You can’t swing a cat in a teacher forum these days without hitting a story about teacher wellbeing being the reason behind education’s dire retention rates. And you can’t step much further without hitting some advice about teaching teachers to meditate, practise mindfulness or electrocute themselves (!) to cope. This thought space is frustratingly clogged with ideas of how to put a plaster over a bleeding gash, when we actually need to stop cutting.
The government’s own Teacher Recruitment and Retention Strategy released in January 2019 was actually refreshingly insightful on this matter. It immediately tackles the role of school leadership in exacerbating myths about what's expected of teachers. It also put forward some great ideas for facilitating part time teaching and job sharing as a measure to reclaim the post-maternity/paternity returners. (Unfortunately, this was misunderstood by many, who interpreted it as a suggestion that full-time teachers go part time in order to reduce their workloads. This was not the point - see their page 28).
But it’s not about learning to meditate, it’s not about going part time to be paid less to do the same work, it’s about schools needing to take the plunge and slash the workload in the first place.
The Independent reports that over half of new teachers do not plan to stay long term due to the mental health demands (note, this is a very small survey of 275 teachers by one university, with some very ambiguous definitions of 'in the classroom'). The article goes on to iterate the worry that a great deal of cost and effort has gone into training people, who then leave. Actually, the worry should be the years of ineffectiveness and personal misery a teacher can endure before finally feeling they need to resign. These are teachers who are in place, dealing with the ultimate challenge of providing relentless compassion for complicated young people with an unbelievably wide range of pastoral needs, whilst being buried under their own needs. Even Maslow would tell us that when you haven’t got anything left to deal with that part of the job, that’s when you start bowing out mentally. As Emma Hollis so rightly points out: “If you are not able to take care of your own mental health, it makes you less able to be responsive to the mental health of the children in your class.”
Then there’s the school of thought that we should only employ iron-clad super humans to teach in the first place by hiking up the entry criteria to qualify. The recent relaxation of teacher recruitment standards may well have contributed to the further deterioration of the early career workforce (the logic is that a higher proportion of the new workforce have lower levels of experience of high-pressure demand and expectations). But the answer is certainly not to narrow the recruitment pool again: doing that just excludes a great many social types and personality traits. The diverse skills we now attract by reaching out to demographics outside of the wealthy 1st-class university degree set are a credit to the workforce.
And you can’t make the teacher training more grueling. I can show you 95 classmates from my primary PGCE who will testify that 80-hour weeks for a year will already take you to the edge.
So I’m afraid there’s only one solution – we might actually have to make the job manageable for plain ol’ very hardworking, intelligent humans.
Here we are looking for ways to get teachers with this super-power, or create them, when actually we should be asking, how can schools slash the demand on their teachers to make it manageable in about 40 hours a week with time left over for actual creativity… and even kindness? Is it too much to expect it as a given, in career teaching?
Ofsted is already pretty forthcoming in its myth-busting of what schools actually have to evidence. So are school leaders ringfencing the law by adding extra expectations on teachers that are not required by the DfE / Ofsted? We’ve all got stories about working in a school with a policy against marking ‘every book every night’ then getting slammed for being caught with some unmarked pages in the half termly inspection. Are there specific Heads who are creating the problem? If so, there must be a whopping percentage of them. The DfE’s R&R strategy explicitly states this will become a consideration… if they can be identified. Are the teachers willing to ‘whistleblow’?
Let’s make no mistake: to turn around the teacher retention crisis, we need to unapologetically challenge the spoken and unspoken expectations on teachers, even if from leadership, to radically change school cultures… not ask our professionals to endure life-changing trauma with a smile.
About the author
Katie Newell BA(Hons) PGCE is an ex-primary school teacher, Head of Maths, Head of Year five and languages specialist. Katie qualified in Psychology at Liverpool then specialised in Primary Languages for her PGCE at Reading. Before teaching, Katie was a financial commentator and is now the Content Manager for eteach.com and fejobs.com. Katie feels passionately that teachers are the unsung heroes of society; that opening minds to creative timetabling could revolutionise keeping women in teaching, and that a total change to pupil feedback is the key to solving the work life balance issue for the best job in the world.