Let me get something out of the way right from the start. I love teaching. I come home most days and genuinely feel like I have made a positive difference to the lives of children within my school. I never dread going to work; I look forward to it. I have been successful and students, for the most part, make good progress in my lessons. I am looking forward to the decades ahead of me within the profession. There is nothing else I would rather do with my life than teach.
I want to begin and end this article by sharing my overwhelming belief that teaching is a joy and that teachers should be shouting this from the rooftops for all and sundry to hear.
Let me get something else out of the way though. Teaching is a really challenging profession. Having to plan and deliver lessons which stretch, support, engage, show clearly checked progress, encourage good behaviour and are rooted within the curriculum or exam specification in itself is not easy. Add to this the fact that teachers have to make hundreds of reflexive decisions every lesson in response to the plethora of unknowns involved with teaching thirty-something individuals – each with their own distinct set of preferences and personalities – and it is easy to understand why teaching is so often highlighted as an incredibly demanding profession.
Yet these challenges are not what the media highlight makes teaching such a tough profession to be in. A quick search of recent news stories related to teaching makes for troubling reading, with two clear themes emerging. 1) Teaching is stressful: ‘‘Epidemic of stress’ blamed for 3,750 teachers on long-term sick leave’, ‘Teaching is ‘one of the most stressful jobs in Britain’’, ‘Job stress is ‘overwhelming’ teachers across the UK’. 2) The workload is unbearable: ‘What’s behind the teacher workload crisis? Assessment, assessment, assessment’, ‘’The level of workload expected of teachers is not improving schools, but it is wrecking lives’’. Although the government is – apparently – trying to address workload concerns through the policy paper ‘Reducing teacher workload’, there will be no panacea.
The high levels of stress and unsustainable workload which many teachers feel weighing upon them can be explained by the raft of recent pressures and changes to our profession, from the introduction of radically new exam specifications, the results-driven culture of league tables and performance-related pay, to concerns over acadamisation and fear of forced redundancies, to name but a few. It is no surprise, therefore, that the final emerging theme from media coverage of teaching is around retention: ‘Teacher retention: Government ‘failing to get a grip’, with the NEU stating that “There is increasing evidence of a crisis in teacher recruitment and retention just as the number of pupils and the demand for new teachers begins to rise sharply”.
I won’t deny that teaching can be stressful, the workload undeniably a burden and retention a prominent – and growing – concern. All of these issues are, unfortunately, a truth of teaching in 2018. Yet this only tells one side of the life of a teacher, focuses only on those teachers who are, understandably, struggling against these odds. There are many teachers who have found ways to manage these challenges, thriving within this most difficult of times and loving our noblest of professions. These teachers tend, from my experience, to have two things in common: they take responsibility for their professional development and they regularly celebrate the many joys to be found within teaching.
One important thing which teachers can do to cope with the demands of teaching is to show the resilience, motivation and hard work required to get better at it. The better a teacher is within the classroom, the more they can negate some of these stresses and workload issues. For example, students work harder if lessons are engaging, challenging and creative, whilst behaviour is better if consistent routines and boundaries are employed, alongside time spent building positive relationships with students. Progress is faster and more sustained if differentiation supports and stretches all students, working in tandem with assessment which effectively spots misconceptions. The workload becomes more manageable if planning and marking is time-efficient and focused on developing student understanding. In summary, better teachers have less stress associated with poor behaviour or results and reduce their workload through efficient marking, planning and time-management. These teachers, therefore, are surely also more likely to remain in the profession for the long-term.
Yet teachers need to do more than begrudgingly attend mandatory school-led CPD and take responsibility for the quality of their teaching. The first step is to reflect, whether with the guidance of colleagues or individually, in order to find areas of weakness to be developed. This ideally should be ongoing so that a regular cycle of self-reflection develops. The second step is to proactively address these concerns; search for and attend CPD sessions within the local area of further afield, read articles, blogs or buy books to gather evidence-informed strategies (if they aren’t supported by the best available evidence, then they are, quite simply, less likely to make you a better teacher), observe other teachers within and outside their department, have an IRIS observation, engage in professional dialogue with other teachers or complete further studies within the field of education. The final step is to take this knowledge and these ideas and try them out within the classroom to see what works, what might need adapting and what doesn’t work. If more teachers were actively engaged in this reflective cycle of improvement, then I believe that a greater proportion of teachers would be able to positively cope with the demands of our profession.
Finally, I believe that we teachers need to take a step back and recognise the many joys of teaching a bit more often. We all entered this profession because we want to make a positive difference to the lives of future generations and you know what: we do. Sometimes it may be a small difference, or one that we never even know about. Yet not one of us looks back on our own school days without remembering that teacher who ‘got you’ or went that extra mile to help you; that teacher who came along to watch the school football team play a match (even though it was raining); that teacher who inspired you to love biology and set you on the pathway to becoming a doctor. We all have the potential to be that teacher. Isn’t that amazing?
Yet teaching offers further joys. Getting to know hundreds of children and young adults through their formative years, watching them grow academically and as individuals, readying themselves to shape the world; what a privilege it is to share in all of this. There are so many small things, too, which make the job a delight. How about watching the school musical and giving a standing ovation to our talented student body? Or the deep pride that comes from seeing a student improve their understanding and grow in confidence because of the efforts you have made? What about watching a student fall in love with learning because of the inspiration that is you? Or being there on results day when that student who always worked their hardest gets the results they need to go to their first choice university? How about when that student comes up to you and personally thanks you for all that you have done for them? Should we not be focusing on all of these amazing things just a little bit more?
I too get home after a long day (and with another coming tomorrow, and the next), feeling drained and overwhelmed by the workload. I too sometimes wonder why I spend so long planning these lessons as it all goes awry because I forgot that half of the class are on a school trip. I too feel pressured by the results that somehow define how ‘successful’ I am as a teacher and despair that this even matters when I know I give my all every day for each student I teach. Yet these days and these moments are rare and this itself is, it seems, rare. This needs to change and teachers need to take responsibility for aspects within our control – especially our own professional development – to enact this positive change. If we all took small steps towards this end, then perhaps the joys of teaching would be shouted from the rooftops more often. They really should be.
Co-author of forthcoming book Thrive: In your first three years in teaching, published on 18th May 2018.