Teaching….one of the most exciting, diverse and fun occupations or one of the most depressing, stressful and challenging? For those thinking of a working life in the classroom, especially people who are thinking about it as a second career, the teaching profession appears to be one of stark contrasts. On the one hand the glossy government advertising campaigns, replete with smiling teachers, attentive pupils and glowing testimonials is set against online forums with countless posts from struggling teachers swapped by workloads, bullied by heads and on the point of total mental breakdown. So which is it? For every Helen getintoteaching.education.gov.uk, who switched from being a lawyer; “It is the only job where I can honestly say you get 100% job satisfaction” there is a heart-wrenching online plea from a teacher overcome with fatigue from 80 hour weeks.
All the Same but All Different
Why is there is such a dichotomy, surely most schools are the same and give or take a few differences what happens in one school is similar to all others; they all teach English, maths etc? Well, some things are the same, but school cultures can be very different; two schools physically next door to each other can, and indeed do, have a very contrasting ethos, ways of teaching and of behaviour (adults and children). The reason comes down to leadership; schools, more than any other institutions very much reflect the values of their leaders, far more so than companies, which tend to have a corporate culture. In most schools the culture, is the culture of the head. As such, get a good head and you have engaged, enthusiastic and creative teachers which in turn leads to coherent strategies to develop stimulating learning environments for children. But, get a poor head and, actually you don’t want to know what goes on in these schools!
In seven years of teaching I’ve come across a range of schools, a couple have been totally inspiring, filled with intellectual curiosity and laughter, but also a couple that sucked my soul from me, where it took all of my physical and mental courage to actually stay in the classroom. Back in 2012 in my mid 40s I took the plunge and began a one year primary PGCE and I well remember the first day. About 300 eager students, ranging from 21 to, well mid 40s, keen to make a difference to the nation’s children, were welcomed by the university’s lecturers and the message was plain; ‘buckle up, this is going to be a tough year and then when you are newly qualified teachers it’s going to be even tougher” . I inwardly chuckled to myself. Surveying these mostly young, aspiring teachers, many of whom had never worked beyond a holiday job or a couple of years at a temp agency I thought those words of caution were not intended for me. A journalist with 22 years in the workplace under my belt, what didn’t I know about hard work? A lot it transpired. Suffice to say that if you are considering a career into teaching be prepared. Be prepared to work hard, harder than you have ever done before. My first couple of years of teaching was dominated by me trying to deal with the enormity of having to think of how children will learn. In my first term as a newly qualifed teacher I would often get home at 7ish, eat and then collapse and go to sleep straight away. Sadly it’s not as easy as standing in front of the classroom seamlessly transferring your knowledge into them. Breaking down lessons, understanding what steps need to be taken and constructing meaningful ways to convey that is a skill that takes time to acquire. Yes, there are some teachers that might wholescale lift lessons from the online world, or those that teach the same lesson year after year, but this type of paint by numbers teaching is not the way to get job satisfaction. In the early part of your teaching career you’ll spend a lot of time thinking and planning on what you’re going to do than you are actually delivering it. A bit like someone who spends all Sunday morning cooking a roast only to see it devoured in minutes, possibly without any appreciation. The first lesson I ever taught was a year 6 maths lesson on degrees. It didn’t help that this lesson was also being formally observed, or that I was planning and team teaching it with a fellow student. That lesson, dear reader, took about three days to plan and 30 minutes to deliver. Yes, I understood that sort of ratio was not sustainable, but the point is that planning meaningful lessons is a craft, and crafts take time to master. In the first year of teaching, creating detailed plans is useful for the trainee teacher since it helps to steer the lesson, a bit like a play script. However, some schools, or rather headteachers, continue to insist on experienced teachers providing this level of planning, they confuse the planning of lessons with lesson plans and if you want to have a reasonable life work balance you need to steer clear of these. Schools that insist on teachers loading up a week’s worth of step-by-step lesson plans to be looked over and approved by senior leaders are the reason why lots of teachers get overcome by workload anxiety. Have a trawl online and you’ll find lots of discussion on workload and despite government efforts to address this, it remains a problem.
