Saturday 23 March 2013

Blog Sync #3: Why do teachers leave teaching? Wasted investment?

I have been pondering this post at length since the topic was decided some weeks ago. What could I write about? How do I view this particular educational hot potato? 

Rather than mooch around statistics, data and political rhetoric I am best placed to discuss this as one who has, more than once, considered throwing in the teaching towel. This will help me hammer out the reasons as to how this came to be. 

The Romanticism of Teaching and Teachers.

This seems to be such an odd thing to discuss in light of the demonisation of the teaching profession by the combined efforts of Gove and The Daily Mail (the tragic death of Lucy Meadows being the most recent, horrific example of this); however, romanticism of what we do in film, television and ITT adverts does play a part in the recruitment process.  

I remember studying A-Level Literature with our school's 'top banana' English teacher Mr. McIlwraith who did a sterling job of helping is appreciate Dylan Thomas.  Even if we never quite 'got' him, he took us on a journey into the mysteries of poetry. Along the way, we watched 'Dead Poet's Society' (I'm sure this was, of course, for some educational purpose) and I remember being enraptured by Robin William's portrayal of the maverick, rebellious, joyful, dangerous (in the historical context of this text) and totally inspirational English teacher John Keating.  Who cannot remember the emotional wallop on the solar plexus that is, the 'Oh Captain, my Captain' scene?

Why wouldn't you want to teach? Why wouldn't you want to be the best kind of teacher there is, an English teacher? (Of course I'll be biased about this!) Why wouldn't you want to open hearts and minds (#clicheklaxon) to words, language and lives they don't yet know? Why wouldn't you want to do something that has such meaning to all those you come in contact with? Why wouldn't you want to offer hope, praise, motivation, joy, rewards, achievement and encouragement to your charges?

I think within all English teachers there is, somewhere lurking, or on the surface, an element of Keating's Puckish, maverick and audacious nature.  As we see with Keating and the boys who are so influenced by him, this Puckishness seems fundamentally at odds with the education system that we work within. We have a constant crisis of conscience between what we believe teaching and learning ought to be and what the realism of that entails.  Ay, there's the rub.

'That would be an ecumenical matter'

Whilst pondering this post I began to draw comparisons between entering the Priesthood and joining the teaching profession. I use the term 'profession' optimistically here, because I'm not sure if we are one anymore. Anyway, back to the topic, what could these two vocations have in common that is most moot to this post? Faith.  An unwavering, unswerving, uncompromising faith that what you do has a more fundamental meaning to the world at large; to the people you come in contact with; than merely being a cog in the machine; a number on a payroll; a mere National Insurance number; a tax code, a statistic, a chair at a desk, a log in code at a till, a blank face or voice to a customer.  Each role has meaning, the meaning is for us to create, the meaning is our belief and faith in our God. 

This matter of faith also has great importance at the coal-face of the classroom. Teachers must have faith that their knowledge of their subject is expert; that their pedagogical practice is at least sound; that this is recognised by pupils; parents, colleagues and observers alike; for I think we all know we can live and die by our reputations in a school. The ever masterful Alex Quigley writes about this, using the word 'confidence' in his blog post here.

What does this growth of confidence and faith entail? Trial and error. Feeling the emotional pain of a disastrous lesson and the joy of a great one; the frustration of the mediocre 'so, so' ones; the class who make you question your confidence and competence in equal measure on a weekly basis; not least the stubborn persistence and the desire to master your art.  Be prepared for those custard pie in the face moments, they happen aplenty.  Nevertheless, this is also part of the joy of the role.  You never, ever, stop learning. 

A loss of faith

This, I believe, is the most emotional and potentially damaging issue for teachers and priests a like. What happens, and how does it happen, that we can have a crisis of faith?

For all the romanticism of Dead Poet's Society and the unswerving belief that made you enter the profession in the first place; the stark realities are somewhat different. There is little romanticism in the day to day role of a teacher which entails far, far more, than 'delivering' (like a postman, I saw someone tweet this yesterday) the national curriculum;  the desired school targets, and playing the league table game.  

The role of teacher, to me, seems as follows and thay are in no particular order:
1. Mentor
2. Parent
3. Social worker
4. Negotiator
5. Policeman/woman
6. Data analyst
7. Administrator
8. Artist (display work, anyone?)
9. Project manager
10. Strategist
11. Author - exemplars, reports, lesson resources, blogs, CPD
12. Morale booster
13. Examiner (Contolled Assesments)
14. Leader
15. Performer

THAT is an awful lot of plates to keep spinning, isn't it? I bet that isn't all of it either. THAT is also a fairly normal set of demands on a weekly basis. The modern pace of a state secondary school can easily be described as relentless.  If teaching in a Category 4 school, well, that's a whole new list of adjectives, most of which won't be suitable or appropriate for this post. 

