Why I Changed My Mind on Teaching: the Death of a Profession

I’d like to tell you why I don’t want to teach anymore.

First, however, I think it would be a good idea to tell you why I wanted to teach in the first place.

I started a degree in Biochemistry in the autumn of 2013. Fresh out of an FE college, and with no means of supporting myself beyond my not-so-generous student loan, I got myself a job, doing supply work as a teaching assistant, just an afternoon here and there, at my old primary school. I’d been a school volunteer before, but that had been largely limited to listening to five-year-olds read on a one-to-one basis; as I quickly learned, working with a full class of pupils was radically different. It was odd, initially, to be working with my old teachers, but very quickly I came to feel like ‘one of the team’.

I have to say, I loved it. So much so, in fact, that I transferred to an Education Studies degree. I was good at it, too. As part of the degree, undergraduates were given work placements in schools, ostensibly an opportunity to relate academic theory to practice. The first school I went to liked me so much that I was frequently asked back to do supply work while finishing my degree.

There’s something wonderful about teaching children, and that wonder, broadly speaking, is divisible into ‘moments’: that moment when you can see that they ‘get’ whatever you’re explaining to them (for instance, the time when a year six boy I was teaching suddenly realised how algebra worked); or the time when children behave in a heart-warming, life-affirming way (the school I work in has a SEN unit for children with special educational needs and disabilities, and it always makes me smile when I see a child with cerebral palsy or Down’s syndrome go off to play with their ‘mainstream’ friends and be seen as entirely ‘normal’).

So, anyway, I spent three years studying theories of learning, and much more besides; at a university level, education studies has a broad, interdisciplinary remit, covering psychology, sociology, philosophy, politics, history and economics – which is quite a diverse portfolio of disciplines. I was very successful at this – my marks were rarely returned at less than a first, and I later published my undergraduate dissertation in a scholarly journal. I then began an MA in the subject, with similar plaudits and commendations from every quarter.

However, during this period, a number of changes were made in the education sector. Firstly, the national curriculum was overhauled, towards a scheme of work which focussed on rote learning and the core subjects at the expense of ‘soft’ topics. The changes themselves were not overly damaging to my practice – I adapted quickly, brushed up on my fronted adverbials and so forth – but they did highlight to me the fragility of education, and how something so important was delivered completely at the whims of whoever held the post of Education Secretary, with teachers being considered little more than tools to be wielded by the state.

Secondly, between mid-2011 (when I first started volunteering) and early 2018 (when I wrote this) I had observed first-hand the effects of real-terms funding cuts, austerity policy, and the oft-exclaimed workload crisis. I watched teachers’ workloads increase dramatically, while at the same time teaching assistants were frequently reduced to part-time contracts to help defray the inevitable cuts to resources. I understand the principle of efficiency savings – as I said, part of my degree was economics-oriented – but there is only so far one can go on the policy of ‘do more with less’. At the present rate, how long will it be before we see a return to the days of shared textbooks?

Finally, I saw firsthand the pressures teaching staff found themselves under: superb teachers exhausted by 12-hour days to keep up with marking and planning, or falling to pieces over the threat of an imminent Ofsted inspection, or becoming despondent and miserable as exam season approaches, or driven to madness by pushy parents who would rather believe that a school has a vendetta against their child than accept any measure of responsibility for their little angel’s behaviour or learning. When infant school children turn up for school unable to use a knife and fork, or not toilet-trained, or when junior school children have yet to learn to dress themselves properly, it no longer surprises me, and it doesn’t surprise me anymore when I see parents eschew those responsibilities on the assumption that school is there to fix it.

A week before I first drafted this article, the headteacher at my school announced her resignation. The school was in serious financial difficulty, and she was unwilling to balance the books; that is, to choose who to dismiss out of a small body of dedicated staff that had worked so tirelessly for the school over the past decade, who frequently surrendered evenings to catch up on marking, or offered weekends to run stalls at school fairs.

My job is safe, for the time being. But that’s no comfort. I know when I return after the summer holidays that many of my colleagues will simply not be there. As for the teachers and the few surviving support staff left, they’ll have to pick up the workload. ‘Do more with less’ again. The pressure on the teachers will increase, because, all of a sudden, there’ll be no staff left to run targeted interventions or SATs support. Grades will drop. The school’s Ofsted results will likely fall concurrently. Thus begins the slow death of the school I love – I daresay that’s not a million miles away from the experiences of teachers and school staff all across the country.

It really doesn’t matter how much money the government is willing to wave at graduates to entice them to train as teachers (and it’s a lot). After five years of working in schools, watching the damage unfold in slow-motion, I’m not even sure I have the stomach to go down with the sinking ship, let alone train to captain it.

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