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