I was really surprised last week to read that over half of teachers, who trained when I did, would not be in the profession anymore. (From the Teachers Pay and Conditions report 2018-2019). https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/school-teachers-pay-and-conditions I don’t know why I was so shocked – truth is that these messages about teacher recruitment and retention have been in the news for a long time. Like anything though it took a framing of it through my own experience to really see the challenge this could pose.
Then I saw the article in The Independent regarding the intention of teachers to stay in the classroom https://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/teachers-recruitment-shortages-mental-health-nqts-trainees-workload-a8779966.html – over half of teachers do not plan to stay in the classroom due to mental health issues. And, aside from the catch-all headline, (Mental Health issues could mean such a wide variety of things that it is almost meaningless), it made me think about Teacher resilience, and a few of my experiences once I became a Head Teacher.
Google ‘teacher resilience’ and you get a mixture of ideas, advice and scare stories. There are books and self-help manuals designed to empower teachers, to offer advice such as ‘look after yourself’ and ‘tell empowering stories’ in order to help build a teacher’s resilience. They explain how meditation and mindfulness have supported teachers as well as pupils. They offer how to solve the problem, but I was wondering how we got here in the first place, and is it new?
I have just finished reading the excellent ‘The Coddling of the American Mind: How bad ideas and good intentions are setting up a generation for failure.’ By Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff and it got me thinking about teacher resilience. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/36556202-the-coddling-of-the-american-mind
We are all complicit in creating a very complicated, high stakes environment in our schools. Schools are obviously agents of control; they have to offer safe places and they have to ensure discipline in both the pupils and staff. Decisions made in school literally have life changing effects and with this comes accountability and a sense of responsibility. The opportunity for teachers to build their own resilience is obviously limited, and is mapped out by the resilience and strength of character that they bring with them. But this has always been the case and teachers have always navigated a moral pathway which means tough decisions, tough thinking and challenging the educational management at times. Consequences of ‘bad’ decisions have always been the debate of much soul searching in the profession. So has anything changed? Are teachers changing?
Here are three key ideas that I think are having a bearing on current teachers, both new and experienced:
- increased scrutiny in social media
This is the comparison trap – the idea that schools, teachers and headteachers are constantly compared and often criticised in public with no thought that this may be taken personally. Traditional media has always enjoyed a good school story, but now with stories shared so rapidly and with unfettered public comments these can be exceptionally brutal, and, crucially, taken as personal criticism. Headteachers especially fall into this as the school as often pictured as an extension of themselves. It also means that trainee teachers and new teachers are told what works and can be ‘jumped on’ for trying something new- or very often not trying enough. As social media is very often the support network for many in the first place this ca be particularly jarring, especially as you cannot be as honest as you would like due to privacy concerns. There can be mantra of teacher as a martyr or the constant comparison of hours worked. This can lead to an echo chamber of positivity which probably does not compare to your current experience.
- less risk taking when training
Haidt and Lukianoff speak of the chance for our youth to ‘dose themselves in fear’ – obviously I do not mean that teachers literally risk safety. But the increased in school-based training, with one or two school bases (or one MAT) which are often similar in policy and setting reduce the ‘experimentation’ or risk that teachers would take and see. When your training is reduced to policies and ideas that the school has already tried, tested and insist upon your chance to try your own ideas and take part in something new is reduced and so is your time to make mistakes and to reflect on these. After all a trainee teacher should be encouraged to try out ideas that may not work and so experience both the consequences of this and the support prior to their own teacher post.
- prescriptive teaching materials
Haidt and Lukianoff speak of the allowing children to solve their own problems – to experience ‘play’ without an adult around. Again, in some respects, this can be applied to the early experiences of teaching. There can be an over reliance of senior leaders ‘handing down’ planning, teaching sequences and even scripts to teachers. Whilst they have a use in the classroom, particularly as time savers or if you are teaching an area that is not your expertise, they can lower the challenge threshold for teachers and lead to unrealistic expectations of what every lesson should look like. Or, they can come to believe that what they are doing is not of a high enough standard and so doubt their own ability. To some extent this is also linked to comparing yourself and to risk-taking, particularly in primary where some schools have a very prescriptive ‘non-negotiables’ and others leave it to the teachers to fine tune the details. There are policies of course, such as a behaviour policy across the school, which are very useful and necessary but teaching materials which do not take into account the personality of the teacher or the context of the class can cause more problems than they solve.
The answer to these problems are not easy of course, they require some relaxing of expectations for our new teachers and, to some extent, a dose of realism in the classroom. We need to recognise that our job is just that, that teaching is not always perfect and that teachers will make mistakes. Trainees should be encouraged to experiment with teaching sequences and resources, and to have fun with it. Not every lesson needs to be a singing and dancing extravaganza. We need a recognition that just because it has worked somewhere does not mean it will work for you and, crucially, that’s okay.