In January, I embarked on a book for Bloomsbury Education entitled How to Survive and Thrive in Teaching, due for completion in January 2017. The book came about through a combination of sheer serendipity, my doctoral research on balancing teaching and parenthood (http://relationalschools.org/teaching-and-parenting-the-conversation-continues/) and my own blog, charting my recent experiences in the classroom and beyond: https://thosethatcanteach.wordpress.com/. Underpinning my writing (and indeed all of my enterprises) is a passionate commitment to a profession I love and a fierce and hard-wired optimism. A belief that it’s important to acknowledge the many challenges we face, but that it’s possible, with the right combination of strong leadership, self-discipline and moral integrity, to overcome these challenges.
Since starting the book, I’ve been inundated with stories, anecdotes and data from teachers across the UK and beyond. Some stories are optimistic and positive; teachers and leaders who are fulfilled, happy and know they are making the kind of difference they set out to make when they joined the profession. Many more are not, and I’ve found my optimism challenged and, at times, deeply shaken.
A couple of weeks ago, I received text message, from a recent contact, a talented, intelligent teacher busting with potential in his third year of teaching. The day before, he’d informed me of his decision to leave the profession. I’d hoped he could be persuaded otherwise. This was his response:
I’m sad to be leaving the classroom and I’m sad to be leaving the kids, but I feel a relief that I don’t think I’ve ever felt before. For the first time in months, I’m going to bed tonight and I don’t feel down or sad. That tells me I’ve made the right decision. Teaching is an amazing job but there’s more to life than a job and I need to go out and find what’s going to make me happy.
Of course, there’s always staff turnover in teaching. In my early years, I remember regrettably watching people make (or be gently encouraged into) the decision to move on from the profession. More often than not, in my experience, the decision, whilst sad, was the Right One – for the individual and for the profession. It doesn’t seem to be like that anymore. I regularly see people walking away from the profession (or the country) who had so much still to offer. And it makes me sad. So, why are they going?
I’m in the middle of conducting a survey for my book. This is aimed at teachers, trainees, former teachers and educational professionals. The full findings will be shared in the forthcoming book, and this is the first place where I will share some of the emerging findings.
So far, 1,355 people have responded, of whom 42% are teachers, 9% are former teachers, 34% are senior- or middle-leaders, 6% are Headteachers, 2% are trainees, and 6% are other education professionals, including school governors. 77% of respondents are female, and 96% are currently working in the UK. 84% are working or worked in the state (or maintained) sector. Primary, secondary and further education establishments are all included. In addition to their context, participants are asked about their working hours, their motivations to join the profession, the positive elements of their jobs and the elements which they find the most challenging.
The images below show the frequency of key terms used in the responses (nothing beats a good Word Cloud!).
Participants were asked: what are the best/most positive elements of being a teacher today? The prevalence of references to young people, children and relationships is particularly noteworthy.
Participants were then asked, what are the most difficult/challenging elements of being a teacher today? Here, the words ‘time’ and ‘lack’ stand out, together with as many as 161 references to ‘government and 137 to Ofsted…
Participants were then asked to indicate their level of agreement with a series of statements. The overwhelming majority of participants – 93% agree or strongly agree with the statement, ‘teaching is a worthwhile profession’. It is, however, rather a slap in the face to find that only 34% of participants would recommend teaching to a close friend or relative considering entering the profession. Add to this the fact that only 5% feel that teachers and teaching are portrayed positively in the media and 3% that teachers are respected by politicians, and we start to see that the ‘teacher crisis’ may well be entering the eye of the storm.
In order to truly address issues around teacher recruitment and retention, the voices of those who have chosen to leave the profession are essential. These constitute 122 of the participants so far.
Of these former teachers, 41% agreed or strongly agree with the statement, ‘I was happy in my work’. Whilst there are a handful of references to poor student behaviour, the key challenges, it would appear, are not in the classroom, with 92% agreeing or strongly agreeing with the statement ‘I enjoyed teaching in the classroom’.
So what are the issues which lead to teachers deciding to leave the classroom? For a significant minority, who served their full three or four decades, it was simply time to retire, claim their medals and take on new challenges. However, for others, who left to pursue other careers or simply to recuperate, the following issues are worth highlighting:
Workload. No surprises here. I’ve already done quite a lot of research in this area, so felt quite confident when setting up the parameters in the survey in the question, In your current job, how many hours on average per week do you spend working outside your contracted hours? What I hadn’t expected was that the vast majority of practising teachers would place themselves in the upper end of the spectrum. 50% of participants placed themselves in the top two bands, stating that they work more than 16 hours a week outside their contracted hours, with a staggering 25% of participants working more than 20 hours a week outside these hours. This is shown in the graphic below.
For former teachers, this was even more extreme, with 57% having worked at least 16 hours extra per week and 33% more than 20.
Once more, relationships are key. 42% disagree or strongly disagree with the statement, ‘I felt supported by my line-manager’ and only 39% felt supported by the managers in general. 84% agreed or strongly agree with the statement ‘I experienced negative “politics” at work.
More concerning, 88% of former teachers who responded agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, ‘I experienced anxiety directly related to my job’, 28% took medication for depression and/or anxiety and 34% experienced poor physical health related to their work. 43% of former teachers who have participated in the survey so far placed poor mental health in their top three reasons for leaving the profession. This is an area close to my heart, having lost a friend and former Head to suicide almost two years ago: https://thosethatcanteach.wordpress.com/2014/08/27/losing-your-head/
Digging deeper into the survey, former teachers make 12 explicit mentions of bullying by colleagues, including, ‘bullying in every aspect of my professional life by one person’ and one participant sharing the fact that he was ‘bullied and suffered discrimination to the point I attempted suicide’.
This research, which I embarked on with such optimism, has revealed a dark side of our profession which, as the stories come rolling in, sadly surprises me less and less. I now read blogs and articles from teachers who have chosen to jump ship, less with the disappointment or even impatience of previous years, and more with a level of empathy and compassion. More often than not, in their shoes, I’m not sure I would or could have stayed.
More and more, I can say that I have known, respected and been professionally inspired by teachers like Tim Paramour http://timparamour.com/2016/03/07/the-story-of-the-teaching-crisis/ and @mumsomeone https://someonesmum.co.uk/2016/03/09/teaching-a-family-unfriendly-profession/. I am fortunate also to be surrounded by an army of young and resilient new teachers and more experienced and wiser ones who offer regular inspiration and groups like Education Support who plough research and resources into help us through the inevitable challenges. And young people who make me snort with spontaneous laughter and gasp at their moments of enlightenment.
Please do fill in my survey if you haven’t already. Your voices are hugely important. surveymonkey.co.uk/r/DVYLNBG
The results will be explored in full in my forthcoming book, Surviving and Thriving in Teaching, for Bloomsbury.