw me join the civil service and subsequently become a teacher, despite the fact that my first job as a chartered accountant in a private firm was significantly easier and better paid (although boring as all hell – sorry accountants – I’m just not cut from the right cloth). Basically, I’ve just never had any interest in making huge piles of cash, winning any status-based conspicuous consumption contests, or being famous. When I’m gasping my last, I’d rather people said “he was a good man, contributed to his community, and made a positive difference to some individuals”, rather more than “He had a really successful property business, we’re visiting him in the private ward, and that 21-year-old Ukrainian over there is his fifth wife”. There’s no way of saying that without sounding pompous and pious, for which I’m sorry, but I’m not alone in this. I’ve met a lot of people in education who feel this way. Not everyone, of course, but I have often wondered whether this common values-system is one reason why usually rich, ambitious politicians rarely seem to understand the teaching profession.

Working in the public sector. Some people are now thinking I’m making this up, but I’m not. I’ve worked in the private sector, but always preferred the public. Not, as the BTL trolls would have it, because of “gold-plated pensions”, easy-street workload, and 25 weeks of paid sick-leave every year. Rather it’s connected to the previous point : I like the concept that I’m working for my community – for my fellow citizens. I get genuine satisfaction from that. If that makes me a weirdo, then so be it. I could never work for one of the edubusiness chains, because I would resent enormously the idea that I was simply a hired minion of Daniel “Greedy Bastard” Moynihan, and would hate the fact that he was taking a large slice of the value of my labour to buy his next wig. Whereas working for my local authority, or my governing body with its majority of parents, I feel like I’m a professional doing a job for my community. As I say, I don’t expect anyone in the Parliamentary Conservative Party to understand this.

Stability. I like stability. I have a mortgage and three dependent children. I like to know that, short of suddenly becoming utterly useless, or dropping my trousers on stage during an assembly, I can be reasonably confident that there’ll be a payment into my bank next month which will allow us to eat, clothe ourselves, and stay dry. I know there are lots of people who say they like the whole business of flitting from job to job, picking up freelance here and there, or even supply teaching. Good for them. I’m not one of them. Nothing is guaranteed, of course, and if Harris were to expand their evil empire into my school, I’d immediately fail the competency proceedings (Section 3 : Anyone Over 30 Is Incompetent). But in a world where reasonably secure jobs are increasingly rare, teaching has the inestimable advantage of being a job which even Cameron and his friends haven’t yet found a way to abolish. This is a very strong attraction for people like myself in mid-life with a bunch of responsibilities – do away with it at your peril !


I guess now it’s time for me to give up
I feel it’s time

Reasons to Go

Marking. Hate it. Hate it. Hate it. Hate it. Hate it. Hate it. Hate it. Hate it. Hate it. Hate it. Hate it. Hate it. Hate it. Hate it. Hate it. Hate it. Hate it. Hate it. Hate it. Hate it. Hate it. Hate it. Hate it. Hate it. Hate it. Hate it. Hate it. Hate it. Hate it. Hate it. Hate it. Hate it. Hate it. Hate it. Hate it. Hate it. I know it has to be done, but I’ve reached the point where I would rather self-harm than mark another twenty AS-essays on why Thatcher was evil, or thirty GCSE responses explaining whether Koch was more important than Pasteur. This is a serious point : if I never had to mark another book or essay, I would probably not be considering leaving teaching yet.

Bullshit. I once skewered one of my civil service promotion panels when I was asked “What one thing would you change about the Department?”, to which I responded “I’d cut out all the pointless bullshit”. I think I was having a bad day. Anyway, compared to schools, the DFE was a streamlined machine without an inch of extraneous administrative fat. Dear God, to list all the things schools do which have less value than the time/labour cost of doing them would enough to break the internet. Just think of all those spreadsheets with targets everyone knows are mad but have to be there because of the linear progress insanity ? Or those Departmental/School Improvement Plans which you don’t look at from one year to the next ? The staff briefings where a colleague spends five minutes telling you they’re going on a trip, or about the friendship problems of a student 90% of you don’t teach and have never met; that’s why they invented email ! Or the conversations about “What are you doing for this child who isn’t on target?” to which the only answer is “teaching them, for the same number of timetabled hours, in the same class, doing the same exam, as all the other students, [because if I knew a better way of doing something, I’d already be doing it, I wouldn’t just wait for them to do badly before whipping out my Patented Guaranteed Success Method]” ! The directions to mark only in green pen. The endless and pointless battles over uniform. The assemblies (oh God, the assemblies). Homework for the sake of homework. I’m stopping now as that vein in my forehead has started to pulse.

