The current state of affairs in education: A Bristol teacher’s perspective

As a parent I have to say that the current teacher recruitment and retention crisis as reported by the teaching unions really worries me.  Today’s post on Bristol Mum is written by a Bristol teacher who shares her own views on education in the UK at present.

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I have just read yet another article about a teacher being driven to the brink as a result of excessive workload; these ‘Secret Teacher’ type articles are in abundance on the likes of Twitter and Facebook, and fill up significant column space in The Guardian.

Now it is my turn. I have been asked to write this article for a blog, but I feel that it might also be a cathartic experience to put my experiences into words regardless of whether it is published.

I am in my twelfth year as a qualified British-trained teacher. Much of my career has been spent in the state sector (secondary), but I have recently moved into the independent sector. I will discuss my motivations with regards to this during the course of this article.

So, where do I start? I guess the beginning is as good a place as any. Teaching was a career that I entered into because I liked the idea of a profession that was secure and well-regarded. I knew I wanted a career rather than just a ‘job’, where I could make a difference. I wanted to use my degree.

Looking back, I can see that these reasons were the right reasons for my early-twenties something self. I want to make it clear now, I have never regretted entering the profession and have had a very successful career. However, the profession I entered thirteen years ago has changed beyond all recognition to the point that it has changed me – that I regret.

Teaching has always been challenging but in the early part of my career this was for absolutely the right reasons. I worked long hours planning lessons and making resources for my students.

I had fun with my students and helped them achieve excellent results year after year. In fact, my GCSE results were always held in high esteem and were consistently the best in school.

In my most successful year 83% of my mixed-ability students got A and A* grades scoring significant value-added. I have been graded outstanding in my performance reviews throughout most of my career and the same grade was awarded by Ofsted on three separate occasions.

The Head told me that, on one occasion, the inspector had recognised the lesson was outstanding within its opening seconds and said that it wasn’t necessary to watch the remainder of the lesson.

Why am I telling you all of this? It is definitely not to blow my own trumpet. In fact, my sister tells me I have a case of ‘imposter syndrome’ because I often think I have just been lucky, slipped through the net and avoided being found out for the fraud I really am!

Of course, being objective, I can see that I have been successful, yet my confidence in my ability is at an absolute low. Why? Often, a distinct lack of praise is endemic within the profession; we are all very good at praising our pupils but, no one really praises us.

The system is: you’ll only hear if you are under-performing. In fact, I have seen some excellent teachers hauled over the coals for a ‘weak’ set of results, not jumping through the hoops of having lesson objectives visible on the board throughout the course of the lesson or, simply, putting their head above the parapet to speak up for their pupils or fellow staff.

When I left my last school the Head said a few words about me. He said that I had never actually realised how good I was. Then he commented: ‘Perhaps I should have told her’.

Anyway, one cannot blame the state of the profession entirely on a lack of praise. However, it goes hand in hand with a workload that seems relentless. At best my working week is fifty hours. At worst, it has been near seventy.

As I stated at the beginning of this article, I have always put in the hours. However, increasingly, it is for all the wrong reasons. Marking has become an endless ‘dialogue’ with the student where you write comments which provoke them to write a response underneath your scrawl.

I even resorted to the hated ‘verbal feedback given’ stamps to evidence that I’d discussed the piece of work with the student. I think I only used them a few times; pupils used to look at me rather oddly as I stamped their book. Others just liked the pink ink.

Okay, so as well as the marking, increased data collection has added to our workloads. As a Head of Department, I would have to evidence exactly where each student was in relation to their target grade and explain in detail why a few were not quite on target and what I was going to do to support both that student and the teacher of that student.

Of course, a good Head of Department will put in the time to support those involved; it is the time spent evidencing that you have done this that is immeasurably frustrating. The system maintains that all students progress at exactly the same rate which, of course, you don’t need a teacher to tell you is completely false.

I propose that it is actually impossible for every single student to meet their target grade; doesn’t the law of probability rule out certainties? That doesn’t mean I would ever give up on a student but I don’t believe we should be penalised for the small few that do not quite hit their targets (which the new performance-related pay does to the letter).

There are often very good reasons why students do not meet targets: family circumstances, mental health, lack of preparation for the test, misinterpreting a question or is just a little slower to reach their academic potential. I think it is this increased accountability that has pushed so many teachers out of the profession.

Finally, there is so much scrutiny of a teacher’s performance nowadays. Whilst I accept and completely support that some teachers may need more checking up on, it seems that the whole workforce is subjected to multiple lesson observations or ‘drop-ins’. I was subjected to three such drop-ins in one week in my last school. I was beginning to develop a bit of a complex!

Those teachers who were identified as under-performing were put onto special programmes which involved stringent target-setting and even more lesson observations to check their progress against these targets. I saw such teachers pushed so hard they cracked under the pressure. There were always tears in the staff room.

However, you don’t need to be under-performing to crack in teaching. It is often the most hard-working and talented teachers that I have seen destroyed by the pressure of the aforementioned scrutiny and accountability. A number of these have since moved into the independent sector, left the profession entirely or are out on stress.

I finally left the state sector a little over a year ago and moved into an independent school, where there is altogether less scrutiny and where I feel more empowered to use my professional judgement.

I left behind some fabulous students, many of whom asked what they had done when I told them I was leaving. Lots cried. I cried at leaving them. I have always had a good rapport with my students; I know they like me and when one of them tells you that you have inspired them to take your subject at university or made them think differently about life, well that’s just the best feeling.

I love teaching. I just don’t like being a teacher. If I am going to be a teacher, my belief is that the independent sector is currently the best place to be one. (I will probably create uproar at that statement!).

I do believe that I have been damaged by the profession, both as a teacher and as a person. I have completely lost my confidence.

Just the other day, one of my year 10 GCSE students said that her guardian wanted the name of the exam board and associated codes. I immediately panicked, assuming that the guardian was concerned that she was being taught the incorrect material and was going to complain; with my more rational hat on, she probably just wanted to support the girl with her revision over the Easter holidays.

My anxiety levels are heightened, not only during term time, but also in the holidays; I am always thinking about school and what I need to do to keep my head above the professional waters.

I have some fabulous friends, many of whom are teachers and when I see them they go far in healing me and helping me recognise that they feel it, too.

If I could leave the profession, I probably would. I would like a 9-5 job with as little responsibility as possible where I could just be. I would relinquish the holidays. As I say, they are just an opportunity to worry about imminent results and the term ahead.

Financially, at least for now, I feel bound to the profession but I am in awe of those who are brave enough to walk away, often with no job to go to. They have made the most responsible decision to choose life.

Hopefully, I will gain the confidence to join them or, maybe, I will slowly begin to love teaching again one day. I hope so.

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