‘I left teaching because it was stifling to be monitored 24/7’

‘It makes you continuously nervous’

This weekend, the two largest teaching unions in the country held their annual conference. There was, presumably, much to discuss.

We are told teaching is in “crisis”. Disillusionment; government plans to turn state schools into academies; a proposed extension of the schoolday; overworked teachers; a target-driven approach to education. And the “recruitment crisis” – last month, a study by the National Audit Office showed that the number of teachers leaving the profession has increased by 11 per cent over the last three years and that ministers have not met their recruitment target for the last four.

The education minister, Nicky Morgan, spoke at the teachers’ conference and was heckled by teachers, incredulous that Morgan suggested that they should do better PR for their own profession. Presumably, they feel the onus is on the government to make the change – not the teachers to package what they see as threats to their profession in positive language.   

I asked a former teacher, who wished not to be named, about the above flashpoints and why many are leaving. This teacher taught at a school in London and left the profession last year. 

Why leave?

“I left teaching because it was stifling to be in an environment where you were monitored 24/7 and accountable for everything to the nth degree,” she explains. “We were dealing with tiny humans and all the chaos that comes with that, yet still bollocked if the slightest thing wasn’t ‘to target’. I was on paper an ‘outstanding’ teacher but I wasn’t given the freedom and responsibility that should come with being told you are excellent in your field. It makes the hard work not worth it when the people in charge of you make it doubly difficult.

She suggests that recruitment struggles could be “down to burn-out. Lots of people just think that they can do better, if I’m being honest. The relentless workload for little recognition chips away at you. I am almost certain that all my teacher friends who left did so because of workload and management, not because of the kids.”

Overwork and burnout

She calls the workload “abysmal”. “Teaching can be an all-consuming  profession. Essentially, to give yourself weekends you need to make a deal with yourself that you won’t get it all done. I would work around not having all my marking done all the time and find novel ways to plan very quickly before class to save time. I would prefer to be able to do every lesson properly but you absolutely cannot if you want to still have a life beyond school.”

She would arrive at 7.30am and leave at 8pm – a 12-hour day. She didn’t work over weekends – “I saw that as a slippery slope, so my weekdays were often longer than most”. “Other teachers would just give up all Sunday though. Sometimes, although not as infrequently as I would have liked, I would be there until 11pm.”

Mental health

Last week, the teachers’ union NASUWT released the results of a study of more than 5,000 teachers, which found that 47 per cent had seen a doctor due to work-related health problems, 14 per cent had been for counselling and 5 per cent had been admitted to hospital. One in ten is taking anti-depressants, and one in 50 said that they had self-harmed as a result of stress attributed to work.

How did teaching affect her emotionally? “I just felt quite insecure. Even as one of the school’s better teachers, I never really internalised that message and that impacts how you interact with children in the classroom. I was just a bit saddened by the whole thing by the end, because my abilities on paper didn’t really match how confident I felt day-to-day. It makes you continuously nervous.”

Government intervention

This teacher says that plans to extend the working day are “a terrible idea. I cannot stress how terrible an idea it is.”

“Teachers already have after school revision and various things that extend teaching time, without it being formalised. Teachers’ workloads increase when they teach more classes. If I only have three classes, my workload is significantly smaller than someone with four or five. Extending the day means teachers will either be expected to take on another class or increase the lesson time of classes they have. Both increase the workload.  Even worse is the fact that teachers are used to banking 3pm onwards for tackling their workload so all you will see are teachers now staying later.

Furthermore, it does not help the children. “Kids are taught implicitly that the school will plug the gaps – which makes them it makes them less likely to ever work at home. This is an issue we combatted a lot with year 11s.”

What of the proposals to turn state schools into academies by 2020, announced in the Chancellor’s budget last month? “My school was a terrible school but I often cite the leadership as the worst thing, not the behaviour of the kids. That is only going to get worse with the academy roll-out, which gives heads more autonomy. That translates to more freedoms to make teachers’ lives a fucking nightmare.”

Would you return? 

“If something shifts in the way teachers are treated, absolutely. Kids are hilarious, it can be a really creative profession, and is great for anyone who enjoys ‘being in charge’. I can’t imagine my future where I won’t do it again, but something has to change.”