Impossible Expectations

I’ve just spent an evening with one of my oldest friends who has just resigned from her NQT year in an inner city primary school. I encouraged her to go into teaching and now I wonder what kind of friend I was. Last year, having spent 17 years working in private business, managing teams of people and multi million pound budgets, she left to teach. She expected that she would find a working life that was more rewarding with higher aims than simply making money, which she was good at. Having seen her own children turned around with the support of a good teacher, she felt that here was a job where she could have impact and feel that there was a higher sense of purpose to her working life. And so, she took a massive drop in salary and enrolled on a PGCE.

Her PGCE was demanding with a high emphasis on subject knowledge, but she enjoyed it. And with her grades high and references strong, she was offered several jobs at the end of it. She chose the one where the staff were lovely, where she felt she’d be at home and where there seemed to be a meeting of ideals and minds. Having spent years recruiting in business, she knew that this chemistry was vital. And so in September, she started with her Year 5 class. She expected the year to be tough, but no tougher than the PGCE, which had been challenging for her and all her colleagues.

So how could it all have gone so spectacularly wrong in just two terms? Why is she now unemployed, looking at doing supply and wondering how she’ll pay off a student loan?

She felt that almost immediately, she was expected to be able to hit the ground running at a pace that Usain Bolt couldn’t sustain. She was used to working 55-60 hour weeks at pressure points – perhaps when launching a new film – but now she found herself working more than 80, week in week out. Told she must plan every lesson from scratch. Told she must mark all literacy and numeracy books every single day, putting targets in each, and then topic and spelling books regularly on top. Told she must fill in the behaviour plans for the children under review every single day. She was trying desperately to differentiate for children ranging from a 1a to a 5c (yes the school was still using levels). And coping with neglected and difficult children, for whom she felt desperately sorry, with little support and no training to meet their needs, was hard. She found in all that, her relationship and energy with her own children was dwindling to the extent that the smallest one was putting her to bed, tucking her in when she fell asleep with her books on her chest.

Despite having a very supportive mentor, these expectations were unsustainable. All around her, beleaguered colleagues were trying to do the best for their pupils and school. This is “just teaching”, they said, it’s what everybody is expected to do. And then senior leaders pointed out that the work the children stuck in their books was wonky or that the classroom displays didn’t follow “policy” – they marked her down for presentation of books and students’ work. She was prepared to work hard, but at the end of the day, if your job undermines the well being of your own children and the security of your marriage, it’s not really that rewarding.

In the private sector, a business plan with a spend of up to £20 million would be four pages long and could take weeks to prepare. In teaching, each literacy and numeracy plan for the week was at least this long, the planning of it squeezed into a weekend. In business, weekends were her own time; in teaching they didn’t exist. In business she’d spend days planning a presentation. In teaching she was expected to give high quality presentations six times a day. In short the pressure she was under in a highly paid professional job was nothing in comparison to that she experienced in teaching. And yet she was expected to cope with all of that on a salary that couldn’t cover her housing costs.

This is not an unusual picture. I know that many of you will be nodding in agreement and empathy. It seems that the only way an NQT can cope in this brave new world of SPAG tests and baselines is to have no family of their own and no life. What on earth is going to happen to the profession if we don’t seriously tackle the issue of workload expectations? It’s a disaster not waiting to happen, but happening now, right under our noses. We are in danger of pushing our teachers into mental and physical health problems caused by stress, insomnia and guilt that is immoral. And yet, when she began to raise her concerns, it was obvious that the school  had a duty first and foremost to the children. Teacher’s welfare, inevitably comes a poor second. It’s time we began to understand that without taking care of the latter, we can’t meet the needs of the former. What a sad and sorry state of affairs.

18 thoughts on “Impossible Expectations

  1. I find this so sad, and unfortunately, so true. Those of us in teaching are so limited by our education-only perspective, and it’s amazing the comparisons your friend made to business. This is the kind of message that needs to get out there.