Freedom. I miss freedom. I miss being able to decide when to take lunch, and having the occasional long one. I miss being able to take holidays outside peak times. I miss the occasional day where I would roll up at 9.30 and then stay a bit longer to make up. I miss being able to work from home every now and then. I miss being able to decide which piece of work I’m going to do next. I miss being able to decide what to wear. I miss knowing I can have a slow day at work today because I feel ill, because I can make it up tomorrow when I feel better. I miss being around my workplace without feeling a sense of constant responsibility to police it. Teaching is a pretty unrelenting, inflexible job, in which you have very little control over your time from Monday morning to Friday afternoon. I won’t miss that.

Failure. Those who can, do, those who can’t, are me. I hate this phrase, and I despise the people who use it. However, let me share with you a dark and unpleasant secret : it’s got to me. Whereas I happily laughed this sort of bollocks off when I started, I have now got to the stage where no matter how much I reject this logically, there’s a worm of self-hatred within me which is whispering “You’re 45 and you’re a teacher. You Loser.” No matter how much I can point to studies which show that teachers are highly trusted by the public, I am not immune to the zeitgeist. That zeitgeist is simply that after decades of teacher-bashing by Ministers going back to the 1980s, and endless inaccurate media stories about how rubbish our schools are, I’m aware that Joe Public has managed to adopt one of those slightly odd mindsets which allows them to think all their own child’s teachers are great, and their school is super, but every other teacher is shit, and all the other schools are rubbish. At gatherings of old university friends, “What are you doing now?” is the standard question. Most answers elicit further questions, significant interest. Reply “I’m a teacher”, and the response : pause, frown, “oh. That’s tough”; move on. I think I’ve picked up an air of slightly patronising superiority from parents who turn up from their “real” jobs to talk to the useless failure who had to become a teacher. Or have I ? Did I imagine that ? Does it matter, because that very paranoia suggests that at some level I’ve internalised this message and now expect to be considered a failure by other adults ? This is difficult stuff. I’m happy not to be considered a success by what I think of as fairly shallow standards : cash, fame etc. But that’s not the same as being comfortable with the thought that most of my fellow adults consider me a failure. I’d love to tell you I’m gloriously immune to such things. I’m not.


Sounds great, but do I still believe it ? (The first part, that is. The second part is self-evidently true)

Never doing enough. I feel caught in a pincer movement at times. One the one side, you have the DFE and their Diktats of Madness, and Ofsted’s Clowns-In-Training service, pumping out what feels like a weekly instruction from one Fuhrerbunker or another : make them all stand up; do a three- part lesson, don’t do a three-part lesson; differentiate, don’t differentiate; triple-mark, don’t triple-mark; etc etc. But no less exhausting is the barrage of good intentions from those who are most certainly not on Gove or Wilshaw’s Christmas Card list. The “evidence-based” or “research-based” community are mostly made up of people who I agree with in lots of ways. But a quick perusal of twitter on any given day can be a profoundly depressing experience : “Dweck says this; Maslov argues that; evidence supports this; but also that; no excuses cultures; growth mindsets; skills-based; knowledge-based; child-led; teacher-led; research project; what’s your evidence for that?”. All these incredibly keen people with so much more energy and time than I seem to have, which they devote to reading and writing educational research papers and attending conferences, coupled with the sort of online flirting which, frankly, I’m too old for. To which I think : “I’ve got about 150 kids in a range of classes from Y9 to Y13, most of whom I see for less than three hours a week in classes of 20-30. To be a proper teacher, I should be writing up a blind-sampled research study on the different degrees of progress made by students from varied socio-economic backgrounds based on differentiated work, while maintaining a wall filled with motivational slogans and the sort of endlessly encouraging smile only ever found on American burger-flippers off their faces on amphetamines”. Yet I struggle to learn all of their names by October !

I could handle not doing the stuff DFE/Ofsted want me to do. But I also can’t do the stuff which the well-meaning people want me to do. Essentially, it doesn’t matter what your version of “best practice” is, I can’t do any of them ! My predecessor, a wily old bird (and an actual Lady – wife of a “Sir” – who features in my filthiest anecdote from the school, which sadly is actually too filthy for me to share online), warned me of this when, at the end of my NQT year, she handed over the keys to the Head of Department’s cupboard before disappearing off to teach part-time at the nearest very posh girls’ private school. “You’ll never do enough,” she said “so you have to try to live with constant failure”. She was right, the old bugger. And I’m just so very sad at not being able to do my job as well as I apparently should be doing it.

