When you were at school, did you ever see a teacher cry?
If you did, I am certain you remember it well. Teachers can appear monolithic, distant figures in our memory – we blithely talk about this good teacher, this bad teacher, this teacher who hated me, but those moments when the cracks show can be deeply affecting. We all know teachers, we all spend most of our childhoods in their care, but it can be rare that we slow down and think of them as fully human people, preoccupied as we are with the stresses of childhood. Seeing our authority figures broken and out of control changes our relationship with them profoundly, and can affect the way we deal with our own struggles later in life.
I never expected to be that teacher. None of us do. I think of myself as someone who is emotionally honest, but teachers have to be different in the classroom. You are a professional. You are in charge. You are, in the words of sympathetic friends and family, ‘so brave to be doing that’. When you fall behind, you turn up for work at seven o’clock to catch up; when you’re stressed you go and gossip with the drama department to relieve tension; when you feel overwhelmed, you go to the store cupboard and practice deep breathing. After all, kids can smell fear. And they don’t forget. Nobody wants to be that teacher. It only needs to happen once.
Teachers, especially young teachers, live our lives under this pressure. It doesn’t matter how good we are, the workload is an onslaught, and much of it consists of the ineffective drudgery of marking. I recall the time I consoled a friend from my training year who had nine sets of books to mark over their Christmas holidays. That comes to roughly 270 books to mark (certain subject teachers can end up teaching a quarter of all pupils), and if we allow for their school’s recommended ten minutes per book deep-marking, that equals an expectation of forty-five hours of work to complete over the holiday.
This is just the tip of the iceberg as far as teacher workload is concerned, and it is not difficult to imagine why more than eight in ten respondents to NASUWT’s Big Survey 2017 point to workload as their primary cause of stress. Despite teaching’s persistent image of ‘long holidays and clocking off at three’, the 2017/18 Labour Force Survey found it to be one of the three professions with the highest levels of stress and depression. Further, National Foundation of Education Research findings suggest that, even factoring in teachers’ long holiday periods, the average teacher works a forty-five hour week – longer even than nurses and police officers.
Despite this, Westminster offers little to assuage the issue. Education is the front line in the fight for social justice, and for many is the first point of contact with the government. And yet, there is no serious discussion of how to resolve the problem of teachers’ workload.
Education is at best a peripheral concern for those running for the Conservative party leadership, and as in every other arena of British political discourse, Brexit swallows all else. We at least can rest easy knowing that the next prime minister will toss schools some pocket change while they gut the comprehensive system. Theresa May seems most eager to feign concern for teachers, as she announces plans for mental health awareness courses in schools, in a frankly laughable attempt to have her legacy associated with something that isn’t Brexit. While money for mental health training is good, any teacher will tell you that school staff are suffering just as profoundly as students when it comes to depression, anxiety and stress. And the fundamental problem persists: nobody in charge is talking about how to protect teachers.
Young teachers are leaving the profession in droves. What else is there for us to do? While we push ourselves to the limits of mental and emotional resilience in service of children, there is no sign from our leaders that any sort of end might be in sight. Still the work must be done, and if we fail to meet expectations we are placed on ‘support plans’ and called into meetings to be told the virtues of doing your marking on a Sunday morning, and how close we came to letting the kids down. All the while we must avoid cracking in front of the kids. Like I said, it only needs to happen once.
But for me it didn’t stop there. I suffered my first burnout at the age of 22 in front of a class I could not control. It was my third observed lesson in less than a fortnight. The next came about a year later in the form of an anxiety attack about my year 11’s mock grades. The third was much the same, in front of a class of year 7 students, as a manager came in to check their books for evidence of marking. In the last instance, I was removed from the lesson, unable to teach, and was back in the classroom for another group 20 minutes later. I remember it being entirely voluntary, because the only thing worse than having to get on with the work was to be seen letting the kids down.
I was not a bad teacher, not until the work left me dead on my feet, but by the end of my tenure I was utterly paralysed with guilt and exhaustion. While work piled up, I would remain hunched over my desk, unable to carry on.
We need real change in the teaching profession, in a way that few politicians seem to understand. Much has been made of the recruitment and retention crisis, but so little has been done to resolve the issues with workload that are at its root. I want to return to the job I love, the job I dreamed of doing since I was a student myself. Without serious and lasting change, I do not think I can.