Guest Blog 12: Nine Years a Teacher

Becoming a Teacher

Throughout my life I always seemed to find myself teaching. I can’t help myself. When I attended secondary school, I raised money to pay for university by teaching adults how to use their computers. When I was a lifeguard, I found teaching kids how to swim the most enjoyable. While in university studying for my Computer Science degree, I joined the staff at a summer program where I taught young children how to program computers, and I absolutely loved it. Teaching wasn’t something I decided to do: it was a part of me from the beginning and I eventually decided to take it seriously.

Like many current teachers, I can point partial blame at many of my own teachers who challenged and inspired me. They made teaching as a profession seem like a good option. I wanted to do what they did, and over my schooling years, I increasingly felt that teaching was the direction I should take. I originally went to university for a computer science degree, but the call to teaching continued to fester.

After I received my bachelor’s degree, I returned to university and quickly found myself holding my teacher certification in the USA for teaching Maths, English, and Computer Science (ICT). For a while, I did supply teaching work, but teaching jobs were in short supply in my area. Schools were beginning to face cuts, and universities were producing teachers at record numbers. A veteran teacher told me once that for every job they would receive close to six hundred applications, and they typically would get rid of any applications from new teachers to help narrow down the field. Because of supply and demand, I was going to have to leave where I had spent my entire life and look for a job somewhere else.

I’m not sure of the exact reasons I chose to try the UK over some other part of the USA. The idea first came to me when I saw a poster advertising teaching abroad, and I found myself wanting to see more of the world, but my true reason for leaving was a bit more complex.

In short, I can blame my family history for my desire to come to England. Most of my family tree is littered with Irish, Scottish, Welsh and English surnames. Thanks to my cousin who is a historian, we had a good record of a lot of the trials and migration patterns of our ancestors. There was one story, however, that I kept coming back to. My great grandfather was one of what were called the “HomeChildren.” Starting around 1869, around 100,000 poor orphaned children in England were essentially sold into slave labour around the world. Hearing about his story inspired me to one day move to the UK and trace my ancestors’ footsteps. My teaching certificate now gave me a chance to travel abroad as many schools around the UK were (and still are) struggling to fill teaching vacancies in many schools. Many get around this shortage by pulling in people from abroad to get people to fill in the gaps. A quick interview process, and I eventually found myself and about a dozen other US citizens travelling to the UK to teach.

While Teaching

Most of us ended up at a single secondary school (academy) in south-east London, and I was employed as an ICT teacher. The only thing I will say about my first year teaching was that I had no idea what I was in for. It was a trial by fire. For example, the most senior member of our department was an NQT, and I was older than a good portion of the staff perhaps including the headteacher himself. While everyone had the best intentions, no one seemed to know what they were doing except for the students who often took advantage of the confused adults in the school trying to keep order. In an open planned school, keeping order can be very difficult. On top of this, ICT wasn’t what I expected. Essentially it was teaching the children how to use Microsoft Office, which wasn’t the same ICT I grew up with. I quickly found myself not liking the subject I was teaching.

I could tell dozens of stories about the things I saw while teaching here, but at this point I will only say that it ended in total disaster for me. An Ofsted inspection was something new to me – we don’t have such governmental inspections in the states – and I tried to follow the advice of the teacher training staff during my inspection. I was extremely nervous however, and things didn’t go even remotely well. After my observation, the inspector said that my lesson was one of the worst he had seen and that I should never have chosen to be a teacher and should leave the profession immediately. I was absolutely devastated. I almost retreated back to the USA in disgrace, but a chance meeting with my future wife and my own stubborn nature helped me come to the conclusion that I had invested too much to give up yet.

The second school I taught at, just outside north London, changed everything for me. First, I switched to teaching Maths which I found better suited my teaching style. Secondly, the school was much better run than the first school. I felt supported for the first time in my teaching career. While still a difficult school, I found myself gaining confidence each day. Soon, I had earned teaching certification for England, had a small following of geeky teenagers I was teaching computer programming to before school and during breaktimes, and the head teacher even told me that I would be a great teacher if I kept up my hard work and progressing. I even began teaching other departments how to use the interactive whiteboards effectively in the classroom, and I was even sent to work with other schools to develop ICT resources across Essex. Three years into teaching, I started to feel that I was beginning to prove that first Ofsted inspector wrong.

I started to relax a little, and bring my hobbies into my lessons. Dates on the board were often written in random alphabets including Mayan, Japanese, Arabic, and even Klingon. I would often bring current news events and what I heard the students talking about into my maths lesson. It became a bit of a joke among the students that I could link any topic to maths no matter how obscure.

Over the years, for various reasons, I found myself switching schools every few years. The main reason was that I was struggling to plan effective lessons due to the fact that I had to plan for a wide range of ages and abilities. I was easily spending more than 60-hour weeks working and could barely keep up with the marking and planning required. Holidays were a godsend as I could just barely catch up before school started back up again. I kept thinking that the next school would be better.