  2. “In the private sector, a business plan with a spend of up to £20 million would be four pages long and could take weeks to prepare.” Evidence? If you want a venture capital company to fund your business start up, I can assure you that you’ll need more than a 4 page plan to back it up even if it is for 20k never mind £20 million. The grass is always greener. Some NQTs do seem to cope so saying impossible seems a tad exaggerated. Difficult, only achievable by the best students, unfairly demanding etc might well be justified but it is clearly not impossible because one person or even several found it too demanding. Well impossible for them perhaps. Workload might well be a problem but then it is in many private sector fields too. That’s really what unions are for and the teaching unions seem to have been decidedly ineffective over the years.

    1. Would that it was really that easy to deal with the impact of workload on the professional and personal life of employees, any employees – it isn’t simply about a perception that the grass is greener elsewhere. This story isn’t about just the failure to balance work and life in the teaching profession, and Debra doesn’t actually such a claim. Workload IS a problem and it really isn’t about some people being able to “cope” while others crumble. I might be able to stand on one leg for the rest of my life but, what quality of life might I enjoy if I chose to do so. It isn’t about the weak versus the strong or any other juxtaposed interpretation of the problems highlighted here. It is about the choices we consciously make as a society and the priorities we establish to make living life a qualitatively rather than quantitatively richer experience. The former elevates humanity while the latter often diminishes it greatly.

      The idea that the teaching today, “is clearly not impossible because one person or even several found it too demanding. Well impossible for them perhaps.” rather misses the point. The poin actually being, few commentators look upon the present haemorrhage of teachers from the system as anything other than a problem crying out for a solution.

      The point you make about the ineffectiveness of the teaching unions is one I fully agree with. Teachers at ‘the chalk-face’ have been as emasculated as have workers at the coal-face and elsewhere by the punitive legislative “reforms” to trade-unionism introduced by ‘The Iron Lady’ and her compatriots several decades since. It is precisely because the deck is rigged so heavily in favour of employers that work-life balance is dismissed in our society or dealt with by resorting to platitudes demanding that we need to ‘toughen up’ or ‘wake up and smell the roses’ because there are plenty of people who can’t get a decent job in the first place.

    2. “Workload might well be a problem but then it is in many private sector fields too” ….evidence?

      I have a fair bit of experience of both and will, very likely be back in the private sector quite soon. For a rest. This post is spot on.

      The recent data showing the numbers of NQTs leaving within a year shows that this is not an isolated case.

      “Difficult, only achievable by the best students, unfairly demanding etc might well be justified but it is clearly not impossible because one person or even several found it too demanding”….quibbling over terminology is ok for progressive/traditional discussions but the thrust of this post is clearly true. Why quibble over “impossible”?

      Great post and I wish the teacher / ex teacher at it’s centre all the best and remind them that there are ways to support young people in their learning that allow the teacher to retain professionalism and control.

    3. The evidence is that this is what her previous job entailed. That’s what she did. Manage budgets in excess of £20 million and she was trusted enough to be able to submit a 4 page summary report for it. For 17 years. And the demands are impossible. So those who stay do so constantly falling short of expectations. If you were teaching full time in a school you would be experiencing this on going feeling of failure every day. To meet those expectations is an impossibility – one of the reasons I left too.

  3. Debra,

    As teacher educator I sympathise with your friend and her decision but cannot help but feel that this school was placing itself under completely unrealistic expectations in terms of the preparation and marking. Yes the job is tough but it must not be that tough or this will be the result and we will not only fail to recruit but also fail to retain (and we know that the data on this is poor enough – confirmed by the data from the ATL conference earlier this week – though this was 2011 data).

    There needs to be a rebellion here from two fronts (i) from those in a position in schools and wider need to rebel against the expectations – real or perceived from the external inspection and QA system which is having greater and greater demands – it might be that the greater inclusion of serving heads will help with this. We must set out what is reasonable and how this can be achieved and then have solidarity over what we will tolerate. Sadly the fracturing, a cynic might say the divide and rule, process from the centre over the last few years has not helped this solidarity.

    Secondary there needs to be an internal revolution – school staffs need to say – this is what is reasonable and this is what is not and work in solidarity against unreasonable head teachers whose own perception of what is necessary can be distorted (Mary Myatt talks fluently on this about the myths of what Ofsted expects – and whilst one might say, well she would say that, I know Mary and have respect for her own knowledge of what is reasonable).

