I just can’t do it anymore

Seven years ago I received an email from the mother of an ex-student. In carefully crafted sentences that I read many times over, she thanked me for teaching her son that hard work, commitment and encouragement could go a long way towards success. I regret not keeping a copy of that email so I could better recall its uplifting words but the thought of it has sustained me through many a tough day teaching English to teenagers. I am a teacher. With the heaviest heart, however, tomorrow is my last day. My family have to come first, but it hurts to walk away.

It turns out that the job I fell into, and unexpectedly developed a fervent passion for, is not compatible with being a mother to two small people. The battle for women’s rights which has engendered my generation with the “I can have it all” attitude has of course failed to provide the extra hours in the day that “having it all”, or rather “doing it all”, demands. I have colleagues who begin work at home at 5am, arrive at school for 7am, work at school until 6pm, then begin work again at home at 7pm. They sleep and then do it all over again. At this time of year, in the run-up to exams, they work on Saturday mornings teaching revision classes, and spend a large proportion of their Sunday preparing lessons and marking.

In my twenties, pre-children, this was my life – the job was a huge part of my identity and my passion for improving the life chances of the disadvantaged children I worked with knew no limits. But I just can’t do this anymore. With two children aged 1 and 3 of my own, I no longer have all the hours in the day to think about other people’s offspring. To be honest, I have also started to wonder just how reasonable this expectation is for anyone.

The belief that teachers should not expect to have a life is one touted by government ministers, heads of OFSTED and headteachers alike. The mantra that is so often trotted out, in its various forms, is that “It’s for the kids.” Teachers feel guilty about just thinking about an existence outside the school gates. That’s what the holidays are for, right? And yes, the holidays are brilliant, but if a teacher does a good impression of a member of the walking dead for the other 39 weeks of the year, is this really in the best interests of the students?

My measure of whether something is a good use of my time has always been to question its educational value – essentially, how is completing this task going to improve the skills and understanding of the students in my classroom? Spending hours entering data into spreadsheets to track and “prove” progress is not a good use of a teacher’s time. Being asked to copy and paste entire documents into a new format in order to satisfy the latest guessing game understanding of what it is OFSTED are looking for, is not a good use of a teacher’s time. I can’t speak for other subjects but the changes to the English examination specifications are narrow and uninspired, doffing their cap to a dusty, archaic era whence literature born of only the mother countries of the Empire was deemed worthy. And the obsession with detailed book-marking is counter-productive – when the tick, target, question that the teacher is writing on a student’s work is twice the length of anything the student has produced, surely something is wrong?

Now, before anyone reading this dismisses it as the maudlin playing of a tiny violin, or utters the oft repeated refrain of “Get in the real world”, I would like to point out that I LIVE in the real world. In the classrooms I teach in there are students whose lives are more “real” than many of us could ever imagine. The things they have seen, the things they have heard, too young, and too early, make my skin crawl and my blood boil. Yet still they come to school. And that is the point. I know that there are other people who work hard, who don’t have the pension scheme that teachers have (or had), who don’t have the holidays. On and on we could go on comparing. But why should this be a race to the bottom? This is about our children. There are so many flaws in the education system that I have propped up for the last twelve years that I almost didn’t write this post because I simply didn’t know where to start.

But I do know this.

I, alongside most of the teachers I know, have no problem with teachers being assessed, observed and held accountable. I have welcomed all of these into my classroom as a necessary part of making sure that the students are getting the best possible deal from their school. But increasingly the time teachers have to reflect on, and improve, their own practice in ways that will have a direct positive impact on their students is being squeezed into oblivion. The biggest victims of this are the students, our children. In the place of innovative, collaborative practice is a growing workload and excessive accountability which means we are raising an entire generation of young people who are not allowed to fail. Students in secondary schools up and down the country are being encouraged to believe that if they do not achieve their target grade they are wholeheartedly not to blame – it is their teacher’s fault. Haven’t done any work for the last 10 years of school, but need to pass your GCSE? Don’t worry, your teacher will give up their entire life to make sure that you are not responsible for yours. It looks so harsh when I see it written down there as I have always been of the opinion that many young people do not have good guidance or support, therefore as teachers we should go that extra mile to help them fulfill their potential. But surely there is a line, and surely we have reached it. How many extra miles should we go?

