I would compare teaching in recent years to jumping onto a treadmill, already set on a steep incline and the fastest setting, where the ‘pause’ button no longer works and it is highly likely you will become breathless, dizzy, and potentially lose your footing and crash hard on the floor. That might sound like an overly dramatic analogy but, from my experience, it sums up the nightmarish pressure teachers are currently enduring.
Speaking as a secondary school English teacher who has been in the classroom for twenty years, this year has tipped me over the edge. It began disastrously in September when my school, based in West London, struggled to recruit teachers for the English Department. We were two teachers down. This led to a series of supply teachers coming and going, unsettled students getting a poor learning experience, behaviour worsening, and a growing realisation that there was no solution.
Fortunately, by January, through a recruitment agency, the school found a good Australian teacher with positive energy and bags of enthusiasm. We are recruiting directly from Australia because there is a serious shortage of teachers in London. She was joined soon after by her Aussie mate who flew here to work at our school, teaching a variety of subjects to plug the gaps in our staff. One downside of agency teachers is that they are extremely costly for schools, placing more pressure on already tight budgets.
Much as I love working with a diverse mix of teachers, I am worried about the lack of graduates choosing to become teachers in this country. This week it was reported in the Evening Standard that the number of Londoners applying for postgraduate teaching courses has dropped by 11% in one year. In my school, we have no trainee teachers which is unheard of. But it is hardly surprising when we are so underpaid and overworked. I read stories of teachers visiting food banks and having second jobs to make ends meet. I can believe it.
I chose to support my teaching union, the NEU, and went on strike for four days in the Spring Term. I marched in London and felt the strength of feeling and anger among teachers. But there was barely any media coverage and no meaningful progress was made. It feels like teachers are banging their heads against a brick wall. I recognise the importance of protesting but feel frustrated at the Government’s refusal to pay teachers fairly in increasingly difficult working conditions.
Meanwhile, in my English Department, we are still one teacher down. Children are still being taught by unqualified cover teachers clicking through Powerpoints, as behaviour deteriorates and education suffers.
Why does this affect me? Because it adds another layer of pressure to my life as a teacher. Some classes will have had a series of supply teachers for an entire year, and it is likely I’ll take over some of these classes next year. Will they have gaps in their learning? Will they have lost focus, motivation, and interest in my subject? Most definitely. So the uphill battle continues.
In addition, my timetable keeps changing so that the exam classes (Years 10 and 11) have the strongest teachers. I am currently re-teaching An Inspector Calls to my ‘new’ Year 10 class who have learnt very little in the autumn term. In the play, Sheila challenges her father saying he only cares about “cheap labour” rather than the welfare of his employees. This strikes a chord. Our Government only cares about austerity and not about the long-term damage they are inflicting on teachers and children.
It is the end of the Easter holidays, and I have been marking mock GCSE papers all day. Anxiety is creeping in as Monday morning looms. I wonder how many more exhausted, struggling teachers will step off (or fall off) the treadmill this term?
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