“Leadership”. I happily worked the first 14 years of my adult life in a variety of voluntary, private and public workplaces, and never once heard anyone refer to themselves unironically and unembarrasedly as a “leader”. This has changed over my teaching career. When I started, I would have included in my list of “reasons to stay” the word “professionalism”. I liked the fact that I was a trained, independent professional, who was expected to exercise discretion and to apply his judgment in the service of his students. It wasn’t quite full independence, but it was certainly a “professional” role as I saw it. In ten years, “professionalism” has been redefined to mean “do what you’re told, without complaining, preferably in exactly the same way as everyone else because consistency is vital [for reasons never quite fully explained]”. Teachers have much less professional discretion than they had. Part of this is the Cult of the Leader stuff (many people who call themselves “leaders” tend to feel the need to show that they are “leading”, which usually seems to involve trying to tell other people what to do), but much of it is external : Ofsted, DFE etc. Which brings me to :

Ofsted, DFE etc. You know the story of the little boy who shouts that the Emperor is naked, and then everyone laughs at the silly Emperor, who goes away to put some sensible evidence-based clothes on ? There’s another, less well known version, in which the little boy shouts “look, he’s naked!”, and the guards come over with their big pikes and say “Yes, we know. Shhhh. Keep clapping and pretending he looks really cool, or we’ll kill you”, at which point, the little boy says “Bugger this for a game of soldiers, you’re all mad”, and walks off so he doesn’t have to look at the Emperor’s hairy arse any more. That’s me, that is.

class size

Somebody spots the flaw in Morgan’s “Coasting Schools” stance, a little too late

Two worlds collided and they could never, ever, ever tear us apart

I’m not even sure I can be kept, even if we got a 50% pay rise, class sizes limited to 10 by statute, and the word “leader” was banned. I’m very tired. I look at teachers who’ve been going for longer than me (not so many, these days, as I become a real veteran of the school), and I can only applaud in admiration for their stoicism. As any teacher knows, this profession is emotionally draining. Not, in my case, I hasten to add, because of all that heroic stuff you occasionally read about. You know: teacher-heroes saving kids from drugs; knives in classrooms; the more extreme end of the spectrum of classroom life. I saw a youtube clip once of a miserable-looking young teacher doing what I believe is called “slam poetry” (have you any idea of how old I feel just writing that?), in which she listed in a monotone a student body suffering from what sounded like a catalogue of every social catastrophe which could befall a human being. Or possibly a random word-generator using Daily Mail editorials about immigrants and benefits recipients. I teach in a comprehensive, and we have our fair share of kids from challenging backgrounds, but if you asked me to characterise our students in just one word, I’d probably use “normal” (although I’d try to slip “lovely” in as cheeky addendum). But even teaching normal kids is cumulatively exhausting, simply because every day you have these children to whom you feel enormous responsibility, and they need you to do a decent job, and you want to do a decent job, and yet you somehow feel that you could always do more, and so you feel every one of their failures as if it’s your failure, as if you could have prevented it somehow (although stopping the occasional teen pregnancy or messy family break-up would raise some interesting organisational challenges). And then suddenly you think “I’m not sure I’ve got much left to give”.

Maybe each teacher has a classroom shelf life. At one end there’s the “whoops, I know I said I’d Teach First, but a term’s a long-time isn’t it?”-types who maybe shouldn’t have started in the first place. Then there’s those who realise within a year or two that they really hate kids, so quickly seek promotion to get out of the classroom (or their closely related variant : those who really hate teachers, and so become Ofsted inspectors). Then there’s those who manage five or six years and then leave to work in another part of education (consultancy, academia) and are always loudly proclaiming their desire to get back into teaching, and are happy to tell actual teachers what they should be doing, but just never seem to quite manage to apply for any teaching jobs (I actually know some of these – no offence, chaps). Then everyone else has a sort of teaching half-life, with some lasting 10 years, others 20, and a select few managing to go the whole hog to retirement, so they can enjoy a good month or two of relaxation in the garden before their early exhausted death. I’m now coming to the end of my eleventh year. I can’t conceive of making it to twenty, and even fifteen seems like a couple of years too far. I’ve probably only been kept going these last couple of years because of a parent who threatened to beat me up if I left before her final child finished the school (said child is now entering sixth form).

