Last July, I left teaching. My story is generic in that I left to save my sanity, but specific in that I worked in quite a range of settings before I came to that painful decision. I had done striding along echoing corridors in a suit; I had done kneeling on a threadbare carpet reading stories in squeaky voices; I had done slow and patient journeys through algebra with adults and fast and exciting romps through calculus with sixth formers. I had done gentle tutoring of terrified children who had lost their confidence and inspection of unsupported support staff to gain qualifications; I had done endless witch-hunts (sorry, data meetings); I had somersaulted neatly over crash mats and smiled as our class caterpillars flew brightly and finally out of the window. Since then, I have also completed the set by doing daily supply in some local schools and our PRU. The conclusion that I have reached is that education in this country is not in a state where I and it can be bedfellows.
Like many, I have suffered stress, mental health issues, physical symptoms like migraines, exhaustion, fainting, insomnia, an unexplained and acute rash. Like many, I neglected my children and partner. One of the symptoms of mental illness is blaming yourself for issues that you are not wholly responsible for. This is why it can be so difficult to break out of the cycle of stress and self-blame, because you cannot rationalise the other factors that may be causing a breakdown, and instead beat yourself up internally for being too lazy, too weak and too incompetent.
It took several months for me to reach the conclusion that it wasn’t me that needed to change, but the profession. No-one can work 60+ hours a week, take the blame for every single lack of progression in every single individual they teach, plan and deliver engaging content consistently well, deal with workplace bullying as a matter of course, mark almost everything, make sure they are keeping up with subject and pedagogical research, and manage the behaviour of every human being that walks into their classroom successfully. No-one can even come close. Teaching, at best, is a job that is never finished, never perfect, always possible to improve upon. At the moment, it’s like trying to paint a block of ice-cream the size of house with a finger-sized paintbrush in the midday sun – both impossible and largely futile.
Have you ever tried to teach someone something that they don’t want to learn? No matter how you dress it up, how many props you use, or how funny or brilliant or knowledgeable you are, learning is an active process. It takes thought, engagement, questioning, checking, speaking, analysing, writing, drawing or making, at the very least. Imagine a child who refuses to pick up a pen, answers every question with ‘I don’t know’, and reacts aggressively to gentle prompting to think. Imagine now that it is your job to teach that child something they didn’t know before and don’t see the value in. Imagine that you are hauled over the coals every time that child does not learn from your teaching. You can influence pupils, of course; but they are humans and you cannot force them to learn. It is the equivalent of a police constable being blamed if a criminal commits a crime, a translator being blamed if they deliver an unsavoury message; a farmer being blamed if an animal dies from disease. Imagine a world where these things happened and the consequences that would naturally occur and it’s no wonder teachers cheat, manipulate data, bully their colleagues, and teach to the test.
I’m aware that I’m generalising, based on my own experience. I have written before about the two tiers of teachers that have emerged since I left – those who need help, and those who seem fine and would rather not admit there is a problem. If you can’t relate to these issues, it is likely that you are in a school with exceptional management, a great catchment, or you are a superhero of some sort. Congratulations. But I have worked in five local schools in the last two years, and the story is broadly the same: it cannot be done well over any significant period of time without serious personal consequences.
Making the decision to leave teaching wasn’t difficult – it was life and death to me. What has been more difficult is deciding to stay in touch with it. Like an ex that I had left, it seemed at first that a clean break was in order. But the cynicism you have heard in this piece does not sit well with me. Despite appearances, I’m an optimist, an idealist, a dreamer. My decision has been to get out of teaching so I can make it better. Any government worth its salt knows you have to get the peasants to dig ditches (or plan lessons in triplicate) so they’re too exhausted to revolt. I’m putting down my shovel for a bit, UK government, and I’m coming for you. And if it so happens that I can do it – with the help of a great many colleagues – I might even take teaching back one day. This is a separation, not a divorce.