The Guardian reports that older teachers are leaving the profession in droves and draining it of expertise.
These are my reasons:
1. Teachers who don’t want to be managers are under-rated.
Teaching is a profession in which an entrant can quickly establish themselves and quickly move up the hierarchy and into management. This is one of the aspects which is a being talked up in the adverts designed to fill up the widening gap between the number needed to fill our classrooms and schools and the number available to do so. That, and the increasingly desperate bursaries on offer, are designed to be big motivators.
And it’s true. A good, ambitious, hardworking teacher can be second in department, even head of department within just a few years. That’s a good thing. However, it is a mistake to think that a great teacher becomes, ipso facto, a great manager. Teaching and management require very different skill sets. Some teachers are best deployed in the classroom, and those who recognise where their skills lie need to be encouraged to stay there, and used as role models for others.
But the flip side of a steep promotional ladder of opportunity is that those really gifted teachers who really don’t want to move onto a different job can be seen as unambitious. There are ambitious leaders who judge others for this perceived lack of ambition. It is seen as a weakness.
I spent three years as a pastoral middle leader. I loved it and hated it in equal measure, and in the end it got the better of me. I loved having a different relationship with the students, and getting to know them better. I resolved to be positive, to chase up students who were doing well, to celebrate achievements in and out of school and to make every assembly like a mini US primary rally, full of enthusiasm and pride. That bit worked well, and I think students trusted me to notice them getting it right. But a disproportionate amount of my time was spent trying to help our very few most troubled, challenged, vulnerable students. I spent so much time on them because I wanted so badly to help them, and I thought that the more time I spent, and the more laterally I approached their problems, the more probable it would be that I could. It broke my heart that I couldn’t, because their problems did not arise from school although they manifested there. School couldn’t sort them out, and I certainly couldn’t, no matter how many creative plans I came up with, or external agencies I involved.
In addition I was unable to devote the time I wanted to to making my lessons the best they could be and I shortchanged my students. And my own kids, who barely saw me. Once at home, as I was hunched over a file of information, my daughter slapped a post-it onto my open file with the words ‘TALK TO ME” written on it in capital letters. So after taking a couple of weeks off after being dragged away by senior leaders from my desk in tears wailing “No, no, I have to teach 9L…” I decided to call it a day.
Since then I have concentrated on being the best teacher that I can be. In this desire I am incredibly ambitious. I have experience and drive and I work hard and I read widely. I don’t think I am different to others in my situation in this – I am definitely one of a ‘type’. The curious thing I have observed is that while I do feel valued as a professional by my leadership, it is clear from the existing professional teaching structure and pay scales that I have reached the end of my usefulness. I have reached the top of the upper pay scale and there is nowhere else for me to go if I choose to stay in the classroom. The message couldn’t be clearer – you have nothing more to offer beyond this point.
2. New managers want to make their mark – out with the old, in with the new.
Now, I absolutely recognise that I can always make use of new ways of doing things, new technology, new ideas. I have never used a lesson plan more than once, preferring to do things differently every year. But I think it’s a two way process. There were inspirational figures who helped me when I was starting out in the profession, and I learnt an enormous amount from them. I have learned from most of the colleagues I have met over the years; I still learn from the PGCE students and the NQTs I mentor. And I have met a lot of colleagues over the years.
New managers want to make their mark. They therefore introduce new initiatives which they assure the teaching staff will ensure better results, better inclusion, better mental health outcomes… whatever. No new manager is going to turn to older colleagues – they will have their own ideas.
The thing is that older colleagues have seen many new managers, and many new initiatives, and we have been told that each of them will ‘ensure’ great things. Many of these new initiatives are very reminiscent of ones we saw maybe a decade ago. We’ve stuck things on our doors, written things on our boards, got students to write things and underline them at the top of the page. We’ve done WALTs and WILFs, WALA and TIB and WWW and EBI and RARs. We’ve used mini-whiteboards and post-its and hot-seats and traffic lights. And every one of them started as an initiative that would ‘ensure’ desired outcomes. We’ve been told that it is IMPERATIVE that the students know what level they’re working at. Boards have been posted in our classrooms asking students if they knew what level they were working at. Observers have asked students what level they were working at, and pointed questions have been asked of teachers if students didn’t know. Then we were abruptly told that levels didn’t matter any more and what is now IMPERATIVE is that students know what progress they are making. New initiatives are introduced to ensure this happens…
I don’t mind. I do whatever is the flavour of the month. You tell me what to teach and I’ll teach it; who to teach and I’ll teach them; how to teach and I’ll do it your way. But I know that it is what it is. And I know that the next manager will chuck out this set of initiatives and bring in something else which will be different but vaguely familiar from long ago. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
3. As classroom teachers, older colleagues are expensive.
We are near, or at, the top of the pay scale. Schools are strapped for cash. So every older colleague who leaves and is replaced by a young teacher or an NQT is saving the school thousands a year. To celebrate the new ideas and energy brought into a school by a young colleague is a great thing, but sometimes it is making a virtue of necessity.
If I were a school leader which, to be clear, I’ve never wanted, I’m sure I’d have no choice but to do the same thing. I don’t resent the decision made by individual school leaders. Apparently teachers in the UK are the least experienced of any in Europe; this is not just the doing of a few Headteachers. If a government creates an environment which discourages older colleagues from continuing to teach, there’s not much SLTs can do to buck the system. They’re stuck.
4. By tweeting, blogging, writing my book I hope to do more good than I can in school.
I will have time to read, study, interview people, get into other schools, try get in front of key decision-makers in the education world and try and get my ideas out there. I hope that I will make clear that they are just that – ideas. But I passionately believe that they are good ones, and necessary to combat the poor morale and epidemic of poor mental health in our schools among students and teachers. A smorgasbord of positive ideas an a world that can too often be negative. I hope to do the little I can do to help bring back positivity, fun, joy even. We need to talk more about joy, fun, curiosity, and less about grades.
I can’t speak for the others who are leaving the profession in droves. But these are my reasons.
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