It was the best of times; it was the worst of times: a tale of teaching
For the first time since I started going to school in 1985, I've found myself free from half terms, term times and timetables. For more than a decade, my calendar would be colour-coded: orange highlighter indicated the beginning and end of half-terms and school holidays; pink highlighter indicated A2 coursework hand-in dates and marking deadlines; green highlighter indicated AS coursework marking deadlines and hand-in dates. It didn't end there: each day between coursework hand-in dates and marking deadlines would have numbers written on them which ascended in multiples of fives, threes or twos (Mon: 5, Tues: 10, Wed: 15, Thurs: 20, Fri: 25) - this was my marking target for each day based on the 40 3000 word coursework essays I'd have to get marked within the 2 week turn-around period. My calendar doesn't look like this anymore, because I started to believe there was a different way to be.
I had to be reminded, this year, that it was the Easter break. In the past, I'd have known EXACTLY what time of the year it was, because a teacher's year is a very rigid one, full of inevitable and repetitive obligations and demands. In the past, the minute I got a new calendar, the first thing I did was whip out the highlighters and mark out the beginning and end of the half-terms and when the coursework dates were. As a teacher, my time was rigidly defined, and that pattern of responsiblitiles never changed; it was the same juxtaposition of calm and storm every year. If I were to provide an apt simile, I'd say the academic year was like being in the wash cycle of an industrial washing machine. Each term was a new cycle and you knew you'd have to keep your head down and hold your breath for another six or seven weeks until the half term - like dry land - rose up from the maelstrom. When you're a teacher, chronic stress becomes a way of life.
When people ask you what you do for a living and your answer is 'I'm a teacher', several things seem to happen in their heads: a) they assume they know exactly what your job entails and how education could be improved, because they went to school once back in 1956 b) they start to regurgitate the latest opinion on education they read in The Daily Mail that very morning c) they ask you where you teach, the age group you teach and the subject you teach, and then believe there's nothing more to know or ask d) they tell you how awful the teachers at their daughter's school are e) they will bring up some unresolved trauma they experienced at the hands of Mr Smith back in year 6 as if, somehow, it was your fault and f) at some point in conversation, regardless of the perks of their own jobs, they will bring up the amount of holiday you get as a teacher. On top of this, Jamie Bloody Oliver thinks himself and a small selection of celebrities can run a school much more successfully than people who have actually been trained to do it. In the past six or seven years, teachers seem to have become the nation's punch bag. It's a hard enough job to do without feeling as though the society you're doing the job on behalf of lacks respect for what you do. My wonderful ex-head of department had a wonderful response to f in the list above: 'well, if the holidays are so great, why don't you become a teacher?' Always puts the cat among the pigeons that one.
Now, I'm aware that this might sound bitter, but I can assure you that I loved being a teacher; it was all I'd ever wanted to be (although I admit to some lingering bitterness over the Jamie Oliver thing). Ever since I was 3, I'd played schools with my brother: we made our own registers for our own imaginary classes; we took assemblies for our imaginary classes and made them sing hymns which we displayed on a little overhead projector; we would ask our own teachers if we could take any left over sheets home with us, just so we could make our poor old nan play schools and fill them in just at we'd done at school that week. I've still got our home-made register [pictured].The PGCE year was a baptism of fire and it was one of the most intense and most challenging things both myself and my fellow PGCE students had ever done. If you survived it, it was because you'd worked your arse off. Everyday during that year was a working day: every morning, every afternoon and every evening of every day was taken up with preparation. I'm extremely proud of my teaching qualification.
When I finally joined the teaching world, I made all the mistakes an NQT usually makes (shouting, pitching lessons too high or too low, not being strict enough on the year 9s because I thought it might be easier if they liked me), then I found my groove and excelled. I was a grade 1 teacher. I can recall lessons I just loved creating and delivering and classes that were such a joy to work with day in and day out. In fact, teachers love planning and executing lessons, it's all the extraneous stuff that comes with it, and which gets in the way of the core of the job, that frustrates them. In no way do I regret my career in teaching; in fact, there are days I miss the buzz of leading a class through a learning experience, but what I had to accept is that it wasn't a job I could physically, emotionally or mentally sustain in modern day Britain. The stresses of being a teacher - and of being a student - have multiplied ten fold over the past seven years. The results of an NUT stress survey in a local college are staggering: over 70% of members reported suffering from the physical, emotional and cognitive effects of stress.
Where does that stress come from for students and teachers? Why is it getting worse? Well, firstly, this post isn't long enough to explain all of the reasons, and secondly, the demands of teaching have never really fitted into the paid hours of the job; it is an unwieldy profession in which it is quietly expected that you will work above and beyond the boundaries of the school day. Physically, teaching is very demanding; you are 'performing' in front of 80 odd people a day - and it is a performance. You write the script, you learn your lines, you set the scene, you perform. That takes a lot of energy. Eating, drinking, and going to the toilet become secondary things which are squeezed between the actual teaching, the photocopying, the production of resources, the meeting with students to discuss missed work or to help them consolidate information, the workshops, the meetings, the marking and the planning. Lunch was pretty much always eaten over the keyboard. And this didn't stop when you got home; the cooking and eating of dinner had to take place in no more than one hour, because marking had to take place. The physical toll on the body for many teachers is IBS or other strange stress related digestive issues.