If that’s the case – if we all have our burn-out date – then we truly are buggered, because those kids are coming into our classrooms whether we have anyone to put in front of them or not. Quick, Nicky, when you’ve finished blaming the media for reporting your own policies, get on to George – we need that next recession, NOW.


35 thoughts on “Teacher Retention : More Than Just An Image Problem

  1. That may have seemed like a long blog posting to write but it didn’t feel like a long read. I found myself identifying with every opinion, idea and emotion which you have shared. I’m about six years older than you and currently trying to get through a period of sick leave where I may or may not recover from a bout of stress, depression and an underlying case of fybromyalgia. I’ve done the whole gamut of classroom teacher, pastoral head, head of faculty then back to classroom teacher again in a succession of five comprehensive secondary schools. Like you I find the interaction with students on a day to day basis rewarding but exhausting. It’s everything else that’s the problem though. I find myself getting angry in every meeting I attend or when reading any of the latest pronouncements from DFE/OFSTED. I was thinking the other day that my school (or indeed any school) could have a sabbatical program that would aim to give teachers a period of, say six months, to recharge the batteries, carry out some meaningful research, visit other schools, or simply take a break. This would be a planned expense that would help extend the career life of older teachers, rather than have to fork out sick pay, employ a succession of supply/cover supervisors and in the end get back (if you’re lucky) a damaged teacher counting down the days to early retirement.
    Your reflections about ‘it’s never enough’ loose a particularly poignant arrow. This is a result of the constant appraisal/observation madness which pervades everything. Just once it would be nice to hear an unqualified ‘you’re doing a good job’, rather than ‘have you tried…., or you could produce more than expected progress by …..’
    I do fear for the young teachers. My nephew is just finishing his first NQT year as a primary teacher. He announced proudly on facebook tonight that he had just finished his end of year reports – 60,000 words! I commented that this is the average length of a novel. I have advised him to steer a path towards a more reasonable workload and not be held in fear by a senior management’s edicts.
    So, in conclusion, yes – a recruitment time bomb is about to explode but it seems those in power are sleepwalking into a nightmare.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Humorous and so so true. You forgot to mention the school reports – which have to be written with a clear and concise recall of the pupil’s ability (and sometimes even what they look like). And you only briefly touched on the pupils who really don’t want to be there but are quite prepared to annoy and initiate low-level disruption in the classroom.

      But I am NOT a school teacher 🙂 – but a former Chair of Governors for 15 years. Eventually the paper pushers at the Department for Education made this voluntary job unsustainable (I do have other things to do in my life) as they piled on more and more responsibilities. We were expected to produce our own reports to analyse the information provided by the head teacher and determine which direction the school was going in – all with less money per pupil and ever-decreasing Local Authority support. Our part-time clerk with a typewriter has morphed into two full-time Administrators to fill in the plethora of forms kindly supplied by our beloved Department for Education – and this is only a small First School (up to age 9).

      I can empathise with school teachers as, for the last twentytwo years, I have thoroughly enjoyed teaching children to swim. Different to the average class in front of a school teacher, these children all WANT to be there, a significant advantage. As I run my own swimschool I am not controlled by anyone and can freely adapt and change my lessons as I (not some remote mandarin) deem necessary.

      I did suggest once (to the DfE) that many Education problems could be simply resolved by halving the staff at the Department for Education and making them do proper teaching jobs – sadly this helpful suggestion went down like a lead balloon.

      You have probably stopped reading this rambling essay by now anyway 🙂

      Liked by 5 people

  2. I agree with every single one of your points and it didn’t feel like a long read as I was nodding so much.

    I left at Christmas after teaching MFL, full and part time, pre and post having my own kids. I kept telling myself it would be better the next year, with the next timetable. By the end I was so permanently angry/irritated by every pointless task and meeting, I was signed off with stress – I had nothing left to give, including patience for the next SLT initiative.

    I like teaching languages, I love those lightbulb moments, but they were constantly shrinking as I was forced to teach to the next controlled assessment, churning out excellent grades from students who completely lacked any kind of linguistic functionality after five years of MFL teaching. It is wrong what the MFL spec. has been turned into – kids need to remember how to order a meal, buy tickets, find the toilets in foreign and CAs don’t allow for this.

    I left to re-train. I am lucky to be supported by my OH who was very enthusiastic about me doing something else. I am now a full-time student and am really enjoying learning new stuff, being treated as an adult, not a year 9 and not watching my back constantly.

