Teaching and Learning Guru

On Teachers Walking Away

A Guest Post by Ele Crovato

DISCLAIMER: This blog is a personal stance on a much-discussed topic; I don’t speak for anyone but myself and those that I have quoted where appropriate. 

The following is taken from page 9 of Briefing Paper 7222, 16 December 2019, available from The House of Commons Library:

“22.5% of newly qualified entrants to the sector in 2016 were not recorded as working in the state sector two years later. The five year out-of-service rate for 2013 entrants was 32.3%, the highest on the current series, which dates back to 1997. The rate has been between 25.4% and 32.3% in each year over this period. The ten year out-of-service rate for 2009 entrants was 38%. It has been between 40.3% and 34.4% in each year since 1997.

DfE commissioned research on factors affecting teacher retention 

Following a survey targeted at former teachers in January to March 2017, the DfE commissioned in-depth qualitative research into why teachers leave the profession and what would encourage them to remain in teaching. The report of this research was published in March 2018: Factors Affecting Teacher Retention: Qualitative Investigation

Amongst the findings of the research were: 

Suggested solutions for retention offered by teachers included: improving in-school support for teachers, increasing focus on progression opportunities, reducing workload, improving working conditions (flexible working was viewed positively; pay was not a driver for most but it was stated that pay levels were not reflective of the role), professional recognition and greater autonomy.”

Roughly, one in three new teachers don’t stay beyond those infamous first five years of service; I don’t have any numbers to prove it at this point, but I’m not convinced that the teaching profession is so much different from other sectors.

In the good old days of me having jobs before teaching, staying with one employer or in one sector for a long time was no longer an expectation, even if you had been offered a permanent job; the truth is, I think, at least partially, that becoming a teacher is still seen as one of those jobs that clearly carry the ‘vocation’ label and therefore, once in, you’re in, and commitment is commitment.

In other words, you’re expected to stay no matter what (I’m being very generic here, I know) and leaving is seen as a huge deal.

I live most of my teaching life in the very limited world of EduTwitter, but I know that every time someone posts about making that big decision of leaving teaching, the post leaves ripples. I’m guessing this is normal for a number of reasons (we’re losing one of ‘our own’, if you like) and we know that retention is hard work, so I do sympathise with the upset; goodness knows that we need all the good teachers we can get. I genuinely understand why a seasoned teacher would be an overall loss to the profession.

I’ve yet to encounter a leaving tweet that speaks of dreadful children, horrible colleagues (again, being generic here), and the hate of working in a school being the reason people leave; no, let’s be honest here, people leave because teaching is a relentless job which you don’t step away from: the workload in far too many schools is horrendous, the demands on time are absurd and, quite frankly, nowhere near worthy of the money we get.

Of course I know that no one gets into teaching for the money – if that was the case we’d have no teachers to speak of – but sure enough it has to be considered at some point; and, while the bursaries for training in certain subjects look very nice, they’re also very deceiving: going from 30K as a physics trainee to circa 24K as an NQT doesn’t bode very well, does it?

In view of all of the above, it comes to no surprise that the latest input from Gavin Williamson regarding teacher retention was seen by some as gaslighting (see this TES article for details). Thing is, Mr Williamson, while we could argue that some ITT providers are better than others at their job, you know and we know that training has nothing to do with teachers staying or leaving; statistics have shown, over and over again, that workload is pretty much the bugbear here and often one of the deciding factors in choosing the school you work at.

So, in essence, if Mr Williamson continues to come up with pearls of wisdom like the one above, I fear he will manage to create an unsurmountable divide between government and the very people a Secretary of State Education is supposed to work with and for. 

Yet, I’m making what is potentially an even more controversial claim here: while it might be true that retention is an issue, it makes no sense how big a fuss we make of it. Now, before you get the pitchforks out, I’ve thought about this long and hard and I hope that you can too; for one reason or another, I’m not as insular (some detractors would say ‘institutionalised’) as other, more experienced teachers. Also, the fact that I’ve come to teaching after doing loads of other stuff might actually help me see the profession in a different way as most people that have been teaching for a far longer time than me, do.

In my school we currently have a number of Teach First trainees. I had never heard of TF before getting onto Twitter, and I’ll admit that their reputation – not always positive – precedes them. So far I’ve heard that TF trainees are trained for SLT, are trained to leave, are trained to go into bigger and better things, with the overall feeling that they basically don’t stay in teaching.

This might or might not be true and I’m not interested in the TF rumours being proven or otherwise because I’m sure that, one way or another, the organisation reflects the variety of outcomes of all ITT providers out there. So, for example, while I stayed on as a teacher after my training, one of my fellow trainees decided it wasn’t for her; once again, the overall reaction to her decision (from me included) was one of commiseration but of recognition of her bravery. Believe me when I tell you that, when I left my job as a team manager at Esso, no one made a fuss and told me how brave my decision was.

But back to TF. 

One of the trainees we have is in my science department and this is her second year with us; this is obviously not the norm as we’re used to trainees coming and going as they move on through placements. The TF trainee and I have some wonderful conversations about all sorts of stuff; I’ll call her Hannah just to respect her privacy, even though she’s fully aware of me using her as an example for this blog.

Hannah and I spend some of our PPA time debating and discussing education stuff, anything from making resources to abandoning PPT for booklets to the best cake for tedious meetings. Recently she talked to me about her future plans post QTS and I was not surprised to find out that she wishes to go on a gap year but I was actually surprised to find out she doesn’t intend to return to the teaching profession after that.

