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.