    Good luck with your break out. Of the four teachers I see every week, all of us in different schools teaching different age ranges with over 60 years experience between us, three of us have left or are leaving this academic year.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I agree with all of those comments posted above. It was long but did not feel it, and as that teacher who is taking a ‘Teaching break’ I can relate to all what you, and the other comment makers above, have said. I have also had 11 years being a teacher and yes you are right, it is not sustainable. I am one of those that is now working in a different area of education and writing curriculum programmes and training teachers. I really miss the classroom though and I would really like to return (note, I said ‘like’ to return). I do give advice to teachers (like those others that you mention) in my blog and I do feel slightly hypocritical as I am not ‘currently’ teaching. That is one reason why I want to return, the other is the (‘apparent’) security you mention and the fact that I think I am quite good at it (certainly always got told that in lesson obs). I believe that I can also offer something else to young people. The truth is that given everything that is happening in Ed right now I am actually a bit afraid of returning! That is the sad thing… Thanks for the blog it was really entertaining, if not soooo sad!


    • Thanks for the comment Gareth. Hope you didn’t mind the fun-poking. I think I managed to get in a dig at everybody in the whole education system at some point – I’ve always been very egalitarian.

      Liked by 1 person

      • No. I loved the fun poking… Keep these type of blogs coming. You are really hitting the nail on the head with the sad state of education for the professionals and more importantly for the young people. Already looking forward to next blogs. G. 🙂


  4. You sound like me 18 years ago when I took early retirement after 20 years of teaching. I was burnt-out. And yet teaching has now become worse. At least no-one bothered me about targets, proof of progress, feeding data into the DfE’s garbage machine etc.

    But I was burnt-out. It wasn’t the kids (except for one class dominated by a few bullies who turned on me – the quiet kids kept quiet because for once they weren’t the victims). The kids I taught were in the main funny, exasperating, attempting to be ‘adult’ but naive and often vulnerable, bolshie, idealistic, cynical all at the same time. In other words, typical teenagers. What eventually did for me were three things: one – my voice kept conking out (can’t teach if you can’t speak); two – a ‘leader’ whose behaviour was such I had to call in the union; three the marking to the GCSE syllabus rubric (I prepared kids for three GCSEs: English, English Lit and Business Studies). The last straw was one Sunday morning -I burst into tears when faced with coursework for these three subjects all having to be annotated according to a code set by the exam board. I knew then I’d have to leave asap. When my ‘leader’ asked for those willing to go on early retirement, I applied.

    But the ‘early retirement’ route has now been blocked, I believe, In which case I would have had to go on long term sick – it was only leaving that prevented a nervous breakdown.

    I wanted nothing more to do with education – did an OU degree instead. But that changed in December 2010 when Gove ignored an explicit warning from the OECD not to compare UK’s 2009 results with those from 2000 because the latter were faulty. But he brushed this aside to promote the myth that UK (and England in particular) was ‘plummeting’ down league tables and only his radical reforms would transform England’s rubbish education system.

    And Morgan wonders why, after five years of Gove negativity, her own misuse of KS2 literacy and numeracy figures and attack on ‘coasting’ schools and Nick Gibb’s blather about how classroom ‘orthodoxies’ needed to be eradicated, that teacher recruitment and retention are a problem.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. I read your fine, thoughtful post and I am so glad I did. I haven’t read the comments yet – so please excuse me if I repeat some of them. I will go back and read them in a minute. You are so right that teaching as a profession has a natural end. It;s not just true in these tough times, it has always been so. I’m 66 and I left secondary teaching in 1987 – probably a bit later than I should have, but that’s true of all of us who leave. Teaching English gets you even closer to the kids – you saw them every day, and you read what they told you about themselves and their families.

    This isn’t about me – that’s just a para to say ‘trust me, I’ve been there’. I know what it is to be great at your job, and what it is to wear out. And I conked out, even though I was only teaching part-time, raising a family including step-children, and studying. I had a cushy number. Then I went into academia for a year or twelve, and then I conked out again. I want to say to you – there’s no shame in reaching your sell-by date. There’s a whole load of personal damage to be suffered by trying to push yourself beyond it. Take care of yourself! I love your blog and I want to find out what you do next. Just don’t leave it too late. It’s not all about the system, it’s about (and you know this already) what you,personally can do in it and with it, and what you can’t. Sauve qui peut!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That came out wrong . I didn’t mean to imply that things aren’t bad now. They really are. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to carry all these burdens. You are (all) truly heroic. I wanted to encourage you in your plan to leave.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Brilliant blog, you totally nail what has happened to the profession and this is so funny too. If you do manage to dig that escape route, then I highly recommend going back in as a volunteer in some small capacity if you have the time. You get to still be with the kids, but no one can tell you what to do or sack you because they don’t employ you.

