On losing good teachers

My name is Lisa and I left the classroom; I am no longer a teacher. I am not statistic-worthy. I qualified in 2009 and spent six years in teaching, all at the same school in a town in Norfolk, including several years in Year 6. I do not fit the current statistics from the Government, figures that show one in three teachers left within five years. But leave I did.

My ‘why’, which I’ll share shortly, is a personal one. I recognise that my reason for leaving is not necessarily going to be the same as anyone else. However, a recent Twitter discussion resulted in a swathe of opinions about why teachers leave with the common denominator being the opinions came from those still in the classroom. We also heard from those who considered leaving but then found a change of school kept them in the profession. I don’t deny their opinions matter or are valid, and I am so pleased that talented teachers are being kept in schools through changing jobs, but I felt the debate needed voices from those who have actually left. While one voice is still not enough, I felt compelled to share my view.

“I was triple marking my maths books until midnight… Again!”

One of the main reasons cited for teachers leaving is workload. Granted, many teachers who have left name this as a key factor and, given my current role working with teachers, I recognise that for some the workload is huge. Data drops, marking policies which require lengthy written comments, huge yearly reports to parents, feeling the need to work until midnight and at least some of the weekend … All of these impact upon the life of a teacher. What irritates me is the underlying assumption of not being able to ‘hack it’ if you have left teaching – especially when some voices who say it must be workload do so while still teaching, smugly implying that their school is ‘better’ or they themselves ‘work smarter’. I cannot speak for all teachers but, having visited a large number of schools in the last three years, I believe the school I left was an average one for workload. We did termly data, weekly writing needing lengthy written comments and had lots of expectations around written feedback. I also worked in Year 6 where we did a large number of practice papers. Yes, I had weeks where I felt stressed by the workload and yes I had evenings where I worked later. But, like many teachers, I believe this was something I accepted (rightly or wrongly) as part of the job.

“We’ve got this trainee… I’m just not sure she can cut the mustard.”

A further reason suggested for those that drop out is the suggestion that some of those who leave are just not that good at the job. This is a really tricky one for me. I believe that teaching requires a huge range of skills, both academic and social, and that these skills are not present in every human being. Some people, for example, are not reflective and I believe this is a difficult trait to nurture and develop. Managing behaviour is a skill that, for me at least, took a long time to learn and develop. However, I do get frustrated when I hear this as a sweeping generalisation. I put no value in lesson observation judgements but my school did, and I received “Outstanding” regularly, including from Ofsted feedback (when they still did so). More importantly, my pupils made progress. They learned in an environment where they felt safe. I was a good teacher. I didn’t leave because I wasn’t good at it and I still smart when this is suggested to me.

“Look at that interactive, 3-D display board of the Amazon! I bet an NQT made it.”

According to something I heard recently, from teachers with only a few years of experience each, some teachers may leave because the ‘novelty factor’ wears off, because NQT enthusiasm wanes and the pressures and realities of the job come to the fore. This opinion isn’t all that isolated. In fact, I was asked outright if I had lost my mojo for the job. Again, I accept that there will be some teachers who have lost enthusiasm for the job however in my experience suggesting this occurs in six years or less is not acceptable. I loved the job. I loved the pupils I taught and the sense of achievement I felt when they achieved. I enjoyed assessing and helping them make progress and I continued to be enthused to my very last day.

“It’s just a job, right? I’m not a social worker.”

I also hear suggestions along the lines of those that leave teaching don’t care about the pupils. Teachers who are unhappy, the suggestions go, will count down to the holidays. I also heard recently a throwaway comment about the impact a teacher leaving may have on their pupils – the idea that when pupils return in September they may question why their last teacher is not there and, if they discover that teacher left teaching altogether, might think it was them that caused it. This comment is, quite frankly, dangerous and damaging and it constantly upsets me when it is suggested that those of us who leave don’t care about the pupils. My pupils were at the forefront of my mind. In fact, three years after leaving the classroom, I still wonder about certain pupils. I used to worry about them grasping this concept or that, and worry about what they were experiencing at home. Teachers I know, including those that have left, never stop caring about the children. Never stop wondering what happened to certain pupils. It is how the job affects you. I sat in Florence in the Easter holidays, worrying about two specific pupils. I worried about how their holiday was going, what they were doing, and how I could support them when they returned to school both pastorally and academically. This was a week before I handed in my notice. In my experience, even the most unhappy teachers never stop caring about their pupils.

“So why did you leave?”

So if it wasn’t workload, unruly pupils or generally that I wasn’t very good at it, why did I leave teaching? For me, teaching was all-consuming. I don’t mean this in a workload way – I had a good work-not work balance. But I use that phrase deliberately: the line between work and life began to blur. I began to lose myself in the teacher construction, began to see myself pretty much solely as ‘Lisa the teacher’ and little else. My social life revolved around teachers, my home life became less about me and more about the work I was doing. Some people talk about teaching as a vocation and I understand that – for me, the job became a calling that subsumed my life. I cannot stress enough that I was not unhappy about this. But I realised, sat in Florence, that I needed to do something in order to find Lisa again. Some may see this as a selfish move, but I disagree. Pupils were not getting the best of ‘Lisa the teacher’ because there was no ‘Lisa the person’ behind it. I was poorer because I did not know myself. I left teaching to re-connect with the person I should be, the person those pupils deserved.

I believe that in order to truly understand what makes teachers leave, bodies (including fellow teachers) need to take the time to truly listen to what those that have left say. I am not denying the points I have raised above as valid reasons for leaving, nor am I saying that of the 40,000 teachers who left the year I did none of them left because of workload, behaviour and so on. But I find it hard to believe that all 40,000 did. It’s a lot more nuanced than that, and I hope that teachers still in the classroom can be considerate of that.

 

5 Replies to “On losing good teachers”

  1. An invaluable contribution to the discussion about why teachers leave. There are range of reasons, as you point out. What I have seen on Twitter is that the reasons are underpinned very often by the absence of a culture of staff wellbeing in which individual teachers are able to receive tailored support. I wonder if you would be willing to complete my survey on Leaving Teaching on http://www.livewellafterteaching.com ? I am also hoping to develop a blog section on the website and would love to kick start it with your blog post. If you’re happy for me to do so, could you please send me a copy in Word format? Thank you.

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    1. Thanks Susan. I’m sorry to hear that you are resigning however I know it won’t be a choice you arrived at lightly. Good luck in the next chapter of your life 🙂

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  2. Love this. It articulates clearly my feelings as I prepare to resign after 20 years teaching. The pressure is making me ill. My family get the very worst of me. I cannot think about continuing beyond the summer.

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