    MY biggest concern is that this is where the “teach first” model does kick into its own – get young, mostly talented and mostly young and single people to teach for a couple of years and then go off and you can replace them with more of the same. It’s more expensive in both financial and human terms and does not build the experience and professionalism that we want but it is a solution. We also need to stand against this.

    All the best to your friend – teaching is not an easy option but it must not be an impossible one.

  4. Having been a headteacher for over 20 years and a teacher for considerably more than 30 I suppose I am in danger of being labelled a dinosaur. Yet, much of what is described and is frankly so common is about record keeping. This is the so called “evidence” that is required by our friends at OFSTED Towers and by virtue of fear and intimidation has trickled down to otherwise good (in the real not graded sense of the word) schools. There is no substitute for a well planned, organised, caring Primary teacher. However, this has become a bureaucracy. In reality is all this stuff read and properly used. I suspect not. I am reminded of Nixon (that gives my age away!!!!). He taped himself because of just this sort of paranoia. He had 8 years of taped material. Therefore, it was going to take him 8 years to listen to it all back. That is before any proper analysis. It was never going to happen. The bean counters who have imposed this stuff have never had to do it and in my experience were not up to the mark themselves and so moved on….. Firstly we in schools have got to ” take a punt” and risk keeping this to the absolute bare minimum and so keep our teachers sane. Basically if the numbers add up they can’t argue with you. Then we will keep our motivated and bright teachers. It is no coincidence that as soon as Uncle George proclaims that the recession is over/receding (delete as appropriate) we have a recruitment crisis! Funny that!

  5. This is an accurate reflection of the demands on NQTs and new teachers in many schools. Classroom teaching is basically unsustainable except for those with no children or the experience to wing-it daily. Having been an NQT mentor for many years, I know that the PGCE model is better than the Teach First model. I have seen Teach First recruits leave within the year, and the author is right , the model of pouring in fresh recruits to put something great on their CV for a few years before going on to earn a salary in another profession that can support a family is at the very least corrupt.
    I would not advise anyone to become a teacher now.

  6. I left teaching over 20yrs ago on ill health. My union, the NASUWT had spent about 10yrs conducting a campaign on work load. We even won a court case against Wandsworth who tried to argue that it was illegal. The trouble has always been that not enough teachers would join a union and take part in action. Strange when you think that all they were being asked to do was restrict the work to a reasonable level. If Teachers were properly trained and really understood what the pupils need they would realise that most of the stuff they are asked to do is not what their pupils actually need, but they are too easily convinced that if the politicians say the children need something then they, the teachers, are letting the children down if they fail to do it. The profession needs to recover its professionalism and tell the politicians that as professionals they know more about the pupils needs than they do. This will also need a much stronger membership of teaching unions and the members prepared to take reasonable action that actually provides them and the pupils with a better education.

  7. I am equally struggling having returned to the profession after a 7 year break … Constant ‘learning walks’, constant marking reviews, target setting, books home weeks, observations, massive classes etc … If you are an English teacher or any other essay based subject at secondary level, the workload is unsustainable … My son is compromised constantly … My husband shut out of my life … Why did I go back? Because young people need more than young NQTs and Teach First recruits … And I love working with my students but I do feel at 48, that it might just kill me … Can I keep this up until retirement … I don’t think so … Frankly, a job in Waterstones looks great … At least I won’t be marking and preparing every night and all weekend.

  8. We are told that it is all about the children. It’s really not. It’s all about everyone. As you say, this workload and this level of expectation would not be tolerated anywhere else in Society. It really wouldn’t. If the workload issues are not fixed, then education will not progress….standards will go backwards. The education system starts with the teachers, not with the children….no teachers, no decent schooling……garbage in, garbage out.

    Time for a change.

  9. My heart goes out to your friend. This chimes with my own experience. I abandoned my primary NQT year after a couple of months because the pressures of time & expectations were utterly incompatible with family life. As a late career-changer, I regret the move. I can recommend supply tracking as a stop-gap (there’s plenty of work, especially if you are any good) but it’s not financially sustainable in the long run.

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