Monday, 9 January 2017

Half Nelson: Why I tapped out.



Half Nelson is one of my favourite films about teaching. Starring Ryan Gosling as troubled but idealisitc history teacher, Dan Dunne, who tries to balance his desire to transform poor children's lives in a Brooklyn school with his growing drug dependency. Now, I'm not suggesting that I left teaching because of a penchant for crack cocaine but there is certainly something to be said about my reasons for leaving and the wrestling move with which the film shares its name.

In April 2016 I made the very difficult decision to leave teaching. It was difficult both emotionally and financially but in hindsight the right thing to do. Anyhow, before trying to explain why I left a profession I once loved it's probably worth saying why I went into teaching in the first place..... 


Growing up on a tough estate in North Wales during the 1980/90s I experienced first-hand the emancipatory and transformative power of education. I also witnessed the devastating impact of Thatcherism on working families and communities. Going to university opened up opportunities which I believe every child should be afforded. If they wish, of course, as I also don't believe that success should be soley measured on academic achievements. Education provided me with a ticket out of an existence which was, I suppose, just that. I was fortunate to have some wonderful teachers who believed in me and helped me to achieve. I'm not for a minute suggesting I was always the easiest of pupils. Just ask my Science teacher, Mr Fellows. I spent more time outside his classroom door than I did inside the lab learning about the periodic table. I don't blame him per se but his didactic teaching style didn't really click with my eagerness to question everything. I am privileged to have the life I have and it is because of a decent state education and a supportive family. For that, I have a huge debt of gratitude which I'm still trying to repay. Regardless of my decision to leave, I still believe that teaching has the power to transform lives. So, if this holds true, why on earth did I Ieave?

Firstly, I need to say that my decision to leave had nothing whatsoever to do with pupil behaviour. I know some observers would have you believe that schools are out of control with horrible children preventing all from learning. This isn't my experience and I've worked in some tough schools with high levels of deprivation. Naturally I found some pupils difficult at times but no more so than my own two children. This seems to chime with a recent highly-scientific Twitter poll where only 5% of voters suggested this was the main reason they have/ would leave the profession. The overall results can be seen below: 



Actually having to tell the pupils that I was leaving initially filled me with an enormous sense of guilt. Was I letting them down? Then I realised I was probably letting them down by staying as I was no longer able to give it my all. The idealism, optimism and drive had been knocked out of me. For me, the decision to leave was reached during the summer term of 2015 when I was diagnosed with work-related depression. I had known for a while that things weren't quite right but stupidly thought that if I worked harder I would somehow get better. I didn't. Instead I burnt out. If you have ever suffered from mental illness you'll know how all-consuming it can be. And for me it was. So much so that I made the decision to leave. I'm certainly not alone with work-related stress/ mental illness; a survey conducted by the NASUWT in 2016 found that not only was teacher wellbeing a growing concern but also the profession was witnessing the following trends:


So, it's all very well Theresa May coming out and offering free mental health training for secondary school teachers but more needs to be done to support teachers who might be suffering from work-related stress/ depression/ anxiety and dependency. 

So, back to the purpose of this post. I left teaching (like the 69% of teachers who voted in the poll) because of the workload which was directly impacting upon my wellbeing and mental health. However, I  think there's an important distinction to be made here. I don't mind working hard. In fact, I think I've got a very good work ethic and I thank my parents for that. Unfortunately, I believe much of what teachers are being asked to do is superfluous and can actually have an negative impact on children's learning whether that be through the loss of time or their teacher's inability to physically and/ or mentally fulfil their role. It would be impossible for me to write about each and every one of the excessive teacher tasks unless I decided to write a book. So, let's just take the example of the RAG status reports. Borrowed directly from a business model of project management these reports are supposed to show how children are progressing towards an (often unrealistic) grade and what is being done by the teacher to help them achieve said grade. 

So, in my experience, every fortnight I had to rate each GCSE pupil as to whether or not  they were secure (green), close (amber) or urgently needed support (red) in getting a C or above in their exams. This started in Year 10 and continued until one month before the pupils sat their GCSEs. One problem is that this wasn't done against their target grades. Interestingly, if you've got a pupil who is predicted a G (and there were some in this position) it's going to be very difficult to get them beyond that almighty threshold. And the RAG wasn't quite enough. Within each category there were sub-catagories; A, B and C. You get where this is going. So, said pupil might start off as Red-C but the expectation would be that they'd then move up to Red-B in a fortnight and so on and so forth. Now, this can't just happen so every pupil who isn't on green-A has to have strategies put in place to ensure they make the necessary progress. As in business, these targets had to be SMART. Furthermore, to add insult to injury, the RAG was then publicly displayed in form classrooms (which were used by pupils across the whole school) so that the children could have their progress, or indeed lack of, shared with all their peers. And this whole process takes valuable time. Time away from what really matters; teaching and learning. Ultimately, it was self-defeating or as Blackadder would say, bollocks. And this is very much connected to weak leadership. 


Yesterday there was an interesting discussion on Twitter regarding SLT who demand to see teacher's lesson plans at he start of the week/ term. This shows a distinct lack of trust and is little more than poor micro-management. Or, what Stephen Ball refers to as  'teacher perfomativity' which is a direct result of marketisation of education. If you invite market forces into a public service then don't be surprised when they start to emulate private businesses. Hence the obsession with judgments, measures and constant performance cycles.  This is, of course, inextricably linked to workload as most of this perfomativity is box-ticking to please SLT or inspectors rather than to actually help children learn.  For all intents and purposes it felt as though the system had me in a Half Nelson (finally got there). Locked in this  performativity stranglehold, I had to tap out.   

Leaving was tough. I went into teaching probably too idealistically thinking I could inspire every child I taught. I wouldn't be as self-assured to suggest I was an outstanding teacher but I'd like to think I was a consistently good teacher who cared for the pupils and believed that what I was doing was worthwhile and in some way making a positive difference to society. Since leaving my wellbeing has improved enormously. I might be earning a lot less money but I am doing something that I am passionate about again (research into children's political literacy) and have much more time to spend with my own children. I've had to make quite a few sacrifices but you can't put a price on your health and wellbeing. 

I still believe education has the power to be transformative and emancipatory but not in its current state.  I don't know if I'll ever return to the chalkface but what I do know is that I will always work in education and continue to wrestle (sorry) for a more socially just and equitable public system which benefits the many and not the few. 


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