Monday, 21 July 2014

broken wings

Picture this: it’s 1984.  A secondary comp snuggled in a sleepy town on the Essex border. A lower school English class is held in the palm of the teacher’s hand as he brings characters to life.  He’s short, a little rotund and walks with a discernible limp due to the most entertaining die-hard-esque story ever (a motorbike accident which took his brain 24 hours to acknowledge he was injured, went home and everything; next morning he was bruised, bleeding, broken bones – he was our very own John McLain).  An hour with Mr Hoyle saw us morph into hyenas drunk on his magnificent tales to frightened rabbits scurrying for shelter after verbal whippings were dealt out with piercing precision.  But we loved him. I would stride out of his lessons brim-full of love and understanding for the written word.

This was my defining moment.  I wanted to be a teacher. An English teacher.  And readers, I accomplished my dream.
Cue new picture.  It’s 1997.  The Year of Our Blair.  A West London secondary comp and there I am: the Labour party’s tagline personified.  Hours full of wide-eyed Year 7s and 8s to hormonal Year 9s and 10s to angsty sixth formers. I was loving it, loving it, loving it.
This truly is a career where no two days are the same and a job where I learned that a child will bring their home life into the classroom; that some parents really do believe they drop their children at the school gates and there endeth their responsibility.  I was once asked by a parent if I could beat his child because he never listened at home.  Another begged me to take her child out of top set because she was "rubbish at English" – even though her daughter was achieving A grades in her work.  There wasn't much I could do about parents like that, but I did continue to focus on the supporting everyone's child equally – as many of my colleagues do every day.  In addition to the constant planning, mounds of marking, endless changes to exam board and Ofsted criteria, analysing data, writing reports, observing staff, creating training sessions, and daily behavioural challenges (from students, parents and teachers!) I strived to remember that these were children; battling through school with all the pressures and expectations from home too.  Students with abusive parents, with low self-esteem, with alcoholic parents, caring for their parents, with dying parents, without any parents at all; children who were being bullied, who were having sex, who hated school, who hated each other, who hated life. Do you know how crap that is? To look like you hate life at such a young age. To be honest, it has never been the students that have made me consider whether I want to remain a teacher. They are the best part. Yeah I know you've just read everything two lines up but they are funny, energetic, argumentative, creative, feisty, silly, intelligent, positive, caring, and determined too.
So what was it then? What was it that made me sit and cry in my car for weeks on end when it dawned on me that I didn't really want to teach any more? It was the culmination of this:
carrying sighing stacks of marking between my desk, my car, my house, my desk but I can't seem to get the load ever fully completed because of...
the emails clogging up my inbox that need answering "by the end of the day" but don't get replied to because I was teaching all day and still have...
planning to do for the following hour, day, week, month, term's lessons and I cannot (as people might think) trudge out the same old lessons every year because...
the exam boards / Ofsted / Government * (delete as appropriate) have tweaked / amended / completely rehashed * criteria that still has wet ink from the the last set of changes which requires...
time spent sifting through paperwork and data and lists in order to create more paperwork, data and lists instead of creating and inspiring which is why I became a teacher, but instead I found myself...
not eating during lunch breaks to make up work time as I couldn't stay past 5.15 otherwise I would be late...
picking up my own children by 6pm every day, which is really rubbish for them as they are in breakfast club at 7.45am every morning because they don't get any quality time with me in the week, unless it's watching me...
falling asleep during reading time in the evenings instead of listening to them because I have been up until after midnight every night...

marking, cooking, planning, cleaning, reading paperwork, checking homework, analysing data, ironing, writing timetables, doing the washing, preparing for meetings, organising family events, creating training sessions, shopping for food, searching for new initiatives to improve the progress of my department, making sure the 3G have the right equipment for school, and desperately seeking some confidence to look for a new job because you know what, from my experience it's just more of the same out there - so what's the point?

I know anyone in any job can cite the pressure put upon them but I realised that the stress and exhaustion caused by my job result in me having absolutely nothing left for my family. I felt I was putting the happiness of those dearest to me in jeopardy.  Maybe it was my age...but burnout at 40? Unlikely. Maybe it was my inability to balance work and life; I never knew when to switch off. But I believe this was due to my passion and drive - you can't do this job without it.

So in 2013 there was another picture. A teacher, wife, mother, curriculum leader who was constantly exhausted because I was existing on approximately 5 hours sleep a night. Frustrated with incessant changes to areas which had just been implemented, embedded, proved successful only to be replaced with something else. Exasperated at the lack of trust in my proven ability. Infuriated at the lack of opportunities to develop my managerial skills which is questioned at interviews as potential employers suspect stagnation - and who would blame them?

I decided to take some time out in 2014. To rethink, to redirect, to recharge. Currently jobless I look back on the 2013 me and can only now acknowledge how entrapped I was in an ever decreasing circle. And I see so many experienced, dedicated and passionate teachers feeling exactly the same as I do. Teachers who are exhausted by the workload and the system, but fight every day for the progression of students in their care. Teachers who understand the responsibility of being entrusted with a child's education because many of them are parents themselves - do unto others and all that. Teachers who want to be acknowledged and trusted instead of maligned and micro-managed.  Teachers who are sick of the view that teachers are just pen pushers who churn out the same dusty lessons every year waiting for the six week break or their retirement. Oh btw if anyone does think this job is a breeze because of the holidays - step right up and join us and you will see how long it takes to understand why those breaks are necessary, for staff and students. 

Education in this country is on the verge of change - again - and who knows what the next five years will bring. I truly hope I return to full time teaching back on the management ladder, where I belong, as I know my teaching and leadership skills would benefit any school (#sorryaboutme). However I am also aware of the pitfalls of this job and am adamant that I won't allow myself to become so despondent about my working day ever again - unfortunately this might mean that my dream career is not an option for me any more. It's odd how a career that I entered in order to enthuse and inspire others has, in 17 years, had the opposite effect on me.


  1. Oh Mama Elsie, I recognise so many of the things you talk about. I have many relatives and friends who are teachers, I have a son who wants to become a teacher (I am trying to persuade him not to do it!) and I was in Pre-schools when the Foundation Stage came in got caught up in the papertrail.
    I am glad you got out, I am also glad you did it for so long, that you made a difference to so many people. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, thank you.

    1. Thanks so much for your lovely comments. It's a real shame you want to dissuade your son - but I totally understand. I am not out entirely - mortgage has to be paid. But I do hope that some of the students I have met along way will have good memories of me as their teacher. I certainly have so many of wonderful students.

    2. Don't get me wrong, I think he would make a wonderful teacher, just not sure he would 'fit' into todays modern methods. He is a bit of a mavrick! I am sure you have made a huge impact on more students than you would know. I hope you reach a happy compromise for you.

    3. I believe teaching need more mavericks! Aren't they the teachers that we remember. But I understand your concerns. The sad thing is I am meeting so many teachers, especially working mums, who feel like I do - some after only a few years of teaching and that is really, really sad. Thanks for your wishes - I keep being told I just haven't found the right school yet!!