What happens, then, if these plates start spinning out of control and crashing on the floor? Faith dwindles, confidence declines, and you descend from conscience competence, to the perceived feeling of conscious incompetence. Catch 22. 

What is it like to have a crisis of faith?

The first time this happened was five years ago, when I left my first teaching school for a promotion in another.  I went from being a classroom teacher to KS 4 and 5 co-ordinator for English and Media in an inner city school that had a hugely diverse ethnic intake, a completely different ethos to the one I was used to, and a working environment that I have since likened to a gulag.  I was ill prepared for what this new role would entail. I was utterly over whelmed and towards the end of my first term in the role, I was signed off by the doctor with exhaustion. Well, there was only so long I could maintain working until 11pm each week night and both days on the weekend and never, ever having any real contact with anything other than work. 

I came back, and Lord knows I tried my best to make the best out of my situation, determined to be the best at it I could be, whilst I continued to forget to maintain my well being, my life, my worth outside of work.  I remember being desperate to escape the environment at lunch. I found a quiet space near the school, sat on the bench attempting to eat my packed lunch and rocking back and forth in a state of dread and fear at having to go back in when lunch time was over.  In the mornings, I drove to work with a sense of nausea in my stomach, tension in my face and shoulders and dread in my heart. 

For months I knew I was unhappy, and for months I did not want to 'fail' or quit for I am a stubborn beast.  For months, I told no one, not a soul. The longer this persisted, the more I fell out of love with teaching.  My faith was increasingly crushed.  Decimated.  I remember speaking to my mum, she asked me how I was and I just sobbed and sobbed and sobbed down the phone. Miserable doesn't quite do that moment justice.

I was in crisis.  Were the feelings of self-loathing that this situation generated, worth it? Was the 2 stone weight loss, terrible complexion and loss of hair, worth it? Was the persistent insomnia, worth it? Was the ever present sense of panic, worth it?  Was the need to take anti-depressents, in order to turn up to work, worth it? Why on earth should I continue teaching? Why? 

I handed in my notice within a few days of the conversation with my mum and then signed up to supply agencies, landing up in the school I am now. 

Recently, over a period of months, I've had a similar crisis of faith generated by a combination of things:

  • The GCSE results fiasco - to work so hard for my lovely Yr 11 class of girls, only to be faced with an air of disappointment on results day was horrible. Once again, I sobbed. (When I did my data analysis of their results, the class had actually performed well). 
  • The combination of a new Head Teacher and a new Head of Faculty at the start of the year filled me with a huge sense of anxiety. What would they be like? How will their decisions impact on my working life? How much change would there be?
  • [Deliberate obtuseness approaching] A colleague's behaviour making my working life, for a few months, thoroughly unpleasant. [All dealt with now and praise due to my Union Rep, HT and SLT line manager for this. Very adroitly handled.]
  • The brutal and blunt instrument of an Ofsted inspection putting the boot in on my school, one in trying circumstances with a staff who are doing their utmost to make things better. A cruel and heartless process. 
  • Having the dreaded 3 grading at Ofsted and with Performance Management observations, when the previous year I'd achieved a 1 was, without a doubt, totally crushing. 
  • A very long, unpleasant and draining spell of depression and anxiety that left me barely able to function as a person.  Black, frightening thoughts that left me too scared to leave the house in case I went and bought the objects, or the drugs that would provide me with my means of 'escape' from situations and circumstances I just couldn't cope with. 
  • Personal circumstances that had not seemed to change or improve in this decade I've been a teacher. I'm single, I live on my own (no cats, I promise, no cats) and that has been the status quo for a decade. Each year has seemed to be a 'groundhog day', merging into the next with no sense of personal progress. The lack of a 'back up team' in my home was sometimes all too apparent, for I have always struggled to leave thoughts of work in the right place. They plague me almost every moment. Here, being relentlessly self-critical is a clear disadvantage. All teachers, out of work, need a finely honed 'back-up team' like a Formula 1 driver. Without it, you ARE the back-up team as well as everything else. 
Once again, the feeling of conscience incompetence had returned. Clearly, I just wasn't good enough, was I? How do you regain your confidence in the classroom when it has been so utterly decimated?  This has been a very fundamental crisis in my teaching faith, the, 'Should I stay, or should I go' (A nod to @JohnTomsett here)  thoughts have been nagging me for months.  They are still there, sometimes, they still haunt me, some days. I still ponder that decision, some weeks. 

