No laughing matter







What do you get if you cross a perfectly healthy, young, competent and determined teacher with five years of dedicated service?

I don’t know, what do you get if you cross a perfectly healthy, young, competent and determined teacher with five years of dedicated service?

I’m not sure, but I think it has something to do with an occupational health referral.

As we stagger across the half way line of the academic year like a decrepit donkey devotedly trekking along a beach with a grubby child on its back, I take time to pause and reflect on the state of teaching today. I say ‘take time to pause’- what I actually mean is ‘collapse into a heap on the floor’.

When I started teaching, the level of rigour in the profession, according to my more experienced colleagues, had increased significantly. Gone, I was told, were the days where you would decide what to teach whilst driving to work. Now, systematic schemes of work, progression through key stages, detailed planning, assessments and a clear expectation that children should learn stuff, were the order of the day. We even had national strategies that explained how children should be taught key concepts. Some professionals felt it had gone too far but pretty much everyone (and by everyone I mean the three people in the tiny school I worked at) agreed that the quality of education and the professionalism of teachers had improved.

I, for one inexperienced NQT, felt so lucky that, conceptually, I was so well resourced. The maths unit plans, in particular, I thought, were amazing. I mean, sure, there was no way anyone could actually get though the content of one lesson in a week let alone an hour but they sure helped my teaching.

I worked hard and I was happy. Even when my Head told me to take down a display and do it again because it was, I think the word she used was ‘pants’, I didn’t mind. I worked hard, I was happy and I had time to do what my job required. I don’t think I worked harder than any of my colleagues and best of all, we were clear about our roles and responsibilities. I taught there for four years and at no point did I consider not being a teacher.

Then I became a maths leader at a different school. This school was significantly bigger and in more challenging circumstances. The work ethic of the teachers, particularly the younger ones, was incredible. We all worked tirelessly to support our children. It was really, really tough and I can remember having many conversations with our Deputy where I lamented that no matter what I did the children didn’t seem to be making progress. Don’t worry, she would say, you’re managing to keep them in the class aren’t you, the learning will follow. I never gave up and the children did, little by very little, learn. The sense of camaraderie is the thing I miss the most about that school. I don’t think I’ve ever worked with such an energised team. We worked hard; admittedly it now felt as though we had less time to do our job, but this was mostly due to the challenging and complex nature of our pupils’ lives. I am confident when I say, however, that as a staff, we were really, really happy.

Now, as Maths Leader I naturally had more to do than just teach – but I don’t think the ‘just’ teachers worked less hard than me. At no point did I, or anyone else that worked there, ever have conversations about leaving education.

Then I became a teaching Deputy in another school. At this point, I think it’s fair to say, my workload massively increased. There were days when I felt that nobody worked harder than me and no one had as wide a remit as me. (At this point, all you deputies take a bow…you know it’s true.)

At this point in my career, however, the job started to get bigger for everyone. Yes I was working hard on a variety of things, but teachers were working harder too…and they were ‘just’ teaching. How could they possibly be spending as much time on one job as I was on many? They weren’t slow workers and SLT did as much as we could to streamline tasks and procedures and create consistent systems and yet…the car park remained full until the caretaker kicked us all out.

We were all still very happy (well most of us) but we definitely had less time due to the ever increasing demands of the job. I would also say that at key points throughout the year, there started to exist conversations between the young and the old more experienced about how long one could stay in teaching.

And now I am a Head. I work very hard. But I am no longer at the top of that tree. I can’t think of many people who work less hard than my good self. Teachers work incredibly hard. They have to. If they drop the pace for a single 24 hours, it seems the task of getting back on top of things is gargantuan. Expectations have never been higher, workload has never been denser and remits have never been wider.

We have entered into an age of education where success can never be fully attained…there is always something that needs doing better, to a higher standard, across more areas. Progress isn’t just a circle with no clear start and end point, it is a number 8 on its side: an infinite trap with ever decreasing margins of success.

It is unsustainable.

The powers that be are not helping either. By constantly updating, replacing and inventing new strategies, frameworks, curriculums and expectations, in conjunction with removing standardised checking systems, they have built a profession not on shifting sands but on quick sand. Teachers do not know where they are anymore; all they know is that they are sinking and the more they work the more they go under.

Good senior leaders will try to help by attempting to make sense of this new world. But, in reality, this is like trying to smash a square peg through a round hole when the peg is made out of clouds and the hole is actually a brick wall. Bad senior leaders will be getting everyone else working harder on meaningless administrative tasks in the hope that nobody notices and praying that when the graphs are printed out, they will at least look pretty.

When I look around my school – full of great, dedicated professionals who are dutifully jumping through all the hoops, whilst still helping children learn and be nice to each other – I now often think…could I have done all this when I first started? In conversations with other Heads we ask ourselves how long could a teacher realistically work at a school before burning out? None of us have the answer but we know it’s probably below retirement age.

And this is the sad punchline to a joke that is becoming less and less funny. As the retirement age increases and the multitude of pressures on teachers continue to grow exponentially, it is impossible for teachers to be as good as the sum of their roles and responsibilities. We are, as a profession, working with our noses so close to the grindstone that the most sensible career advice I can give is forget teaching, go work in occupational health.

So enjoy your holiday (I know you’ve earned it), get ready for next term and let’s just hope that by the time we get back to school there haven’t been any new changes.

6 thoughts on “No laughing matter

  1. julietgreen February 14, 2015 / 7:29 pm

    “they have built a profession not on shifting sands but on quick sand…” Quite.

  2. headswapboy February 14, 2015 / 8:45 pm

    Hammer, nail, direct hit sadly. This totally ties in with my experience. I look at young colleagues and wonder how long they will keep it up.
    Keep on saying it as it is!

  3. head55 February 17, 2015 / 11:09 am

    My experience too. My youngest/newest teacher has asked how they could go travelling for a year cause they need a break!

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