A recent National Education Union survey found that 80% of teachers have seriously thought about leaving the profession because of workload concerns, not only that, but some of them actually do… the 2019 House of Commons Briefing Paper – Teacher Recruitment and Retention in England – found 40% of those who started teaching in 2008 had left by 2018.
Other figures to make you pause for thought is the 50 to 60 hour weeks, of which about 30 hours is on non-teaching tasks, and no, it’s not 30 hours of eating biscuits in the staff room!
“Showtime, You’re On!”
Unrelenting. That sums up the 21st century classroom. The amount of energy and concentration needed to succeed as a teacher beggars belief, perhaps more so now than at any other time in history. Our young people have such high expectations, so many exciting distractions compared with their predecessors that the poor sap trying to teach simultaneous equations on a Friday afternoon had better be up to scratch. Children used to the whizz, bang, pop of modern technology may struggle to focus as easily to the “static” teacher than their peers of 30 years ago, but the upside for the creative teacher is that they have this same technology at their disposal to make their lessons as whizz, bang pop as any youtube clip. But, that takes thought and care. The biggest struggle I found, as a career changer, was that you are effectively a performer, on stage the whole time. In most jobs, you can give yourself a few minutes of “me time” to either just day dream or to gather your thoughts. In teaching, particularly the early years, you don’t have that luxury. Even losing your oversight of a class for as little as 30 seconds can see a calm, purposeful environment descend into a scene from the apocalypse. Over the years I’ve gradually honed the ability to sense brooding trouble and to attempt to counter it, I’ve become more adept at keeping the pace lively, keeping the children engaged and active. I’ve also become better at recognising when a lesson is tanking and can now swerve direction mid lesson if we’re getting nowhere. But, I certainly couldn’t do any of these things when I started. It takes time in front of classes to be able to read them. So, not only do you have to be an all round entertainer, who shapes interesting lessons and inspires a love of learning, but you also have to be a proficient juggler. You think as a Physic teacher you’ll spend your time teaching things like Newton’s Laws, or that in Maths its just a matter of getting sums correct. Wrong. A teacher doesn’t just have to impart knowledge they have to also teach children how to become adults. A lot of your time will be spent about trying to instill good behaviour in your young charges, showing them the benefits of becoming a useful member of society, about modelling how people engage with each other. One might hope that these sorts of things are all learned at home, and in many cases they are, but one has to be realistic, not every child will come from a home environment where the adults are able to do this, not least because they don’t know how to do it themselves. There will be children in your class who will lead lives of true deprivation, as much emotional as physical, and it is your job as a teacher to compensate for that (while also getting them to learn to read, or know what a fronted adverbial is). The pastoral side of teaching should not be underestimated, nor the demands that can place on your own well being.
There is no better substitute than experience. When I was mulling over whether to quit a 22 year as a journalist I took holiday and did 2 weeks unpaid work experience in a school as a teaching assistant. I absolutely loved it! Not specifically that class or school (who would love having to pick up pens and books arrogantly discarded by casual 11 year olds, or having 8 year olds telling me to “grow a pair” (when I tried to break up a fight) but the sense of being in a classroom and being with young people was uplifting, albeit I promised myself that when I was a teacher no adult would be tidying up after entitled youngsters. You should be able to get a feel as to whether teaching is a possible right choice for you, but don’t be put off if the first school scares the heebie jeebies out of you, I would strongly recommend trying another, to get a taste of the different schools. For myself, I’ve never really regretted becoming a teacher, because the pros far outweigh the cons, for me. I do feel that in my own small way I’m impacting, positively hope, the lives of the children I work with. 40 years on I can still remember most of my old teachers, although not one lesson they taught!