Wednesday 5 June 2019

An Open Letter to the DFE...

I've been a teacher within the further education system for 4 years now and for the biggest part of that time, I've considered my job to be one of the best in the world.
I also consider it to be one of the most important jobs and one of the hardest jobs in the world.
Don't get me wrong, it's nowhere near on a par with something like our wonderful emergency services, who risk their lives everyday and have to deal with some unthinkable instances, all of course whilst being terribly understaffed and often underpaid. I couldn't imagine the stresses and pressures involved in jobs like these. (If you could pass that on to your relevant pals down in the big smoke also, that would be grand.)
But nonetheless, teaching is an essential yet challenging job and one which requires, quite frankly, a bit of TLC.

Now, there are different sectors and different routes into the profession. I can't speak for everyone, I can only speak for myself and those teachers I speak to, day to day. It took me four years to qualify to do this job and about 10 minutes to realise how much I loved it and how much it suited me. Teaching is a profession for those who care, who empathise, who love the notion of learning, who want to impart wisdom, creativity and help people develop and grow, whatever the subject. It's also a profession in which you see yourself develop and grow, in confidence, resilience and just generally, because as good old ‘continuing professional development’ shows us, you're never fully trained to be a teacher.

Whilst my daily step count is nothing to be sneered at, it is just by nature a more mentally draining than physically draining career. It's not manual labour but quite often, teaching can feel like a performance. The classroom is your stage and not in a melodramatic, attention seeking manner but just in the way that you have to give out the energy that you want to receive back from your students. You have to emit this positive, interesting, humourous and approachable vibe, constantly. Even on days where you don't think you have that vibe in you, you are forced to dig deep and find it from somewhere.

One thing that is seemingly apparent amongst teachers is that people don't seem to account for everything that this job is. Not only is it a constant performance as outlined above but there's so much more to it than that classroom act. Teaching is like that image of the iceberg, the top of which, poking out of the water is the classroom part, the huge part at the bottom hiding under the water that nobody ever sees, is everything else that teaching entails. The sad part is, the bit poking out of the top is nowhere near the largest part of the teaching iceberg. The bit underneath is made up of planning, paperwork, emails, phone-calls, meetings, interviews, training, parents' evenings, open evenings, internal moderation, external moderation, exams, invigilation, external visits, inspections, retention, peer practice, targets, data and oh goodness, the marking, who could forget the marking?
 I wish we could forget the marking.

Now, many are brainwashed when it comes to teaching, by that ever popular myth we all love, that it's all massive salaries, 6 hour days and 14 weeks worth of holidays a year but rest assured, that could not be further from the truth, for me anyway. A normal week for me is around 24 hours in the classroom, around 7 at my desk for all of the above and the remainder of my 37 hour week is made up of break times (lunch hours and morning and afternoon 15 mins). As you can imagine though, the phone doesn't stop ringing or inbox filling up, just because it's a lunch hour or break and so a large proportion of these are spent at a computer or on a phone. For instance, lets say we're bobbing to the toilet on one of our breaks or even during our desk time and there's a student sat in the corridor, crossed arms and crying. You're going to stop whatever it is you're doing and go speak to said student. You're going to open up a room and chat to them, find out what is making them upset. You're then going to have to follow this up, maybe its a simple row with a peer, you'd go find the other party and sort out a reconciliation. But let's say its something much deeper, let's say it's a safeguarding issue. You're possibly going to need to bring the student to another staff member, you may even need to then make a phone-call, make several phone-calls or emails just to get this student the help that's needed. But this has taken all of your free time and you now have a class about to start, you're weighing up what needs your attention more, the one student in serious need of help or the 20 odd waiting to be taught. This is a common occurrence. This is an occurrence that quite often might happen even twice a day. And whilst your utmost priority needs to be getting students the support they need, suddenly that 'desk-time' is being eaten up. Making the gargantuan list of tasks above pile up and up. A staff meeting comes up, questions will be raised about the gargantuan list of tasks not yet done. “Oh but by the way, there’ll be observations soon.”

Teaching is a job with a constant to-do list. A to-do list that you can never quite get on top of. A to-do list that piles up and up and topples you with pressure but a to-do list that despite all the stress and anxiety, somehow always gets done eventually. Teaching is a job with constant pressures, from students, colleagues, managers, governers, parents, Ofsted and more. Constantly being judged on facts and figures or just on that tiny bit of the iceberg poking out and no contextualisation of all that exists underneath. Teaching is a job in which you absorb the stresses and issues of those around you. Teaching is a job that shouldn't come home with you but absolutely does. Nowhere near 14 weeks worth of holidays, more like 5 at a push, 5 weeks which often have restrictions as to when they can be taken. But how much of the holidays, evenings or weekends are spent taking home the gargantuan list of tasks? How much of the holidays, evenings or weekends are spent worrying about upcoming events, about observations, about data, about the safeguarding issues you deal with day in, day out? And let's be real, if the holidays, evenings or weekends aren't spent doing all of the above then you'd better believe they're spent asleep by 9PM because you're just that shattered.

