Britain Education & Teaching Government Mental Health society

Those that can’t do, teach

CW: mention of anxiety, depression, suicide.

I want to apologise in advance for those in or out of the profession – at any capacity – that most certainly can do and also teach. The titular phrasing of this post is not a dig at teachers being talentless, but rather the mentality I had when entering the profession.

That being said, we’ve all had talentless teachers – I strangely commend them for somehow not being fired.

In September 2017 I haphazardly decided to travel a route well-trodden and become an educator.

In April 2018, it had ceased to be my calling.

I’ve never really followed many conventional routes into the prescribed idea of things. I left school at the age of seventeen after years of depression, managing by some chance of luck to take eleven GCSEs along with me. I attempted AS but alas, not attending classes is enough to get you kicked off the course – apparently.

Friction at home, mental health and stoic working-class parents meant that I was given two weeks to find a job before being dragged into an industry that I neither thought of or aspired to work in. Yet, despite my apprehension it sort of worked out, I gained immeasurable experience, and money, to do things many people couldn’t – and I was actually pretty good at it.

I eventually moved into less lucrative fields before deciding I was ready for education again, chancing my luck at uni. It was an uphill struggle, and three of the toughest years of my life – mentally and otherwise. However, I did it and graduated. I had hope, aspiration and a desire to follow my dreams.

I was naïve. Really, really naïve.

Like most graduates, regardless of being twenty-seven, I had no idea how to actually fulfil what I wanted to do. I dreamed of working in an NGO, a start-up or being freelance – activism, writing perhaps even setting up my own organisation – but then the dreaded “I need money and a career and that doesn’t seem to quite fit that ideal, does it?” slipped into the back of my mind.

So, being paid to study and train to become a teacher, was the ideal, a dream come true actually. The quintessential cherry on my big delicious cake. I’d become an educator, I’ll teach languages. Combine a personal love of foreign tongues and a selfless career of shaping young children’s lives. When asked what type of teacher I’d like to be, I jumped up – the pastoral kind! The kind that makes sure my babies are okay, able to learn and are supported.

I saw myself as having a unique skill set, background and a voice that perhaps could speak to scores of children in the capital that maybe didn’t see themselves in the mainstream – working class kids, like me, that had been told that the only thing that matters in life is getting by, having some cash and making sure you survive.

Kids that, when expressing a desire to be something precarious, uncertain – like an artist, or a politician – they’d be told it was out of the question, that they’d never make a living out of it. Kids whose vision was narrowed by protective blinkers that shot them towards vocational or money-orientated professions. Much unlike artists, or *ahem*, politicians.

So, I applied. I started, and I ignored the naysayers. I also ignored myself, for the most part.

Over the years I’ve seen many people enter and abruptly leave either the training or the profession itself. They didn’t like the kids, couldn’t (or wouldn’t) deal with the work load or just flat out didn’t like it.

I heard it all.

“Yeah try it, get your training and leave if you don’t like it”

“I wouldn’t do anything else”

“It’s torrid, stay away”

“Why oh fucking why would you do that?!”

“Mental”

Etcetera.

Upon entering school, I was not prepared for what I was about to be facing.

On average, the teachers I was interacting with across two training placements, arrived at school around 7:00-7:30 and got ready for their day. They left around two hours after the children left and continued work at home, either planning or marking, for around 3 hours – differing depending on subject and years on the job.

But on top of that, you aren’t just teaching. You’re responsible for a tutor group, extracurricular activities, interventions to help failing students. You have to talk to parents, do parent evenings, set detentions, follow paperwork, attend meetings and take on further responsibilities throughout the school. You don’t stop. The majority of teachers I spoke to set a side, as a minimum, a day at the weekend to do work and ‘catch-up’, too.