A colleague of mine made us all stop and think not long ago. Following a fruitless attempt to get a Year 11 student engaged in completing his English coursework, with her sitting next to him to support, no less, she declared “There’s just no dignity.” And she is right. There is no dignity, or respect. Instead there is increasing fear. The once hovering, now swooping, threat of being turned into an academy, the skewed scrutiny of OFSTED, and the prospect of having your income slashed through performance related pay, renders us all virtual beggars at the side of the road, pleading and coaxing teenagers into oh-so-generously donating their time and effort towards passing their own GCSEs. And do you know what? For once, the teenage refrain of “It wasn’t me” rings entirely true because this situation isn’t their fault – they are only reacting to the current climate that completely absolves them of any responsiblity.

Instead the teachers are responsible. For everything.

My part-time return after the birth of my second child, was marked by a tangible change in the atmosphere of teaching. It felt like now that I had competing priorities, I was not welcome anymore. The value of my wealth of experience was out-weighed by the fact that no longer could I be a sacrificial lamb in the pursuit of “raising standards”. The implication seemed to be that parenting left me unable to give without restraint and therefore I was dismissed as lazy, uncommitted. Oh, she gets in “late” (8.30am, nursery drop-off); oh, she leaves early (5pm, nursery pick up); oh she hasn’t attended an evening performance (bath and bed time). It was enough to make me start doubting my contribution to a school that had been teetering on the brink of special measures and rumored closure when I joined.

My small part in its journey to becoming a thriving school, which has been credited with being in the top 5 most improved school nationally, is one of my proudest achievements. Of course I do not take sole credit for this, there was an incredible effort by an incredible team of people who led that charge, but I am part of the story. These are not the bitter sentiments of someone who never got to grips with the various demands of the job. I have been respected by students and staff alike for many years and classes under my care were considered to be a “sure thing” to make at least the expected progress, and often achieved more. I never imagined that I would be leaving the profession under such a dark cloud.

I can command a classroom of teenagers. I have a reputation as an excellent builder of relationships – some of the most enthusiastic, temperamental, exciting, obnoxious, defiant, curious individuals I have ever met have been willing, over the years, to take my word for almost anything. I can use my skills and knowledge to motivate the most reluctant, and occasionally inspire those with a budding love of literature. My twelve years of experience mean that I am often called upon when a less experienced colleague is floundering, or another experienced teacher wants someone to help fine-tune an idea. But apparently this isn’t enough.

The dark thoughts are tempered by the knowledge that I am doing the best thing for my family, and that hopefully new and exciting endeavors lie ahead. Nevertheless the cloud lingers. I feel like I have been dismissed and disregarded because the level of expectation that now accompanies the job wholly exceeds what I can offer. I can’t handle the guilt nor the pressure. I can’t stomach the rising acid in my throat when I hear the dedication of teachers being undermined time and again. I can’t work a sixty hour week for other people’s children as where does this leave my own?

Last week, in a perfect example of serendipity, I gratefully received a letter from another ex-student. She is in her final year studying sociology and psychology and is hoping to graduate with first class honors. In her letter she wonders whether I remember her. Of course I do, as I remember most of the students I have taught – with fondness. I remember her as a quiet, unassuming girl who struggled with the technical aspects of English, in particular spelling and the organisation of her thoughts, but she was over-flowing with thoughtful and sensitive ideas about Shakespeare and poetry. She wrote:

“You showed me my potential, brought out the best in my abilities and opened my eyes to endless possibilities that could become my own reality…In addition to all of the academic skills you have taught me, you have shown me the value of perseverance, commitment, dedication, determination and hard work. You inspired hope, ignited my imagination, enhanced my confidence and instilled in me a love of knowledge…”

And with her words she lifted me up.

In days gone by I used to say that if I was making a lasting difference to just one child in my classroom, it was worth all of the stress, the heartache, and the sheer exhaustion of giving, endlessly. I had forgotten this sentiment, lost as it was in the fog of frustration and I’ll admit it, anger, that has clouded my mind this last few months. This letter, however, with its most impeccable timing, reminded me that my last twelve years have not been wasted.

I might not be as available as I need to be, rightly or wrongly, to be a teacher these days; I might not be wanted anymore, but it has not been wasted.

I am still sad but the anger has passed. One last time, however, I’d like to make it clear – I am not leaving the profession because I am lazy. I am not leaving because I don’t want to work hard. I am not leaving because I don’t care.

I’m leaving because I just can’t do it anymore. How many more of us will there be?