    If you end up becoming a writer, let me know as I for one would buy any book you wrote.

    Good luck. 🙂


  7. i too found every word of the blog resonated with me – give me back my control of the classroom that was so central to my love of the job when I started and I might be able to carry on – as it is I crawl – part time – towards retirement – angry that no politician ever listens to a word we say – and in my rural area recruitment is fast becoming impossible even in subjects that should be easy to fill – and as a mentor to student teachers I have 5 of the last 6 I’ve mentored not do a year in the classroom. none of that is the fault of the media.


  8. I work in an American art education center, but some of this resonated with me. Why don’t we recognize the importance of the profession and the people in it? It’s so short-sighted. Education is what makes the difference for young people, it’s what helps them get jobs, make careers, learn how to function in society – all of that is part of education. Teachers should be highly respected people, and treated accordingly!


  9. Your “failure” section described exactly how I feel, but have never been able to express so eloquently, even to myself.

    And also a comment above – feeling angry in just about every meeting I attend.


  10. Insightful blog post which I’m sure resonates with all front line teachers.

    I’m not so sure there is a class teacher teacher recruitment crisis. What I am seeing is a low-wage, high turnover model becoming the norm in schools and there are definitely fewer and fewer jobs being advertised these days. As I have written before, it seems that you can only really be young, single and childless in order to do the job. In fact, I have actually been told to consider whether I should ‘move aside’ at my age (early thirties) because I have children and am ‘quite old’. Insults aside, I feel that it is a shame that children will grow up with a warped view of what it means to be an adult, and an assumption that adults are there to entertain them till said adults burn out. I don’t even think some of these ‘teachers’ qualify as adults themselves.

    I agree on the headteacher crisis, but not because there aren’t enough people, rather because the types of people recruited to deputy headship roles in primary schools aren’t suitable for headship roles. If you take a look at the advertising, deputy heads are expected to be lovely, cuddly, vibrant (young), outstanding teachers who love children lots and lots. The recruitment process involves lots of student voice and lesson observations. These same lovely people don’t do authority in a serious way, and are naive when it comes to the nuts and bolts of running a business and haven’t got a clue about people management.


  11. Hi – thanks for the post. I am one of the ones who’ve run away to academe (amde a bit more than 6 years) – I was a DH in a secondary school and too a huge pay cut but it was (and is) worth the money as I have regained the professionialism you mention which has – as you also mention – slipped (or been ripped) away [wow that was a complicated sentence, hope it makes some sort of sense!].

    I have been doing some research with early career teachers and finding similar things to those you blog about a love for the teaching and the children and a growing dismay at the bullshit that surronds it. I feel more and more emasculated by the “solutions” of this (and to some degree the previous) legislations – teach first, troops for teachers, PhDs for teachers, ex-bankers for teachers, some bloke who happened to be passing the DfE for teachers etc… none of them really concerned with the long-term relationship and sustainability of the “profession” (see above for the reason for the “”).

    And then there is a the teaher training fiasco – irrespective of whether you think having universities involved in teacher educaton is a good thing (OK the vast majority of the world seem to including all those places that the politicans keep laudung as so much better than us) the divide and rule choas that is currently happending with the multiplicity of routes mean a 40% short-fall in those training last year (the govt. has been really quiet on this and the media do not seem to have picked it up) – a ticking time-bomb.



    • Thanks for the comment Paul. I think much of what Gove and his acolytes have done to the education system should somehow be prosecutable for wilful destruction of a public service, but perhaps nowhere is this so pronounced as in his ideologically-based attack on a functioning teacher training system. I know, from contacts within the DFE, that the driving force behind the attack on HE-based ITT was based on a Ministerial view that HE trainers were staffed by “left-wing academics”, who promoted “trendy teaching methods”. A bit of me doesn’t want to believe that, even though I’ve had it from more than one very reliable source, because even with my cynicism, I don’t want to believe that someone with a Ministerial position could either hold such crassly stupid views, or act on them. However, it does appear to be true. It’s the equivalent of having education policy decided by a guy who writes frothing comments Below The Line on the Daily Mail website. Quite, quite mad. And that chicken of madness is now coming home to roost in our classrooms.