I often had to just follow the textbook for some classes as I didn’t have the time to plan really effective lessons for all of my classes. How I could effectively teach a year 7 pupil was completely different to how I could effectively teach a year 11 pupil. Increasingly I found myself wanting to just teach a single age or ability range so that my lesson planning efforts could be more effective. In all of the secondary schools I tried, however, none would allow me to focus on a smaller age range. I really wanted to focus on one age group, and the only way to do this was to move to primary education.

The final school I found myself at was one that split KS2 up so that there were teachers for different subjects. The reasoning behind this was that it prepared the children for secondary school, and I largely agree with this idea. The students remained in their classrooms while different teachers roamed the school with their lessons in tow. I was hired as the ICT Coordinator and a year 5 maths teacher, and began half-way through the school year since my predecessor retired. I remember being extremely impressed that a teacher actually made it to retirement age. While I followed my predecessor around before he eventually left, I was struck at how the school seemed much more stable than any school I had worked at before, and for the first time in my teaching career, I felt that I could plan interesting lessons. I put everything I had into the role, brought back programming into ICT, and would at least once a month work at least one 70 week in order to fit everything in. My wife would often complain that I was never really there. I have heard other people describe being like a ghost, and I understand that idea completely. Teaching was all consuming.

At the end of my eighth year teaching, an Ofsted inspector told me that he didn’t want to leave my lesson because he was having too much fun. He gave me a “Good” rating, and offered some very helpful suggestions about marking. At this time, my students were progressing often more than 4 sublevels per year in my classroom on average. There are many reasons for this. First, I created an assessment system that allowed me to individually track how well each student did on each maths topic throughout the year. It generated charts automatically, and I used it to catch students doing well. I constantly showed them and their parents how they improved on certain topics, and how their hard work was paying off. Next steps were easy for me as I just had to find the topics that were lagging behind and target them. “I’m just no good at maths,” became less and less frequently heard as I was able to prove them wrong almost every time. Their achievements increased as I helped them gain confidence which almost seemed like my primary goal as a teacher by this point.

I can’t take total credit for their fast progression. The school was similar to one I attended growing up: a school with supportive parents and teachers that often worked together. This school had a community, and teachers were a respected part of that community. I had a voice, the parents had a voice and often helped run clubs or events for the school. Most of the students seemed to feel responsible for their learning as well. For a little while, I loved my job.

Leaving Teaching

There are many reasons for my eventual decision to leave teaching. For one, the workload was finally starting to take its toll on me and I could no longer keep it up. I had a growing family to look after, and I increasingly wanted to be able to spend time with them when I was done with work instead of marking papers in the evening. Not only that, but anyone with young children can tell you that you don’t get much sleep. I was getting sick more often, and I could no longer afford to spend time at the gym in the mornings. My health quickly suffered.

Another aspect of my exodus was that the workload was increasing. The lesson plans that I had to create to be scrutinized by management was now taking me on average 2-3 hours per week as I had to detail all of the sublevels, books, page numbers, problems and student breakdowns, and how I instructed my teaching assistant with each task. Marking was increasing as well. I had received reprimands from the management that my comments that I made in the student workbooks were too short, and didn’t show enough of a next step. I was told that if I didn’t improve, I would face disciplinary action.

I was told one day by someone in the teaching management that my lessons weren’t traditional enough. On another day it was that my class was too noisy. Part of the reason for this was that on my holidays I had began making maths games and animations for the interactive whiteboard, and if the students completed their work early, I would break them up into teams to review what they just learned in a fun way. I tried to make interactive resources for the children that they could even use at home for some of the topics they struggled with. Some of my students voluntarily answered tens of thousands of maths questions over a month on one of my games that I put online in order to get a “first place” certificate in the school assembly. They loved it and it served as a good review. I didn’t care that the children were a bit excitable. They were learning, and I had the data to back it up if anyone questioned me.

It seemed that almost on a weekly basis I was starting to be nit-picked on everything I did, and I wasn’t alone. Staff meetings became a firestorm of arguments between teachers and the management. We were told that in addition to the 50-60 hours per week that we were told to be marking at least 1-2 hours a day at home. I put together my mathematical calculations into a report, and showed the headteacher that with my role as an IT Coordinator, the time required of me added up to roughly 75 hours per week. I made it clear that I was no longer able to put that kind of time in. She said in turn that it was part of the job, and I should leave if I couldn’t work that many hours.

This is when I began to think outside of teaching for the first time. Friends who were teaching in other schools were repeating to me the same stories I was telling them, and so I felt that switching schools wouldn’t solve anything. Job searches became an almost daily task now at the end of the day. I needed to get out and claim my life back.

One by one, I heard about the other teachers I started with all those years ago leaving the profession. Of the people I was still in contact with, only two others were still in the teaching profession besides myself, and one of them was returning to the USA to teach there. Teaching in the UK had become a strange combination of the best and worst job I had ever had. I loved being in the classroom and helping children learn, but dealing with all of the management and paperwork required began to make me feel horribly depressed and physically sick. Finally, over an Easter holiday on my ninth year which I spent a good portion of ill, I decided enough was enough.

