I remember when I handed in my notice to leave teaching, people would ask me:
‘Why are you leaving? Did your contract end?’ or ‘I heard you’re leaving, you must have a great teaching position lined up’. My reply would mould to fit the receiver; I wanted to travel, I wanted to try a different career, I wanted to do a Masters. It seemed like I wanted to conquer the world with ambition but in reality, I felt directionless.
There were two things I was sure of when I left: (1) educational inequality – as manifested in the classroom – was a crime and (2) classroom, school and government structures stifled my passion. My passion for social justice stemmed from wanting to contribute back to the system that enabled me to succeed academically. The idea of others who had potential to fall through the gaps horrified me. But wanting to give back came at the expense of my own wellbeing. I was thrust on the frontline after six weeks of training, unable to fathom how I had got there.
Unrelenting pressure from all corners to succeed, unrelenting support (some better, and some worse for my development) to succeed was all I was aware of in my first year of the Teach First programme. At the end of my first year, I knew I couldn’t continue to feel as low as I had felt. Yet, I continued. I started my second year with a ‘positive mindset’, feeling confident now that I knew my students better. But the unrelenting pressure never left.
By December of my second year of teaching, I recognised something wasn’t right. I wasn’t sleeping properly; waking up at odd hours, stressed at the never-ending to do list. Overeating comfort food was my solace after an emotionally tumultuous day. And when interacting with around 100 people a day, emotions are always high. My health was in a poor state, I was mentally stressed and my relationships had been neglected for so long that it took more effort to spend time with my friends than enjoy it. I remember speaking to my doctor saying, ‘I’ve forgotten the last time I felt happy’. And it was at this moment that I had taken the step to transform.
Being in an emotionally intense, highly stressful, high stake environment had led me to a point where I didn’t recognise myself: I thought it was my shortcomings that meant ‘I couldn’t take feedback’ when I ended up in tears. I spent weekend after weekend in bed because it was easier than get out and live my life. Lesson planning and marking books was all I knew. Paperwork (sometimes necessary, many times tedious) took hours. Over and over again, I arrived at work following the motions of the day and dreading the classes that would seek most of my emotional resources.
I was depleted but I decided to change. I signed up to CBT and osteopathy. I changed my diet and started to exercise. I spent more time with the people I love, cherishing and nurturing those relationships. And my growth radiated in my work; I was positive, cheerful and bounced back from setbacks a lot quicker than before. Daily bureaucracy faded into the background and assertiveness within myself rose. Through sheer grit, I had established the mythical ‘work-life balance’. But I knew maintaining it would be a constant struggle. It is easier to give in to the pressures than to rise up and assert your own being in the face of what is sought from you. Preserving your needs in the face of a career that demands so much is courageous. And I commend every teacher who is able to do that daily.
Yet there are so many who sacrifice themselves at the whim of the next governmental move for votes. Education has always been a political football game, policy decided by anecdotal experiences of MPs and sold as ‘progressive’ and ‘enabling social mobility’. Of course the children are the biggest victims in the coming years when they are robbed of an education that can prepare them wholly for the 21st century. Yet the key missing link delivering that education are the teachers. Paraded as ‘selfish’ for striking, or ‘unqualified to teach’ or ‘teaching to the exam and killing creativity’. There are good reasons why.
The new national curriculum is heavy with content (more knowledge somehow means smarter). This means rather than depth and quality of topics learnt, students have to be taught a huge amount of content in a very short space of time. Much of the learning is far removed from the lives of young people as there is a move back to more traditional topics such as 19th century texts in English Literature. Of course teachers have no choice but to teach to the exam – they are required to run extra after school classes/interventions, planning them even before the beginning of the academic year. Of course the retention rate is poor; there is no choice but to employ more student teachers. The question isn’t why there are more unqualified teachers, but rather why are the qualified teachers leaving? It makes sense therefore, under all these burdens, why teachers would choose to strike for their rights, rather than be treated as a commodity and a resource without dignity.
As I have been researching global citizenship, political and moral education abroad, I can’t help but think this: I want our young people to be engaged in the world around them. I want them to feel empowered to participate in debate and discussion about their world. I want them to be confident to tackle and improve the state of the world as it currently is in. But what I am asking of them is too big of a task. If there is no room for them to know their identity in a system so focused on exam grades and league tables, asking them to change the world is literally asking for the world.
This incredible journey of learning and growth as I continue my research in Australia and Japan has taught me so much already. I hope to use this knowledge to formulate our discussion and ideas of what our young people need in the UK. Yet, before we can adapt our curriculum to create more politically engaged young people, we need to create a national environment for teachers to not be tired of it all. Teachers are the passionate of all; without the passion they would not be there. But it is treating them with human dignity and compassion that is critical for our children.