And when considering the pressures of a job like this, let's not forget the fact that horrifically, education is a business. And somewhere, someone is totting up figures. How much is lost if students don’t achieve? How much we need for equipment and resources? And the fact that it often seems that to those people totting up the figures, teachers are dispensable. Teachers are out there doing all of the above on zero hour contracts, teachers are out there doing all of the above and then being made redundant or being restructured because of the overall funding crisis. Teachers are out there doing their job and someone else's all in the name of cutting a few quid. Teachers are out there spending their pittance of a wage on their own resources because it's just not worth asking. Teachers are out there working themselves to the bone and getting very little appreciation or acknowledgement. Don't get me wrong, we're not looking for certificates, cards and presents. Teachers are best rewarded with support, gratitude, understanding and just being cut a bit of slack by students, colleagues, managers, governers, parents and Ofsted. Because we have a hell of a lot to do and such a small amount of time every single year to do it. Look at further education as a whole, we bridge the gap between high school and university/employment. But we're also expected to fill in the gaps where any predecessors might've fallen down. Where schools and universities have 5 or 4 years to get their jobs done, we might have one or two depending on the particular student's choice of qualification and overall journey. Yet we often get the least funding out of the lot. Why, why is there no parity when we all work together, why is there no consideration for this?

The students are always the priority for any teacher, or at least they should be. But time and time again I hear the phrase "I failed because the teacher didn't like me" and every single time I wince. And I always answer with the same response, that it's not their job to like you, it's to help you get a qualification. And the teachers want to be given more time to be in the classroom, to be with the students as their utmost priority. Chances are, when that INSET day comes up, the teachers would rather it not be there because they are losing curriculum time, hence giving them and students more work to do. But whilst students are the first and foremost priority for us, parents sometimes don't understand that when you teach about 25 students at once and well over a hundred a week, one particular child can't be our number one priority all of the time. That actually, that priority has to be shared between all of those in the class. And that the teacher constantly faces a balancing act of what needs their time most in that particular instance. The cohort every year comes with such a brilliantly diverse range of students, some who love learning and genuinely love to be in that classroom, some that are here because they feel that have no other option. Some with complex needs and who therefore require extra support, some that are harder to guide due to their behaviours or attitudes and some that might have been through some unimaginable things and are therefore just crying out for a stable and consistent source of empathy, care and support. To know and learn all of these little attributes for hundreds of students and manage their different classrooms effectively, making considerations and adaptations for each and everyone of them is an adept skill. But it is quite obviously exhausting and we are just one singular person, at the end of the day. As such, our compassion is a well-honed quality, it stretches further than the average person's, we know how to look at things from different points of view. But all of this really takes its toll. To the point where I remember sitting at my desk, uttering the phrase, "yes, we look after the students, but who in turn is looking after us?!"

In the last year or so, the stresses and challenges of this job have been far greater than any year prior, for differing reasons. I have colleagues who agree and some of them have been in the profession for decades. It seems that teachers are constantly squeezed for more and more but with less support and less resources. And year on year we are faced with these pressures but we get on with it. We exhaust ourselves mentally, we run ourselves into the ground, we spend hours fretting about things but it all gets done. We are completely and totally taken advantage of and constantly expected to fulfil so many expectations. People forget that we are humans, that we come in and do all of the above when we have our own stresses and pressures, when our family members are ill or have passed away, when we are ill, when relationships breakdown, and even with our own people to care for. We come in and put on that classroom performance, we come in and still attempt that gargantuan list of tasks, we come and get judged and observed, we come in and face the teen angst, the teen attitude. Because it's not a job in which you can hide yourself away and have that peace and quiet and that alone time to just mill through tasks at your own pace. 

This is a job that is undervalued, underappreciated and continually running on fumes. It's a job in which the very core importance and purpose has been dwarfed by all of those fruitless, menial burdens on the gargantuan list of tasks. And this is not in isolation, this is not a one off case, this is the state of teaching across this country, particularly in further education. Whilst I can't speak on behalf of absolutely everyone, the articles I read about teacher burn-out and the conversations I have with teachers from differing institutions all the time, confirms to me that it's a common theme. The fact that people are struggling for basic resources like pens/pencils, the ability to print their resources, in many circumstances, even things like chairs for students to sit on or a computer to work at. It's a sad state of affairs and it needs to be properly addressed. Changes and decisions in this sector, both FE and education as a whole need to be made with the students and the teachers in full consultation and consideration. We are the experts, we are the ones there in the classrooms. We are the ones with a million and one questions when the latest qualification reform happens or the latest budget comes out. We are the ones jotting down questions about learner support, funding, resources, guided learning hours, progression routes and a whole repository of other considerations that only we would think of because we deal with it all, day in, day out. 
This is a line of work that was once thought very highly of, that was esteemed and commended and one that would instill a sense of pride and honour in those who pursued it. 
Now, it seems that the pride, satisfaction and generally rewarding nature of the job has been suppressed by the exploitative, demanding nature of what it has become.


  1. I wholeheartedly agree with you on this. I used to want to teach and then I became a Careers Guidance Officer in a secondary school... Don't get me wrong, I absolutely loved the job and that I could work with and help so many students, but the pressures and toxicity from above just got to me in the end. I saw the reality of what teachers face (a lot of which I got to avoid due to being support staff, such as cover and First Aid duties and break and lunch duties and so on) and it really got to me how vibrant, wonderful teachers could become bitter and resentful so quickly because, as you say, there's no support to help them with their own mental health and resilience.The school I worked at is owned by an academy trust who have sucked the life out of it, cutting everywhere they can and making changes that have had such a negative impact. It's not fair on the teachers and it's also not fair on the students whose grades and futures suffer as a result (try being able to help students with their future careers when there isn't even any time in the curriculum for them to focus on it). Something definitely needs to change.

    1. 100% agree. I can feel myself altering from time to time and I know my colleagues and friends who are teachers do too. The quality of teaching would also improve if the culture just altered. Too many pressures and responsibilities are piled on us that have no effect or impact on the actual teaching or learning. In an environment where the words observe, judgement, audit, data are used too much, it's really no wonder!