As you can expect, my reaction was the usual one of commiserations and of mourning the loss of a really decent teacher. Of course, I probed a bit more and she was happy to discuss her views of the teaching profession as it stands; a further disclaimer should go here and I should remind anyone reading this that I’m relaying Hannah’s personal views, but she definitely found me in agreement with many of her points.

Hannah mainly mentioned the well-known retention factors that we all know about: unrealistic workload, as well as demands on time that go well beyond the school hours and lack of support from some SLT. She recognises that the way we do things in our school is much different from other schools, and what I mean is that, as teachers, our workload is the absolute minimum, we don’t mark books, we have centralised detentions, we don’t chase parents nor children, we are consistently supported by a lovely and very visible SLT, and that makes a huge difference. However, both Hannah and I know very well that this is not always the norm, at least not at this point, and we appreciate that changing schools might also mean giving up some or all of the nice stuff we have at our own school. 

Hannah also bemoans the unrealistic expectation of having to find new resources to teach with, indeed of not having some sort of centralised database for each topic which we can access and use at leisure; she finds the lack of a more standardised approach to running a school just as baffling; she cannot quite fathom the fact that some schools are criticised for being strict with behaviour expectations, something which was basically a given among her peers during her schooling (she’s in her 20s).

In short, she has found too many negatives in her day-to-day teaching job to want to come back as a qualified teacher; she knows that demands will possibly get worse once she’s an NQT and beyond and therefore she’s stepping away from the profession altogether. When I asked her if she would consider returning she said no, not unless considerable changes and improvements were in place.

As she was speaking about all this, I found myself nodding along in agreement a lot; because of a number of reasons, this is my fourth year in the classroom and I’ve seen some wonderful schools and some terrible schools, so I really do know what is out there.

Yet, the thing that struck me the most was her reaction to the responses she gets when she says she will not continue teaching: she doesn’t get the sympathy nor the commiserations, and she doesn’t get why it’s a big deal. She got me thinking and you know what? She has a point. Hear me out.

In every other profession or job I’ve ever been in, leaving is not a big deal. I mean, sure, if you’ve been in a job for a long time and you have some lovely colleagues they’re bound to miss you and you miss them. However, I’ve lost count of the times in which I’ve seen a post about a teacher fully leaving teaching and being told that changing schools might help (yes, I’m also guilty of this, I will do better): why? Why do we say this? Instead of saying something encouraging, we sort of turn the tables. Look, I know this is the kind of comment made with the best intentions, I do. But it still sounds odd, somehow. Put it in the context of any other form of employment and you’ll see what I mean.

Every job in the world carries a probation period, however long, and teaching is no exception; to be brutally honest, I’ll go one more and say that teacher training, as it stands now, is misleading; the most you teach is about 70% of a full timetable and the responsibility of the classes you teach ultimately rests with the actual teacher so yes, I think misleading is a fair assessment. No, I don’t have a solution and I fully understand why ITT courses are setup the way they are, but they are nevertheless unrealistic. Many people told me that my NQT year would be so much easier than my training year but that was definitely not true for me, or rather, that was far too simplistic a way to put it.

The reality of being in a classroom, in charge of – on a typical five-period day – about 140 or so kids is terrifying and a huge responsibility! And the truth is that we don’t know what that is actually like until we’re well into our NQT year. And the even more obvious truth that sometimes we ignore is that it takes time to try out a job, any job, but especially a complex one as teaching; complex not necessarily because of what we do, which of course is not rocket science as such, but complex because of the constant plate spinning that comes with the job. Someone once compared the skills you need when teaching to the ones you need when driving a car, which is fair enough, except the car is on fire and you’re driving on two wheels on the edge of a precipice. While I can agree that in time things get better, this is true of some aspects of the job, but not all of them; in fact, my argument here is that some get worse as responsibility increases: eventually something has to give to restore balance.

So, with all the respect I might have for Mr Williamson, he’s once again off the mark and appears to operate in a parallel universe where teachers have no lives outside school, no families to worry about, no agency, no voice; quite frankly, no amount of training will ever solve the number of ludicrous loops we make teachers jump through.

While I’d agree that the vast majority of people hold teachers in high esteem – despite all attempts to convince them otherwise from far too many sources – it’s really important that, for at least once, you read the room, Gavin, seriously. If not the room then read the reports the government you belong to commissions. Honestly, we deserve someone who knows what they’re doing.

But, and this is a sizeable but, to me it seems also true that we make a rod for our own back in the way that we view those who choose to leave the profession, for whatever reason. We might not do it willingly or in a way meant to cast doubt, but we still do it and I think we should stop; we should consider the kind of implicit message we might be sending to others who are doubtful of their place in the classroom.

Overall, it feels like we’re very good at recognising the things that make us want to leave teaching, but we often fail to accept that teaching is just like any other job and we should be able to come and go, so to speak, even if training is hard work, even if we give it a proper try but still it doesn’t work out, even if we take as much as two years (as in Hannah’s case) to actually make a decision about it.

We should be able to just leave it or take it as with any other job without the burden of guilt hanging over us because we are left feeling that we didn’t try hard enough.

Ele Crovato

Science Teacher and #TeamTransition Science Lead

On Twitter as @Illwriteitdown

With special thanks to Hannah for her patience and honesty, to Towers for being an awesome school, and to Andy McHugh for bravely hosting this blog.

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