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?