25 thoughts on “I just can’t do it anymore

  1. So sad that you feel this way. Even more so that you are just one of many leaving teaching. Well done for doing what is right for you and your family xx

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      1. You have contributed many years worth of hard work and in that time helped many children. So you fulfilled your vocation. So now is the time to feel proud of yourself and feel positive for a brilliant future with your family xx

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  2. Great piece. It must have been a very hard decision to make as why shouldn’t you be able to teach and have a family. I used to be a head of department, but since having two children I’m 4 days a week as ‘just’ a teacher. Thinking about reducing it future due to workload. When you ask my 5 year old what she want to do at the weekend, she replies “Mummy and Daddy not to work” ( my husband’s is a teacher too). It cannot continue as the profession is losing too many experienced people! X

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    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, Penelope. Similar to you, I returned after maternity leave as “just” a teacher – previously I was a Head of Year. Despite making this backwards step I still find that the sacrifice is too great. I admire women like you who are making it happen – you are making the lives of the children you teach so much better because you care. But as you say the level of pressure cannot continue as who will be left? I could rant on and on about what needs to change but I will spare you that 😉 Good luck x

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  3. I am afraid this applies to many women struggling to combine a profession with being a mother. It is too much to cope with. Could you not job share for the time being? I can feel your love of teaching, and I feel that one day you will return. However, it is not failure on your part to realise that at the moment you cannot combine the two. You have made the right decision. Enjoy your life and your children.

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    1. It does indeed – I have so many friends who are struggling with the balance day in day out. I am(was?) part-time but my personal circumstances are such that it is still no longer manageable. It seems so stupid that my 12 years of experience and the investment (by my employer) that those years represents is out-weighed by the fact that I can’t work all the hours that god sends. There has to be a better way. Thanks for reading and commenting.

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  4. Gosh isn’t this the truth! I’m currently on maternity leave and in a real quandary about what to do, I really hope my head will authorise me part time because I can’t do full time. Good luck on your journey xxx

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    1. Thank you! I went back part time after my first child and it was manageable. After my second, it has been less so. I’m not sure if the addition of the boy has tipped the balance, or if the changes to education under this government are the reason – I suspect it is a mixture of both. Good luck with your return –
      you’re doing the most amazing job, I’m sad that I’m not going to be fighting the good fight alongside you anymore. Thanks for reading x

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      1. Hi! Well, I do not regret my decision for one minute is the short answer! I did some exam marking last month to earn some £££ and I felt so relieved that I was no longer in the position of the teachers who would be nervously anticipating the return of those results – questioning themselves, have they done enough? I have felt a real release by leaving teaching.
        I am managing to earn some money doing some mentoring as well, although I have to admit that the transition to being a SAHM has not been entirely smooth.
        x

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  5. I too have too children and am an English teacher thinking of leaving the profession. So little of the job seems to be what I went into English teaching for: a passion for Literature and wanting to share that with young people. It’s more about results and assessment for learning these days. And yes the workload is ridiculous. I draw a line with how much I will do outside school but I have been made to feel inadequate because of this and even been criticised by other women teachers (childless) because I work shorter hours than them.
    I too am worried about the education of my children. There’s too much assessment at primary school as well. Even my little boy in reception will be assessed on 12 areas of learning at the end of the summer! When my daughter went into year one she had a real shock as there was no more play. She told me, sighing, ‘it’s just work work work now mum’. How sad it is to hear that from a six year old.
    Good luck to you and I really hope there is a change soon for the sake of all our children. It’s good to know there are other mothers out there who struggle to balance family life and work.

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    1. Thanks for reading – your words fill me with fear for what this education system holds in store for my children. I wonder whether I will be one of the parents whose child is “absent” on the assessment days but of course this will not remove the days and weeks of prep for the assessments. I don’t care what anyone says – as soon as those results are to be used to measure the success of the teachers and school, the teachers (however reluctantly) will be pressured into preparing 4 and 5 year olds for assessments that should not exist. It repulses me. I hope your daughter continues to enjoy learning despite the best efforts of the system to smother that joy. Good luck and thanks for commenting.

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  6. Really enjoyed reading this Nic. It makes me very sad that such committed teachers are leaving the profession but as a middle leader in a secondary school I totally understand the huge pressure of the job. Combining this with motherhood is huge. Well done for having the balls and taking a leap of faith xx

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  7. I’m so sorry that generations of policy makers have failed your profession and our children so completely. Although I am fearful for future generations of children being dragged through a schooling system not fit for purpose, inadequate and lacking experienced teachers, I feel no animosity towards the (increasing) numbers of teachers who are abandoning ship. I have several friends who are in the profession and I am horrified by what is expected of them. It is an absolute scandal, I know without doubt that I would never consider teaching and have nothing but sympathy for those who do.
    No-one should have to sacrifice so much to do such a vital job. You should absolutely not have to sacrifice your children’s future for someone else’s. You should not have to sacrifice your own future. You should not have to sacrifice your present. Life is about more than a job and I can only hope that the political idiots will eventually realise that vital services are about more than ticking boxes.

