A previous school in England used to host a steady stream of new teachers enrolled on something called the Graduate Teacher Programme or GTP. This was a way of training to be a teacher while working in a school and it seemed to most appeal to career changers who did not want the loss of pay associated with a full-time university course. We would be in the staffroom, waiting for them on their first day, ready with the killer question, “So, why did you decide to go into teaching then?”
Some had always thought about it and now was the time. Others figured out that they wanted to do something that really mattered. And then there were those who would tell us, with no sense of irony or self-consciousness, that they were seeking a better quality of life or that they wanted to be able to spend more time with their family. Often these were economics teacher retreating from the business world or English teachers retiring from journalism. It was this group who never worked out.
Because being a teacher is hard. I’ve glimpsed other ways of making a living – tough ways. For instance, I worked as a labourer throughout my time at university. But labouring jobs are quite different to the careers graduates may enter instead of teaching and I’ve never done any of those. Since I first stepped into a classroom in Uganda in the summer of 1997, teaching is all I have wanted to do and it is all that I have done. So, I have often wondered how it compares to other professions and those GTP candidates gave me an insight. So does the literature on teacher burnout and teacher turnover. We burn through a lot of good people.
Is that you? Are you looking for a way out? If so, you probably have your reasons. Let me venture a few.
Maybe you are in a tough school. Maybe you have some students who are preventing you from teaching and who you are struggling to reach and yet, when you use the systems that are supposedly in place to help you do this, you find they don’t work or you are not really supposed to use them. Or perhaps there aren’t any systems and you are trying to figure all of this out for yourself.
Maybe you are just snowed under with stuff. You are staying up late every evening planning, marking and/or doing the bureaucracy associated with your school’s ineffective systems, forever spinning your wheels and getting nowhere. When your partner offers you a glass of wine with your evening meal you say, “I better not, I need to stay alert,” because you will be working afterwards. When your university friends call you up to catch-up you have to pass. Or perhaps you’ve had such a bad day that you drink a whole bottle of wine, only to wake up the next morning with both a hangover and the knowledge that you are even further behind with your work.
Maybe it’s a little more nebulous and hard to pin down. Maybe you went in to teaching to make a difference and you have a few ideas about how to do that – how to improve the profession. But then, when you look around, you see that teachers are absent from this discussion. Professional associations are dominated by ex-teachers and academics. Panel discussions about teaching or education policy feature pundits with little in common except their non-teaching status. Royal commissions and public inquiries delve into the intricacies of what happens in the classroom with barely a thought to call a teacher as a witness.
Well it doesn’t have to be this way. None of it.
Before you go, may I humbly suggest working through the following short checklist:
1. Do you need to change school rather than career? Not all schools are the same. Your school may struggle to manage behaviour but there are schools out there doing an excellent job. They have whole-school systems that actually work and leaders who are helpful and supportive. Similarly, planning and marking doesn’t have to be this way. There is very little evidence that marking has a positive effect on academic outcomes and so the mania for marking every single piece of a child’s work is completely unjustified. Look for schools that do joint planning and talk about strategies such as whole-class feedback. Also consider independent schools. They may not be on your radar for a variety of reasons but they can help you become a more complete teacher by allowing you to hone your craft in a culture of high expectations without the distraction of low-level disruption. You can then take what you have learnt back to the government system at a later date if you wish.
2. Are the alternatives really so great? The two traps I am aware of ex-teachers falling into is either being sat in front of a computer all day – how did you like that during lockdown? – or being constantly on the move delivering training. Do you like office chairs? Do you enjoy motels? Face it, you probably went into teaching at least in part as a rejection of that kind of job. You want the interaction with students who keep you young. Is the alternative as fulfilling?
3. And finally, HELLO WE ARE BUILDING A NEW TEACHER PROFESSIONALISM HERE. I hope you have noticed. We are muscling in on the debate. We are giving our opinions on all matters educational, whether solicited or not. You can be part of that too. There has never been a more exciting time to engage with the wider teaching community. Back in ’97, pretty much the only teachers I knew were the ones I worked with – my little parochial bubble. Now, I can get out of bed and interview a teacher from the U.S. for a podcast that will be listened to by teachers around the globe. We can trade ideas. We can share tactics. We can make a difference. Have you considered going large?
Ultimately, a decision as to whether to leave teaching is an intensely personal one and will be affected by many factors I have not included. It is up to you and I am sure, if you choose to go, you will take what you have learnt in teaching and put it to good use elsewhere.
Just know that we don’t want you to go. And we are here to help.