As a trainee, we were fundamentally encouraged to follow the same ‘work-ethic’. I got into school an hour before my first responsibility of the day, be that tutor group or period 1. I’d do my teaching, try to do my university and school paperwork plus plan my next lessons. Our university outlined we must give our lesson plans to our mentors 48hours in advance and that should be within a normal working week (i.e. Monday’s lessons should be sent on Thursday morning)

At 12 hours teaching per week, with an average 2.5 hours planning – as a newbie – per lesson, they wanted us to hand in roughly 30hours of work (at a good pace), whilst also doing a good 5 hours of paper work, essays and assignments, a research project and eat through a reading list of theory and practice. Oh, and teach. Obviously, everyone’s schedule differs and there were situations which either eased your work load or hindered it – teaching the same lesson 3 times per week for example – but mostly we were looking at a 60-hour work week as a trainee, whilst juggling part time jobs (for those that didn’t get a bursary) family, kids, friends – a general life.

This wasn’t a case of heavy training to make us good and ready for teaching. This was a case of preparation of what’s to come.

You may call me cynical, but this was a top down message.

When confronting our university trainers on workload and expectations, we were confronted with having a “weak constitution”, apparently. When one person asked, “what would happen if I refuse to work weekends or after school hours?” one guest speaker didn’t have an answer, they simply shrugged and insinuated you’d not get the job.

Whilst panicking about workload we were told “not to worry, do it as you go along”, which was what we were trying to do but often failing – and then challenged during inspections as to why we hadn’t caught up with the paperwork.

I spent almost five months waking up at 5:45 and finishing work at 9-10pm at night and then also doing extra planning for one, if not two days of the weekend. I thought I was actually doing well in terms of workload, I was on top of everything, never missed a lesson or deadline and had my paperwork up to date. But it still wasn’t enough.

Teacher workloads are not a new thing, teachers have always been strung out. I remember my school years and can’t imagine how some of them coped in such harsh environments, how banal it must have been to have to interact with kids that had only disdain for you and disregard for your work whilst maintaining their grades and progress. More and more teachers are going part-time now so that they get extra days per week to catch up on their work – that’s fuckery to a new level.

But this was not a surprise.

The government has been pushing state comprehensives to the brink of toppling for decades. It’s estimated that each school is losing out on £200k a year of funding, minimum, and whilst that can be drastically different depending on location, size and so forth, it also signals the government’s agenda in pushing funding towards free-schools and academies.

One of my school placements was part of a consortium of state schools refusing to academise, as the government put pressure on them by reducing their funding. They were trying to buy time and make the transition on their terms and in their own way.

But what about in the mean time? The government is creating policy that puts more and more onus on teachers throughout the work day. Schools are understaffed due to the state of the system and funding, which is directly affecting newly trained teacher retention levels and the children are being put through an exam factory – increasing levels of anxiety, depression and suicide in under-16s at an alarming rate.

So, where I see flaws in the system and have great concern for certain aspects of the teaching demographic, I also have a huge appreciation for the fact that there are people sticking with the profession and giving up their lives to educate children, in whichever capacity they choose.

And let’s not lose focus on certain issues when we talk about teachers.

Summer holidays and half terms are not a fair trade for doing upwards of an 80-hour week when you’re fully qualified and established. Yes, I hear people cry, if people can’t handle the heat they should get out of the kitchen but shouldn’t people dedicating their lives and careers to educating children have a nice work-life balance and be fairly paid for it?

Shouldn’t they be allowed time to be creative and engaging without the intense pressure of exam results? Many people thrive in harsh work environments, they are androids which are super organised and stand unflinching at the possibility of the impossible – but others aren’t. We lose great, dedicated teachers that find the mental strain too much and that’s sad for the children.

And so, it seems, accidentally, quite fitting that today is ‘Teacher Appreciation Day’. Let’s take time to appreciate good teachers that we have had, our kids might have (although, millennial parents will probably aim for kids in their 40s, let’s be honest) or those that are teaching people we’ll work for in years to come when we can no longer keep up with technology and they decide we are the problem.

We spend the first 15 years of our lives in compulsory education and it shapes not only many aspects of those years, but the years that follow.

If you, or someone you know, is considering becoming a teacher – do your research. Speak to other teachers, work in a school before that and get used to the system and inner-workings of school life.

Be prepared.

 

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