I know that many teachers, right now, will be using their Easter holidays as 'catch up' time, and by that I don't just mean time to catch up on marking and any planning that needs tweaking; I mean catching up on all the stuff that can't be done during term time. The rhythm of the academic year is a very unhealthy one. The pattern of terms and half-term holidays creates peaks and troughs of intense work followed by enforced 'rest'. The fact that term time is punctuated with departmental meetings, open evenings, parents' evenings, and sudden deluges of increased marking load, means that it can become difficult to commit to anything outside of school life. As a result, I often found that I tried to fit in everything, from exercise, to meeting friends I hadn't seen for weeks, to getting some DIY done that had been lingering for months, into the half terms. At the end of each holiday, it was almost like you were packing up those parts of your life ready for another block of time when there just wouldn't be any space for them. Life gets put on hold year after academic year. The holidays start to become a source of stress because you try so hard to make them count and to do something significant.
The sharp-eyed amongst you will notice that I used the phrase 'enforced rest' to describe half term holidays. Whilst it is wonderful to have the summer off and to have two weeks at Easter and two at Christmas, these rest times are dictated to you in teaching. You have no choice over the time you take for holiday, which often results in teachers working through exhaustion to the holiday, instead of being able to book a holiday when they start to feel in need of one. The consequence is often that teachers end up ill for the holiday and return to work no more refreshed than when they left. You really need the holidays as a teacher, because you've spent all day from 8am to 8pm working for 6-7 weeks solid, and probably most of the weekend, too. Something I've noticed as an ex-teacher in a 'normal' job, is that I leave my work at the office, and I have the evenings and weekends to do my own thing. The difference that makes is incredible: I almost forget to take holiday.
Mentally, the job is also exhausting. Teachers are always thinking ahead and always have their focus on what they need to do next. My intital response at being invited to a party or a night out was to check my marking schedule. Thanks to coursework marking and the mocks, October through to April was a very stressful time to receive any sort of invitation. The past few years in teaching has been particularly stressful in regards to the mental and intellectual demands of the job, since the curriculum has changed. This means set texts have changed - which, in turn, means, for an English teacher, that new books have to be read, digested, researched and understood. That's what the holidays are for, I guess. On top of this, the assessment objectives have changed and the exam structures have changed. The planning of new schemes of work and resources is a mammoth task and many teachers have been teaching hand-to-mouth in order to implement the changes to GCSEs and A Levels.
For myself, as an A Level English teacher, it was the marking load that was most mentally exhausting. I enjoyed reading the essays, because I wanted to see how much my students had learnt and to see what their interpretation was of a text we'd studied. However, the rising class sizes, coupled with the insistence on 'common tasks' (which meant you lost control over when you set essays and took in marking), meant that I often felt like Sisyphus. It has taken a long time to enjoy sitting down reading a book again because my eyes and brain just couldn't take in any more information.
The emotional toll of teaching under today's regime is also incredibly high. The teachers I worked with did not enter into the job to be part of a corporation, or to become fabulously rich, or to work towards a quarterly or yearly bonus. For many teachers, the attraction of the job is that it is meaningful; it fulfils a role in society which is fundamentally important to individuals and to society as a whole. Teaching, like nursing, firefighting, grounds maintenance, and other frontline public sector jobs, was a bastion against the profit-hungry, corporate world and it had meaning because of that. Since the target setting values of the corporate world have been allowed to seep into education, education has lost its meaning. When your managers are only focused on the output - the grades - then what point does any of the input have anymore? The exam-factory methods of today's schools and colleges runs roughshod over what it means to be an educator and what it means to be educated, and the emotional toll of that can be crushing.
So what did I do to change my situation? Firstly, I'm going to be very honest and say that teaching is a very difficult profession to leave. At its best, it is a job which is creative, meaningful and which values wisdom and knowledge. At its worst, it is open to corruption, increasingly claustrophobic and increasingly corporate. As Dickens writes in 'A Tale of Two Cities': 'it was the best of times, it was the worst of times'. For me, leaving was like a divorce, because the feelings of love and hate were so polarised. Like a marriage, teaching intitutionalises you; it is a terrifying thing to turn your back on such a rigidly defined way of existing which has always paid the bills. It's very difficult to know what you'll feel like 'on the other side'. However, there is more than one career in all of us, and more than one way of life. Change is always possible, and it's possible when you realise that you are in charge of the choices you make; you have much more power over the opportunities that come your way than you realise. I looked at the wealth of transferable skills I had and I reflected on what a job had to be to be fulfilling. In short, I visualised what I wanted, set a goal and put that goal into action.
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