The Wasted Investment Bit

It is here that, in the mire of your crisis of faith, that you are all too aware of this element of wasted investment. Becoming a good (not just competent) teacher require an immense amount of effort; HUGE amounts of time is invested in you - from both you and your school- and if we considered the financial implications of this too, there are thousands of pounds to take into account. IF I throw in the towel, IF I decide enough is enough, WHAT could the last 10 years of my life in teaching mean exactly? WHAT do I do instead? HOW do I pay the bills? WHAT IS the right course of action? IS all that hard work, time, blood, sweat and innumerate amount of tears all for nothing? 

These are a series of weighty decisions, burdensome if all taken together, nuclear in their potential impact on my and perhaps your life and well-being.

Teachers invest a great deal of themselves in the role, physically, emotionally, psychologically, do those in charge stop to think, consider or care, of the emotional cost to teachers? 

Thousands have left the profession since Gove took the reigns.  Of those who are staying, how many are on prescribed medication such as anti-depressants, in order to function at work? How many are self-medicating with wine and beer? How many families and marriages have been broken by the impact of the role of teaching on the individuals concerned? How much is invested in the well-being of the teachers? Precious little, I anticipate. 
Light. End. Of. Tunnel.

I have to thank @hgaldinoshea for my place at Pedagoo London and the many, many lovely twtterati I met on the day. I had more hugs on that day than I think I'd had in total in the previous 6 months of my life.  Huggers, you know who you are, but you know not quite how much good it did me. Never, ever, underestimate the power and positivity of a good hug. 

How do you regain your faith? I'm not sure I know the answer; I'm not sure that anyone does. However, my attendance at an increasing number of Teach Meets has at least managed to restore my faith in the humanity of, and humanising wonderfulness of teachers and teaching. I managed to present at the last two teach meets I attended, namely #TMCoventry and #TMBrum2.  

Tweachers have evolved from 'online colleagues' into friends who deliver great hugs. That, Mr. Gove and Mr. Wilshaw IS progress. 

These weren't just marginal gains for me, they were leaps of faith.  I have an abject fear of speaking in front of 'grown-ups' and before each, I was vibrating with nerves.  The talks were given, they were received positively. Neither were a disaster. The culture of the Teach Meet and the twitterati have given me some validation of competence, that I DO have something to offer still, that, perhaps, I should not throw in the towel just yet, that 10 years of my life, that investment, hasn't been for nothing.  Thank you. 

To read some more posts on this topic, go to @Edutronic_Net Blog Sync site here


  1. Hi Gwen
    Lovely heartfelt blog. From the depths of your soul, I imagine.
    You are definitely someone with something to offer the profession, BUT I should issue a note of caution. To be able to offer something to others, you must have enough to fill your own life from the outside (as you alluded to). Otherwise we look to our jobs to fill the hole, and the job is one massive black hole in itself. It feeds the soul further, in my experience, but only when the soul had enough in the first place. It cannot replace what we lack, which is self-worth. Start looking at what you already have to share with the world, and you'll realise the worth is there.
    Hope your journey goes from strength to strength.

  2. Thank you so much Mike. Yes I am 'fighting the fight' for filling my life from the outside. Not done so well at that for the past decade, but never to late to start. Baby steps.

  3. Enthralling post, section titled 'What's it like to have a crisis of confidence?' is chilling in the sharp comparisons I can currently draw with my career. Day to day feels like constant crisis management, it's refreshing to hear someone describe their experiences, I never do.

  4. Hi Tom, thank you very much for taking the time to read it. It was a very cathartic process and am so very surprised at all the positive and supportive feedback such as yours. Humbling.

  5. I found your blog moving, Gwen.

    I was an English teacher for thirty years, and a head for the last ten of these. I think myself fortunate that I had a rewarding and on the whole enjoyable career but there were ups and downs, and I found my first couple of years particularly tough because I was exhausted, I think. It seemed to me that I was putting far more into the job than I was getting in return. I'd always wanted to teach and felt overwhelming panic at the thought that perhaps, after all, the profession wasn't for me and I might need to have a complete rethink.

    In the end I told myself that if it didn't get better by a certain date I WOULD resign and look for something else, and once I'd made that decision I felt better. And it DID get better by the date I'd chosen and, in fact, I think it got better and better over the years as I became more experienced and more confident.

    I recommend teaching to others - it's all about relationships, which makes it fascinating and satisfying but also challenging. I feel privileged to have taught in six different but rewarding schools. But it isn't easy, and it isn't for everyone, I know. It sounds to me as if it IS the right job for you, but you do need support (we all do) and, as Mike says above, a life beyond the job too.

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