Woman opening a door

I have been lucky enough to connect with a vast number of UK teachers in the last few years. Of these, a significant minority have been those new to the profession (these are always slightly harder to recruit for research – lots to think about already? I hope it isn’t because they underestimate their importance, because their hopes, their reasons for joining the profession (or indeed not) and their reasons for remaining (or not…) are at the very heart of the teacher crisis.

Yes. We’ve having a teacher crisis. You’d have to have been residing in Narnia for the last decade to be unaware of this. I see it as a crisis on two levels. One is because, although the ‘churn’ of teachers leaving and joining is broadly stable, there aren’t enough teachers in some schools and some parts of the country to meet the needs of the ‘population bubble’, currently in years 5 and 6. More crucially, if statistics like these, which came out of my research for How to Survive in Teaching, don’t make us sit up and take notice, I don’t know what will.

So why, I wonder, are stories of prospective teachers being actively put off the profession by their experiences in training so common? They’ve become too common to be passed of as unfortunate exceptions. Allow me to share three examples.

I met a young lady, sparky and full of energy and moral purpose, working in education but not in the classroom. She described how her experience of poor mentoring led her, at the end of her PGCE (an investment of £9k these days, by the way) to decide not even to bother applying to work in schools. Her mentor was permanently stressed, openly critical of her, and downright unsupportive. Now, I understand school can be stressful. We all do. But it is some bitter achievement to so actively dissuade a young person from continuing with the profession they had, not twelve months before, decided to invest themselves in. Where are the priorities? Where is the quality control?

I always advise trainees, as well as being reflective, open to learning and ready to work bloody hard – to be pushy – to know and assert their rights to support, feedback and most crucially, time. After all, they or their families are investing half an annual salary, as well as a year plus of their lives…

Example number 2. Another trainee that I met through my research. By the sounds of her, quite competent. Good feedback on lessons so far. Clearly reflective, negotiating a tricky workload, but coping. She contacted me out of the blue in March to say she wouldn’t be returning to the school the next day. I admit, I was shocked. I asked her why on earth and how on earth it had come to this. ‘I’ve fallen in love,’ she said. ‘My mentor told me that I wouldn’t have a life if I became a teacher – so to make this relationship work, I’m quitting.’ Several months on, this story infuriates me to the point of being lost for words. I’m not sure who or what to be most annoyed with.

Finally, the example that led me to this ranty blog. A friend of the family is doing a PGCE. It will be her second career, and she’s thought about it carefully. She’s actually been working in schools for a couple of years, so she knows what to expect. I am hopeful – she appears way calmer, way more confident and way more savvy than I could have hoped to be when I started training. She is clear about why she wants to be in the profession and clearly likes spending time with young people (it amazes me how many teachers I’ve met who don’t, particularly!).

Cut back to her first seminar of the year and a well-known and well-respected institution. ‘There should be a sign above the entrance saying “leave your lives at the door,” said one of the course leaders. I sputtered. I swore. I ranted. I ranted for quite a long time. She smiled wryly and wisely and I realised she had no intention of leaving her life at the door. The last I knew, she was booking a theatre trip for mid-week next week. And it’s not even half term yet.

But why the bloody hell would anyone with any sense be giving new teachers this kind of message?! Maybe, my family friend speculated, it’s for people who aren’t use to the daily grind of getting up every day at 6.00 (I’m 43, and I’m still not used to it!). Maybe it’s based on past experience of flakiness or lazy students. I have met lazy teachers. About 2 in 21 years. They’re quite rare. I have met flaky teachers. A handful. I have, with regret, refused to sign off with QTS because I felt that, on balance, young people deserved better. None of this rant is an excuse for poor practice – nothing is.

Teachers are not – probably never have been – a homogenous group. They’re people. With lives, and friends, and families and children of their own. They’re people whose own passions and interests actively ENRICH their students’ experience. They’re people with a sense of humour, with weaknesses and eccentricities, all of which contribute to their classroom persona. They’re people with challenges in their personal lives, with their health, with histories of excellent or appalling school experiences. Another excuse for my favourite quote of all time to do with teaching:

Quote from Nias, 1989

Three examples of this is too many. It’s unacceptable and it makes crap business sense. We all need to do our bit to ensure we get new teachers who are, yes, committed, but who are also allowed to be ‘humans first’ – because that’s what our young people respond to best.

Image: Professional girl photo created by Kireyonok_Yuliya – www.freepik.com