In October 2016, an article appeared on the Guardian that struck a chord.
I started my teaching career in 2010 by undertaking a PGCE in Secondary Geography Education at Aberystwyth University, finishing in July 2011.
Living in the depths of Mid-Wales meant there were few employment opportunities so I made the tough decision somewhat late in the school year to move down to the South East of England where I initially went and worked in Early Years for several months before moving onto my first full time teaching role in June 2012.
The statistics in the article were concerning “Of the 21,400 who began teaching in English state schools in 2010, 30% had quit by 2015, the schools minister, Nick Gibb, confirmed. More than one in 10 (13%) of newly qualified teachers left after a year of teaching, meaning 87% continued to work in the classroom, a proportion the government says is largely unchanged since 1996. That figure fell to 82% after two years in profession, 77% after three years, 73% after four years and 70% after five years”. (Sally Weale, 2016)
And whilst I wasn’t one of those that began teaching in state schools in 2010, I’m definitely one of those that has considered leaving the profession several times within the first 5 years.
To be honest teaching lessons has always been the easy part; it’s the relentless workload surrounding book scrutinises, data input, assessment and observations that have made it so difficult. Alongside that I became Head of Department at a new school in April 2014, which had opened in September 2013 and had to set up the department from scratch. Fortunately for me my planning was my strong point, but as the only Humanities specialist it was a solo effort and a lot of hard work.
So, here’s my tale of 5 years a teacher.
My NQT year was interesting. I worked with some amazing educators and a fantastic department. The school was tough with high expectations for staff and often challenging students, but I always felt incredibly supported by my department and NQT coordinator.
During this time, I lived 30 miles from work and although the journey wasn’t too arduous I didn’t drive; Never needed to learn living in Cardiff and Aberystwyth, where public transport was reliable and cheap or things were in walking distance. Luckily a wonderful woman came to my rescue, she lived in the same town and was also an NQT. She was older than me and had entered the profession after a wealth of experience elsewhere; dare I say it, she became like a mother to me with all her words of advice and constant reminders of work/life balance. Even when I eventually passed my driving test and got a car, we continued to car share.
However despite the support it was a struggle learning to manage behaviour whilst trying to ensure progress; trying to juggle marking and planning; keeping track of student data and monitoring progress; writing reports and attending meetings; finding time to make phone calls home due to negative behaviour and trying to ensure you added a few for positive behaviour; attending NQT CPD sessions and ensuring time to research pedagogy and classroom management strategies… the list goes on of the balancing acts that took place. The PGCE really didn’t prepare me for this level of work.
There was definitely no work/life balance at this point, along with Ofsted in the first term but I still managed to pass my NQT with Outstanding thanks to the support I received.
I stayed at the same school, I felt confident this year would be better. I knew the routines, more of the students, the GCSE courses etc. It should have been a breeze and to start with it was. Well until my projector broke in the first term. Doh!
No projector meant all my resources from the year before were somewhat redundant, that along with the fact that photocopying budget was low so printing was restricted which meant that teaching lessons suddenly became a lot more difficult. Unfortunately, it was going to be several weeks for the parts to be delivered because I just so happened to have an ‘old’ projector.
This point taught me a lot though, how to teach without technology and resources. I relied on my knowledge and the white board. I used models students had made the previous year to demonstrate, for instance rainforest structure; I became more imaginative in my approach. But it was hard work, really hard work though.
The tip of the iceberg came just after I’d been told to relax on my marking by the Head. He recognised how hard I was working and that my marking was top of the school but I was working myself into the ground. Yet we had a Mocksted and my external observer gave me terrible feedback – firstly he commented that I hadn’t shared the L/Os with students (hrm, yes I had they were on the whiteboard and at the top of the student instruction sheets and if you’d been here at the start of the lesson you would have heard me read and discuss them with the class), he commented on my poor planning (there were a range of activities with plenty of differentiation to suit individual needs and to stretch my more able, but that wasn’t recognised) and finally the negative comment on my marking… MY MARKING! Insufficient! WTF. I blew my top at that. My Head of Department was not happy, the Head certainly didn’t agree and essentially the whole observation was wiped off the record. The school threw a big party that Christmas… many of us felt it was a way to say sorry for the terrible Mocksted experience especially as we’d got Outstanding the year before from the official Ofsted.