      By the way, much of the above was written tongue-in-cheek. Some of my best friends are ex-teachers who ran away to academia. Hell, if I could find one of the remaining gold-dust jobs there, I’d go myself !


      • You are quite right to (gently) poke fun at those of us who have run away from the pixel face to the dusty groves – though the way that things are going we are going to be disbanded soon anyway. Not so sure about gold dust (see comments re: pay cuts) but it is a nice life (I am writing this from a hotel room in Hong Kong which is (thought I really can’t believe it) work. Best.


  12. I thought this was a full and honest piece on what’s to love and hate in teaching.

    My Dad spent almost 30 years as an engineer in the RAF. He has been teaching engineering for 17yrs in an FE college. He’s skilled, knowledgeable, old-school, and respected by students, parents, good colleagues, and corporations whose training courses he runs. He’s seriously, seriously old-school. (He has been known to annoy the management.)

    For Dad, the standard never comes down, no matter what; he ensures the grade he gives reflects the work of each student, and that the work from each student has been everything that he can get from that student, having identified their ability. He puts a a lot of young engineers out into the world. He wants to ensure they have the necessary knowledge and skills (engineers have to keep a lot of stuff in their heads to identify how to do things, how to fix them, and all efficiently and they follow and complete a lot of paperwork to keep planes safely in the air).

    So, Dad marks a lot, every week, He corrects the grammar and punctuation because his students are going to be filling out a lot of paperwork in their lifetime. He provides feedback – not a soundbite in sight; useful insights and information that even I can understand, which allows a student who wants to learn to avoid repeating the problem. Dad maintains the marking is essential to teaching but he won’t miss it once he’s done (it’s part of the strong feedback loop which includes discussion time).

    He has about 270 students each year. Then he has the students who show up in October who want to be adopted, having heard about his reputation; they are desperate to learn and do well on their course, but they got the tutor who shouldn’t be teaching. Those tutors who think teaching is cushy hours and holidays, who share knowledge even newbie students question, tutors who ignore workloads and students, who don’t mark, or provide meaningless feedback, who assess the quality of the work based on whether it fills the box (seriously); tutors whose engineering knowledge is shaky and would have planes falling out of the sky if let loose in the real world – yes, it does actually matter what content we give students.

    My dad loves sharing knowledge and watching his students develop. He rarely has a break in the day, with students hunting him out during non-lesson time. He will give up his time to help a committed student who is struggling, maybe working different jobs or home life is difficult, or who needs coaching for an interview in the sector (there are actually a lot of students out there keen to learn).

    Even though the college removed pastoral care from the tutor’s role my dad maintains you can’t do the job without understanding each student and providing support and guidance and he won’t let down any student who could do well, male or female. So he’s there, covering 270+ students needs and learning.

    This professional commitment to his own students, and the toll of helping students with poor tutors, re-writing courses, triangulating assessments, etc, means every year there is a decline in health until the July reprieve (I would say I note this with any professional, and even those ‘just’ working a job). But for a few years it became more pronounced and we grew more concerned; we actually thought teaching was killing him. Eventually, so did he. Thankfully they discovered and operated on a large growth and he’s now back to his stoic self. However, the realisation he might not actually get to enjoy retirement means he is taking early retirement from September. Now, on a daily basis he is asked to stay: by management, pupils, parents, and corporations whose courses he runs. There is no changing his mind.

    My father is bone-weary. He’s 63 this year so it’s not unexpected, but he is a highly knowledgeable tutor who would have worked for a few more years but the following have worn him down:

    – recruiting those who can’t, which means someone else carries the workload (it bugs my dad that management let poor tutors impact negatively on the lives of trusting students and future employers)
    – giving students grades they shouldn’t get, even allowing students to pass who should be failed (Dad looked like he was about to blow the whistle on maladministration, but finally settled on a technicality to fail a student who had plagiarised with distinctions through courses). Management wouldn’t address it.
    – inflexibility. Taking and not giving. College tutors are required to be on-site in the summer holidays even without students, and during term-time work late evenings on top of early starts. In addition, he works through most breaks and lunches giving 1:1 support through breaks; well if you’re my dad and his ex-military colleagues you understand that personal development is the academic with the pastoral.

    The different course boards
    – whose requirements change every couple of years and which don’t interface leaving knowledge gaps that good tutors plug regardless, adding to their workload.

