Think of someone you know who is a teacher.
Now think of three words to describe them.
Chances are you might have some of the following: organised, patient, perfectionist, creative, good with kids, interested, perhaps even a control freak (yes I said it!).
Now have another think, were they like that before they became teachers or does it just seem to attract a certain type of person into the profession?
My earliest dream was never to be a teacher. I recently bumped into my year 5 teacher whom years ago, I distinctly remember telling that my dream job was to be an accountant. Most kids want to be vets or superheroes, but me, I wanted to work in a place where order and sense could reign true. Somewhere along the way, I decided that I preferred languages to maths (although there are clear similarities in the subject) and my hopes of being an accountant took a slight turn into being a translator. Fast forward a few years and I find myself at university working with local secondary students on raising their aspirations and tutoring them and here I find something which I truly love doing and I decide to enrol on a teacher training course for secondary school languages.
If you were to ask my friends they would probably tell you that I was born to be a teacher. I have a pure love of organising, of rules, and of learning and really they’re three very key parts of teaching. What my friends may also tell you is that I am a different person and so much happier now that I am not in the classroom.
After having both girls, I was keen to get back to work. For me, working is something that I absolutely love and a career was just as important pre-children as it became post-children. Yes, co-ordinating drop offs and pick ups along with parents’ evenings and meetings was like a military operation but I was determined to do so. On the whole, it was pretty successful. Granted there were times when my husband’s meetings would run late, or he’d have to travel, or I would have to stay home with poorly children but for the most part it was working. We even decided that I would commute an hour each way after we had moved because it seemed worthwhile given the benefits of living closer to my parents and the fact that my amazing Mum was also able to help out with the children. I, in fact we, really wanted to make it work and on the whole, my school (and particularly my headteacher at the time) couldn’t have been more supportive.
Unfortunately, teaching wasn’t a particularly flexible job when it came to actually being part-time or indeed having children. Timetable restraints, childcare costs and an ever-increasing workload began to take its toll and the job that I so loved seemed to slowly disappear out of reach. This academic year saw me take on a total of 12 teaching groups and 1 tutor group over my three days a week – all of which I shared with another colleague in my department. That equates to roughly 320 students that I had to teach French, Spanish, and PSE (Personal and Social Education to). It also ended up with me teaching RE, a subject of which I know nothing about, and yet it was expected I would ‘fill the timetable gap’ and deliver lessons planned by other teachers to students who were choosing their GCSE options in that subject. Stressed doesn’t quite cover how I felt after that email. Slowly but surely I ended up working every day of the week as I emailed colleagues to check where students were on their schemes of work, apologised to parents and other staff members that it was one of my days off and therefore didn’t know what had happened that particular day at school, that I couldn’t take their call at that moment, or that I wasn’t able to make parents’ evening that day as we couldn’t get ad-hoc childcare for my day off, and that’s before I started the marking or lesson planning that it is needed to be an outstanding teacher. Throw in my own children being ill and needing to plan cover lessons and it got to a point where really, no one was winning. Financially there were some months where my 0.6FTE contract barely covered the childcare costs and that was as a teacher at the top of the main pay-scale without any ‘additional’ responsibilities.
The students didn’t get the best of me, or their other language teacher who was trying to pick up where I left off and vice versa. My own children didn’t get the best of me because I was working on my days off when I should have been with them. My family and friends (and my poor husband) didn’t get the best of me because I was overworked and under-rested! And I didn’t get the best of anything. I felt like I was failing at everything despite being told I was doing everything well and to the best of my ability. Part of this is on me, sure. I am a worrier and a perfectionist, and I was worried that I wasn’t doing anything well enough. But on the day that I finally braved it and asked to have a chat at work, I was met with a fairly brisk “well just don’t worry”, or a “yeah I’m really worrying too” rather than actually anyone who would willingly do anything about it.
This isn’t a blame game. I don’t blame anyone at my old school for what happened. Everyone is in the same boat. But everyone is going to be stuck in that same sinking boat without some serious changes from above. Even upon leaving, colleagues were telling me how jealous they were that I was able to “get out”. “Get out” from a profession that actually when done right, we all love.
You may have seen in the news that teachers are leaving the profession at an ever-increasing rate, and that in certain subject areas, schools are just not able to recruit good members of staff (and that’s in the nice schools in the nice areas!) Things are starting to be done. There are some great campaigns like Return to Teach and #FlexAppeal but the truth is something has got to give. Whether you like it or not, teachers are still a primarily female work force and guess what, lots of us have babies. But even the men who are teachers should not be denied the right to a good work-life balance with their families or friends. Its not even about those of us who have children. Some of my colleagues without children are simply expected to pick up the load for those of us who have to rush off for pickups, but with no remuneration, and often no thanks either.
As a parent, I want my girls to go to the best schools, but I want them to have happy, healthy teachers who feel supported by their heads of departments, headteachers and let’s face it, their students’ parents too. Culturally, we need to change how we view our teachers. After all, your children will spend more time with their teachers than even with you as a parent, and they will almost certainly influence the next generation more than we can imagine. Surely we want that to be a positive influence by staff who love their jobs, rather than people who are just working payday to payday, ticking boxes as they go.
If you’re a teacher, give yourself a huge pat on the back and know that you are in one of the best, most incredible careers you could be. I do miss the classroom every single day, and I miss my students, as hard as some of them could be at times! Thankfully I seem to be getting the best of both worlds in my new role, and I even get some classroom time at a local primary teaching French. But it hasn’t been without a paycut and ultimately, if we all leave teaching in the hope of finding a better balance, then things are going to be in a fairly sorry state of affairs. I recently read a study by Varkey, which for the first time explicitly showed “the link between the status of teachers in society and the performance of children in school.” They go on to explain that they “can say beyond doubt that respecting teachers isn’t only an important moral duty – it’s essential for a country’s educational outcomes.”
So perhaps its time to start giving them a break, otherwise the break may just become a permanent one.