After that experience however by the time half term came I was exhausted and didn’t feel I wanted to go back to school. I’d fallen into a state of depression, which I hadn’t realised at the time but looking back that’s exactly what it was. I started experiencing dizziness and vertigo as well which almost led me to passing out in front of a class and several visits to the GP and hospital.
The school provided some counselling which helped and I eventually applied for Head of Humanities at a different school, closer to home. I managed to get the position in February and handed in my notice to end at Easter. Whilst the Head did not seem happy with the decision and did not make things easy, I’m sure deep down he recognised it was the best thing for me at the time.
I left in April and started my new role after Easter.
And wow, how very different it was. I went from teaching Geography and History to teaching across the Humanities, as well as Art, Cookery, ICT and Drama. The previous Head of Humanities had left no resources, so I had no idea what they’d been taught already. What an interesting time that the first full term it turned out to be. The kids were very challenging in completely different ways and it was an exhausting summer term but I stuck with it. I immediately implemented routines and behavioural strategies and laid out my expectations clearly. My NQT year had prepared me well.
That summer was spent preparing for the September. I had to make sure I was fully prepared for my lessons in order to ensure my time went into managing behaviour and the resulting workload as well as the high levels of differentiation and scaffolding that would be needed.
Year 3 went by in a whirlwind. Being a new school, there was a hell of a lot of work involved in setting up whole and departmental resources and routines. We were a small community and it felt like that to begin with. Everyone was supportive of one another, we ate together and chatted when we could.
As a consistent team of staff emerged, the kids became better behaved and the consistency helped many of them to feel better about school. In fact, what became more challenging was the workload. Being a new school, we had regular visits from a DofE representative (I think) who would observe the progress of the school, staff and students. We’d have one a term, along with other observations as part of the self-evaluation weeks. We had to provide data packs on classes, flightpaths on books, targets and progress on the front covers etc. The amount of paper being used was huge and that was before we thought about resourcing lessons and scaffolding for students. Anyway, I did what I had to do and got through. There were times I wanted to just give up but I kept on thanks to the support of my family and closest colleagues. By June we had Ofsted and it was a very positive experience. I felt confident and it came across; the inspector had no feedback on how I could improve. Win. My marking and feedback was also highly recognised and praised by the inspection team. My feedback not marking approach was beginning to take shape and as result I ended up running a CPD session in the final term for current and new staff on marking and feedback strategies.
Whilst it had been a difficult year in terms of workload, #Teacher5aday and twitter had helped me through the rollercoaster and I finished the school year on a relative high (although I was disappointed we didn’t have a celebration to celebrate our excellent Ofsted result).
This was the year of my undoing. This was the year I came closest to walking out of teaching once and for all. This was the year when it all got too much. The workload, the behaviour, the level of SEN, the lack of support, the lack of specific CPD…. the staff morale. In fact, I think staff morale had the biggest impact. Seeing people working as hard as they were and receiving no recognition and appreciation for it and instead just having more and more work piled on to them was the hardest thing to witness.
I started to dread morning briefings, what would I need to add the humongous to-do list that was already impossible to complete even if I didn’t eat and sleep day in day out. I’d roll up to the meeting and the sense of anxiety in my stomach would bloom. My hands would shake and by Easter I’d leave with tears rolling down my eyes. I hated the morning briefings. I hated the feeling of worry. The stress. The anxiety.
If the workload wasn’t relentless enough, I felt unsupported by SLT. Behaviour was worsening and despite following the school procedures, kids seemed to be getting away with the highest f sanctions. I’d always follow through at my end but they weren’t exactly followed through at the top. This made teaching harder and harder.
I started looking and writing applications for jobs outside of teaching, but I was too scared to send them. I wouldn’t be able to finish until the summer; would they even wait that long? I wrote many but didn’t send any.
Then the penultimate day before the Easter break I eventually broke down in front of a class. The poor handful of students that wanted to learn in this particular group – their enthusiasm for learning slowly declined; their patience for others dwindled. I hated seeing this and burst, tears rolled down my face in front of the class and between my sobs I asked “Why? Why will you not respect your peers? Let them learn, if you don’t want to fine. But let those that do learn.” I remember my speech/rant going on for a bit longer than that but I don’t remember the rest of it. I probably rambled about the opportunities they’ve been given; how great the teaching and learning is at the school and how the school rules state that ‘everyone has the right to learn and the teachers to teach’.