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  8. I’ve seen first hand how hard you have worked over the last 12 years. I’ve seen first hand the generally ‘unseen’ effort and unappreciated (by many) time it takes to do the job to your own high standards and ‘satisfaction’. We have had many discussions about the decision you have had to make. In my (maybe biased view) you’ve made the right one because I have also seen first hand the dichotomy you’ve had between being true to your students and doing the best for your family. x

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  9. Wow. I’ve got tears in my eyes reading this, from the other side of the world in New Zealand. I was born, grew up, schooled and trained in England though left twelve years ago after completing my NQT year. Recently I’ve been wondering about returning to the UK to teach at some point, for various reasons, but stories like yours absolutely break my heart. Not that the struggle of being a teacher and a mama to young children is any easier in New Zealand, it isn’t, but because of the climate of fear and oppression that seems to prevail. The sadness is for the children being taught and the teachers teaching them. It is heartbreaking. I wonder what would reverse the tide?

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    1. You’re so right about the “fear and oppression”. I don’t think that working and being a mum in any walk of life is easy but the unique sadness about being a teacher and performing this plate-spinning act is that the children you teach are being failed. And you have to carry on while knowing this. Thanks so much for reading and commenting – I find it difficult to process that someone is NZ is reading it!

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  10. Although I sympathise with the predicament, I”d just like to point out that a lot of women (who aren’t teachers) have the same problem. It may (or may not) be worse for teachers, but a lot of top managers, doctors and nurses, police officers, educational psychologists and many other professions work long hours and find it difficult or impossible to juggle a family, home and a job. We have to ask ourselves what we want. For example, if the state helped a lot more with childcare and other problems, we would be able to to manage our jobs, but at the expense of not seeing much of our children. I realise that what you are saying is that the workload is too much (and it’s really annoying when people say teachers get all those long holidays – I know how hard teachers work), but unfortunately it’s the way of the world nowadays. In both the public and private sector everyone is making cutbacks and if you want to keep your job, you have to work longer hours for the same, or even less, pay. It’s so sad you are leaving this caring and very important profession, but so many people face this decision nowadays, not just teachers.

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    1. Hi Jane, Thanks for reading and commenting. I completely agree with what you say – of course many women are out there facing exactly the same predicament it is just that I am a teacher so I can only write about the pressures that being a teacher brings – I wouldn’t even begin to try and guess the pressures that doctors, nurses, midwives, firefighters, police officers or anyone else for that matter face when trying to balance work, life and family. I am not trying to pit myself (or teachers) against other professions in some strange competition about who has it worst. Like I say in the post, this is not about a race to the bottom and while I can see your point that “it’s the way of the world nowadays” I’m not sure I’m prepared to accept the status quo for any of us. Thanks again for reading.

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  11. I have been a teacher and left in 2007. Yes being a working mother and professional is a huge challenge in lots of areas. But what is unique about teaching is that you are never off duty and days are full of ‘performances’ of standing in front of students and being positive and encouraging, believing in others when that have lost their confidence, finding solutions to not only learning challenges but friendship problems, family breakdown, poverty, abuse, indifference, anxiety, mental health etc etc etc. And to be all things to all students putting each one at the heart of everything. The holidays as they are so often referred to be people who don’t teach are TOIL- Time Off In Lieu of the 24/ 7 workload in the teaching year; time to recover and go from grey to pink, time to get stared for a new year, time to plan and prepare. There is no dressing room to dis paper into between performances, no personal desk or office space to catch 5 minutes, no secretary to manage your diary, no deputy to cover if you need a break. It is simply impossible to articulate the sense of responsibility for others, the burden of duty, the worry about performance with a background of continuous scrutiny and put downs and Governments playing God with the curriculum at what seems like a whim to make changes. Everyone seems to think thy could teach so much better. Can you imagine this being the case with your GP, with your architect, with your accountant, with your lawyer. Endless lambasting by the press is the last straw. I am so impressed by teachers who keep going. After 14 years I simply couldn’t do it any more I was so tired. So well done for putting you and your life first. Be proud of what you have contributed because teaching and education is transformative and vital for our young people. But please do not feel guilty for taking car of yourself.

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