In hindsight, I wish I had put more planning into leaving. I didn’t realize when I started that there was a law which required teachers to give a full term’s notice otherwise face legal problems. Not many employers outside of education would wait for three months. Even so, I tried to create the best resume I could without sounding too much like a teacher. I used the assessment system and the many games and animations I programmed during my holidays as a resume to switch to an IT career. It was my second passion, and I decided to fall back onto it at this point. A few job interviews I had over the holiday ended with the businesses wanting me to start in a few weeks. They pulled out their offer when I said that I couldn’t start until August due to laws. I was caught between professions.

On the first day back from Easter holiday, I took a huge risk: without a job lined up, I submitted my resignation on the first day back. If I didn’t do it then, I would be stuck for another year. I thought that worst case scenario, I could supply teach for a while and try to make enough to pay rent, but even the thought of doing that made me cringe. It wasn’t a reliable income, and it wasn’t really going in the direction I wanted. After submitting my resignation, other teachers approached me and said that they were probably going to (and eventually did) do the same. We began sharing advice and tips for looking for jobs and preparing for a career change together.

In the end, I was lucky. A business I had interviewed with had decided that they were willing to work with my schedule if I gave them my holidays and the occasional weekend. It was hard in the beginning, but the payoff was big. They even agreed to allow me a few weeks in August to have a holiday. I nearly cried I was so grateful. I know that many others who left teaching often had to return to supply teaching, or were really struggling to find a decent job.

When I switched over careers, it seemed like I was on holiday. Even now, over two years later, I feel like I’m just having a break. Now, I can work at my usual fast teacher-speed pace, but not worry about being micromanaged. I feel that I can be creative in my solutions and not be judged as “non traditional.” Even though I worried that I would never enjoy a job again, I was surprised that I loved my new job almost as much as teaching in the classroom.

A year later, the parents of the last school I taught at tracked me down and invited me back for a school play and a year 6 graduating party. I debated not going as I didn’t leave on the best of terms with the head teacher, but in the end I remembered that the whole reason I got into teaching was the children. I accepted the invitation.

I am not an emotional person by any stretch of the imagination, but the support the parents and the students gave me when I returned is something that nearly brings me to tears even now. I had left the profession feeling I wasn’t appreciated and was a failure. I hid in the back of the auditorium, hoping I wouldn’t be noticed. Instead I was faced with a mass of students and parents who proudly proclaimed that they passed the 11+ test, how many were level 5 or 6, and how they missed me and my teaching which was so different and easier to understand than most other teachers. At the end of the school play when we were giving the students a standing ovation, the students overrode the headteacher and gave me a standing ovation from the stage. I literally had no idea I had even remotely that level of impact on their lives.

Sitting here, I think back fondly to my teaching career. Ignoring the trials and hardships, teaching gave me so much that I could never measure or state it in this post. I learned to not take myself seriously. I learned to bring my hobbies, creativity and passion to my work. I learned that people work better together as a community, and I learned that children are far smarter and more aware than most adults give them credit for. I learned that hard work does indeed pay off even if you don’t see the results directly.

Maybe one day I will return to teaching. Even now, I still feel that teaching is my true calling. Right now, however, I am enjoying spending my evenings with my family. Freed up from marking and lesson planning I can actually ask my own children how their days were and play with them. I can go for walks in the local parks without feeling guilty that I’m not working hard enough during my free time. Friends and family are no longer afraid to ask me how my day was. I rarely break into rants, my eyes are no longer bloodshot & strained, and I can actually sit down and take up some old hobbies again.

Instead of marking or planning in the evenings, I’ve written a novel, built a a few things with the Raspberry Pi, and taught my oldest son how to use a computer. I have started back at the gym again, and have slowly built up to swimming the occasional 2.5K. My evenings have become what they always should have been: time for myself and my family, and that is definitely worth the change. While leaving teaching was a huge loss for me, what I have gained from it is far greater.

Twitter: @pughmds

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3 Responses to Guest Blog 12: Nine Years a Teacher

  1. dnbexteacher says:

    I really appreciated this story. I think you’ve brought up the struggle that so many teachers face… we go into it for the students and to make a difference, but the micromanagement and unrealistic expectations are too much. I think this profession is going to lose a lot of great people if they don’t shape up.


    • Matthew says:

      Thank you for reading. I honestly think that one of the biggest problems that teachers face is that their time is limited so much that they really struggle to bring creativity to their role. When it is so hard finding the time to just survive, it can seem almost impossible to bring the kind of passion and individuality that teachers used to bring to the profession. That’s not to say it can’t be done, but it does seem harder. Many of the teachers I grew up with have openly told me that they wouldn’t want to be a teacher in today’s environment. It’s sad, and I don’t see it improving any time soon…


  2. Pingback: Guest Blog on Exit Teaching Blog | Random Thoughts

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