    Partisan politics and government interference
    – it’s always entertaining to watch news/night with my dad when education is discussed
    – and this includes Ofsted which chops and changes with each piece of government policy.
    – and perhaps getting a no-notice observation and having his lesson graded as a 3 last year because he shares too much knowledge in every lesson may actually have been the biggest influencer for my dad retiring early. He’s an engineer – advising my dad students can google it for themselves or pull this knowledge out of the ether during group discussion was pretty dumb. Yeah, he immediately got his grade 2 a few weeks later (he usually pitches his observed lessons to avoid a grade 1 or 3 so they leave him alone) but that anger needed direction which was channelled into poring over retirement spreadsheets.

    – yep. It took him about 10yrs to get beyond this but a grade 3 observation undid it all.

    As a parent who has experienced the mix of primary teachers and heads I understand the parent’s sentiment who threatened to beat you up. Good teachers are never perfect, but they are professional and brilliant and their reach is further than they ever realise.

    Remember two things:
    We all remember our good teachers.
    No-one can make you feel inferior without your consent. (Eleanor Roosevelt)

    I hope for your students’ sake you decide to stay. But I know that when my dad decided to retire we didn’t talk him out of it. Good luck with making the right decision for you.


    • I hope your dad has a happy retirement. I, too, left teaching after nearly 20 years – ground down by an unsupportive head (I had to call in the union) and constant changes to exam syllabuses which rarely lasted more than a couple of years before being chucked in the bin. Hours of work wasted and having to start again. And then there were the ever-more tortuous GCSE coursework mark schemes which required annotation in the margin according to a prescribed code. I taught 3 GCSEs (English, English Lit and Business Studies) – I’d had enough.

      My one and only Ofsted took a week – several inspectors looking at every aspect of the curriculum. They were honest and supportive. But Ofsted has changed to a different beast. I would no doubt be labelled Grade 4. None of my Eng/Eng Lit students ever got a ‘good’ pass (the concept was unknown then – a G was a pass). That’s because I taught bottom sets. Progress? Progress with some of them was to force out a piece of coursework or get them to attend school often enough to cover the syllabus. Oh yes, and remember that sentences begin with a capital letter and end with a fullstop.


  13. just a quick interesting anecdote to back up all that you said. a colleague of mine who has given up after 10 years went for a job as a TA at another local high school – she was one of six qualified teachers in a field of 11 – now why do people with QTS and experience want to be TAs? Probably so they can spend some time with their families when their day is done.


  14. After a colleague recently attended a training course for the Middle Leader role in Primary, she told me that plans were afoot on how to address the recruitment issues faced in teaching.

    She was informed by the course leaders that schools would put an experienced teacher in charge of a corridor and then recruit less experienced teachers to teach in the classroom. The experienced teacher would be responsible for planning and organising learning for all the classrooms in the corridors and would monitor the less experienced teacher’s delivery.

    I think it was expressed that this would provide the less experienced teachers with valuable training and mean they could go directly into the classroom without the usual teacher training courses and would work towards meeting standards to obtain a QTS award or similar.

    It was also mentioned that the freeing up of teachers would signal the end of the Teaching Assistant roles as children could be streamed at an earlier age and taught appropriately.

    It seemed quite a gloomy outlook and indicated that things really can get worse! Of course I wasn’t at the training so this is all anecdotal.


    • This is worrying (accepting its anecdotal nature) and does highlight the “needs no pre-training to be a teacher – you can learn on the job” that is becoming more and more prevalent. I have it on very good authority that that Andrew Carter the “independent” chair of the review into teacher training (the inverted commas are there because he is the head of a teaching school, which is a SCITT and he also chairs the DfE advisory group on teaching schools so no bias there then) wanted to abolish the PGCE entirely and just have on-the-job QTS (a ‘qualification’ that is not recognised anywhere else whereas the PGCE has international validity).

      Let’s be fair Gove’s “no need for qualifications” and Morgan’s latest “Teach once you’ve retired” are making a complete mockery of the skills of teaching.


  15. Thanks for your thoughtful blog. It resonates so much with my own experience just now, particularly the bits about kids ( love ’em), leader cult & unsupportive colleagues ( hate ’em).

    My strategy is to downsize. I’m giving up all responsibility posts, and going part time.


    • That’s not a bad option. If I ever return to teaching, I suspect it would be just a couple of days a week and certainly no role in the managerialist nonsense which has become central to so many schools.


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