Teaching isn’t easy. I say this is someone who has gone from the relatively unprofessional profession of journalism and gone into education – with unfortunate timing, as it turns out, since every time you say “I’m a former journalist and now I think I know about teaching” you can see your face morphing into Michael Gove’s.
Never mind; I’m a teacher now. I don’t have a permanent job as yet, but I’m sure it’ll only be a matter of time. In the meantime, I make a living as a supply teacher, flitting from one school to another, sometimes from one to another in the course of a day, to try and give pupils the best learning I can deliver.
I have it easy. As a supply teacher you’re detached from the hardest, most stressful bits of teaching: the planning, the coverage, the staff meetings, the (compulsory participation in) after-school clubs, the parents’ evenings, the safeguarding, the marking, the levelling, the assessing pupil progress, the drive for a minimum of three levels of differentiation, the taking work home, the staying in school till late and arriving early every day, the constant rules and regulations, the paperwork, the bureaucracy, the being told by non-teachers that you just tit around with poster paints and glitter all day… and so on, and so on. Sure, I don’t get paid during holidays, but hey, swings and roundabouts. I get to go home on time after a bit of marking and a tidy up. It’s a luxury really.
My teaching colleagues and friends seem to be divided into two discrete camps by Michael Gove: some can’t stand him and are quite militant about it; some can’t stand him and are quite phlegmatic about it. When you hang around in staffrooms as much as I do, among the endless talk of diets and babies there often come conversations about how the profession’s going and whether it’s worth carrying on. The young folk, the 22-year-olds fresh out of university with their leggings, boots and Cath Kidston bags, are a bit less fierce about it all – they just want to get their heads down for a bit and concentrate on teaching. The older ones seem to have, on the whole, a more strident, more confrontational attitude; they’ve seen this sort of thing come and go before.
What everyone seems to agree on, though, is it’s not a great time to be a teacher. Teachers face ever-growing pressure to perform – from parents, from colleagues, from Ofsted, from headteachers, from governors, from the constant observations, from everyone. Quite right, you might say, given that they’re looking after our children’s future.
True, but it’s what kind of pressure is exerted, I think; there’s something that goes above and beyond professionalism. Most teachers I’ve seen are extremely professional anyway. They stay late; they work hard; they stay through lunch to help the children who are a little behind on their achievements; they put their all into giving the very best to their class or classes. They don’t need a kick up the arse – they’re the ones doing most of the kicking.
In any lesson, the balance continues, and I am full of nothing but admiration for my colleagues who deliver not only great teaching but great classroom management on a daily basis. despite all the other pressures. In any lesson, there might be two or three or four children who could be showing extremely challenging behaviour. One child might run out of the classroom. Another might be on the carpet, screaming, being restrained by another member of staff. Someone else will be in tears. Someone has hit someone. Someone else needs to tell you something really important that they can’t tell anyone else. It’s all happening at once and you are dealing with 30 tiny people who are the most important person in the world to someone, and you are trying to give them all as much of your attention as you can. Like I say, it isn’t easy.
Above all this immediate pressure, there is other pressure: the pressure to deliver something that can’t, actually, be delivered. It’s the pressure to be everything to everybody. It’s the pressure to deal with huge variations in ability at all ages, while at the same time magicking up the constant improvements in performance which are required of the DfE and the Secretary of State. It’s an awful lot for one person to manage and juggle all the time. I’ve seen bright, intelligent, capable people struggle with it.
The numbers are everything to some schools. They might tell visitors that they’re keen on seeing a holistic education and teaching the whole child; away from prying eyes, the kids are being carefully and rigorously coached on their exams to get the numbers up. Do you want to take on a child with a degenerative disease if it means they won’t make progress? Do you want to take a hit on your value added figures for the sake of not excluding someone who just won’t learn in the same way as others? These are questions that might seem unthinkable, but they aren’t.
Amid all this, you have the dread of Ofsted. “Ofsted wouldn’t like that,” you’re constantly being told. “Ofsted say you shouldn’t do that. Ofsted wouldn’t agree with that.” (You want to say “Well, if Ofsted told you to jump off a cliff, would you?” but you think better of it.) It’s of course right that standards are maintained and parents have some information on which to decide which school to send their children to, but it’s another factor that’s brought into every lesson in every classroom. What Would Ofsted Think? You get a glimpse as a supply teacher into the sheer fear that it generates, and how this affects how things are done. (Let’s have a Book Corner! Does anyone use the book corner? Does it work? It doesn’t matter, Ofsted will like it!)
My friends and colleagues have had a tough decision today. Should they strike and take a stand? Should they stay in the classroom to benefit the children, especially the ones who need it most? It isn’t easy, and I have total sympathy for either choice. Whatever they chose, they did so in what they felt was the best interests.
Teachers who do strike are not a militant bunch of troublemakers who are out to irritate parents and make them miserable so they can have a day off. One day off teaching is a day that takes time to recover. It will take plenty of work. And all the teachers I know are people who are so professional that they will probably already have thought of ways to accelerate the learning tomorrow to catch up for today.
But so many things are happening to teaching now. You’re a failure if you don’t get the numbers up BUT you have to deal with bigger classes. You have to be everything: carer, parental figure, mentor, educator, disciplinarian, inspiration, good cop, bad cop and everything in between. Sure, you get long holidays. You need them. I know so many people who are counting down the minutes until the end of term so they can have a week away from the storm next week.
Before I became a teacher, I had some sympathy for teachers. Now I have more than sympathy; I have understanding. I see where the anger comes from. I see why the contempt of Government directed at this professional, dedicated and overworked group of people is so misplaced. It’s a constant chipping away of the job; it’s a constant demand that everything should somehow be always better, even when it can’t be. I can see why people are at breaking point.