I tried to enjoy the Easter half break but instead I ended up working most of it, marking assessments and planning for the next term. When I returned to school, I couldn’t do it.
I walked into my classroom and walked right back out again. The anxiety was too much. I walked away. Where was I to go? Since my other half would drop me into work so he could have the car, I couldn’t exactly go home. Instead I made my way inside the main building a member of staff caught me, asked if I was okay. That was the it, tears streamed. I sat in the quiet meeting room for what felt like hours sobbing. I eventually went home. I couldn’t return the next day or the next and eventually I was signed off. Three weeks I spent away from the classroom in total and although it helped I still didn’t feel ready to head back without a bit of medical help.
During my time, off I’d received notification that I’d been offered an interview for a job I’d previously applied for. I went to the interview and whilst I liked the school and they liked me, I felt I needed time to process the offer. In the interview, I’d asked about staff wellbeing and this essentially confirmed to me that it would be a good school to work at. After speaking to my current Head, I decided that accepting the offer was definitely the best thing to do.
My return to school was hard, I wasn’t ready but I was pressured into returning – I won’t go into the details. I returned and the kids were amazing. They were happy to see me and even those that had been difficult before Easter had somewhat improved for me. I didn’t share why I’d been off, but the kids made up a wonderful story about fighting crocodiles in some far off tropical land and being injured and so on. It was a relief when they just made a light-hearted joke of my time away.
I struggled through the remainder of the year and left feeling loved by the students. The array of gifts and messages were heart-warming. It’s not until you leave that you realise how appreciated you are. I do miss many of the kids, I’d formed some fantastic bonds with some of my classes and it was hard to say goodbye to them. But if I hadn’t accepted the job after support from the Education Support Network, I know I would have ended up leaving the school and teaching.
This year has been the best year of my career so far. I’ve seen my career and happiness flourish. I’m glad I stayed in teaching and tried one more school. I can see this as my forever school.
There have been a few ups and downs, a struggle here and there but on the whole, it was nothing compared to my prior experiences. Nothing I couldn’t handle with a bit of determination and dare I say it… resilience.
The number of times reducing workload and ensuring staff wellbeing has been discussed in meetings this year has blown me away; to have a senior leadership team that cares so much about its staff and students really has meant a lot to me. I’ve felt appreciated and respected as an educator and member of staff. I wish every school could make their staff feel this way.
What has 5 years in teaching taught me?
The answer to that is a hell of a lot.
I know how I teach now, I know my preferences. I know how to learn about learning. I know what I like in the classroom and what I don’t. I know what makes for good practice for me and I know what doesn’t. I know how to be flexible but also how to be consistent. I know how to balance my work and my life. I know I’ve grown as a practitioner and will continue to do so.
But I only know all of this because I’ve tried so much and learnt so much. I’ve experienced good times and experienced bad times. I’ve had the opportunity to explore and try new things. I’ve taken the time to read and research, to talk and discuss, to share and to steal (ideas). Without all my prior experiences in how to deal with behaviour and being overburdened with workload from marking and feedback, assessment, data analysis, planning etc. I wouldn’t have become the teacher I am today.
I honestly believe it takes finding the right school to really make you enjoy the job and love this all-important career. If you’re not happy where you are, try a few places before making the big decision to leave teaching forever. You just have to find what’s right for you.
I’ve now come to the end of my fifth year in teaching and thankfully I’ve remained as a statistic of survival. I’m staying in education because deep down, I love teaching those young humans who will one day be grown up humans that will make decisions about our world. I want them to make responsible ones that benefit and support each and every one of us; that respect their future colleagues and their kid’s teachers, that look after their communities and wider environment, that abolish homelessness and poverty, that fight diseases and find cures, that innovate and design. I want them to be able to learn so that they create a better world than we have today. And that’s why I’ve stuck it out and will be staying.
NQT and others in their first few years, I really hope this insight into my first 5 years, gives you hope for the future. Don’t become a statistic of despair in the system, instead become a statistic of survival and change in the system.