Why do so many teachers leave the profession in the first 5 years?
This month’s #blogsync is a challenge for me. My pension statement reminded me that I’ve been teaching for 13 years and 151 days last week, and I have never in that time considered leaving the profession. I have had bad days: bleak Friday afternoon lessons with Year 9 where nothing I tried would make them listen; staff and students in dire personal circumstances; terrible micromanagement from over-zealous senior leaders; results dips; bureaucratic burdens too many to mention…but I love this job. I love the children I work with every day. It is a privilege to work alongside professionals as dedicated, selfless and sharp as my colleagues in school past and present. I have never wanted to leave.
Maybe I’m an exception. I’ve always known I wanted to teach. As a teenager I was helping out on summer music and activity camps and doing work experience in local schools. My Grandpa, both parents, and an uncle are teachers. Okay, so that is quite unusual. But am I really that exceptional? I’ve thought back through my career, through the end-of-term gatherings to say goodbye to departing colleagues, and other than those retiring or going on maternity leave, I can’t think of a single one who wasn’t going on to another teaching job. I reckon I’ve appointed about thirty NQTs or new teachers in my career, and all of them are either still teaching or full-time parents now. I know there’s a problem – everyone keeps telling me there’s a problem with teacher retention. But it’s not a problem I have any personal experience of.
There are problems though with teachers in the profession who probably should be doing something else. I pledged to myself when enrolling on a PGCE that, if I didn’t like it and I wasn’t any good at it, I wouldn’t continue. I’d been on the receiving end of teachers who clearly didn’t enjoy what they were doing and didn’t want to be there, and it was a terrible, soul-destroying experience which made me drop French in Year 9. It must be terrible to be a teacher and not enjoy it. What a nightmare. How could you carry on? But they do – hating the children, blaming them for not listening and not behaving in their classrooms, moaning about how much they have to do, spending every lesson shouting and battling… Teaching is an all-consuming job. You can’t leave it behind at the school gates. Part of your brain is constantly planning, worrying, and making to-do-lists for school. It really is a vocation. This isn’t a problem if you love it, but if you don’t…grim.
Of course there are a million and one things that conspire to make the job unbearable. The national policy compass swings at an almost impossible pace. The accountability framework is punitive and threatening. Pay and pensions are being reformed unfavourably. Many media representations of the profession are negative and loaded with blame. Teachers have to cope with an ever-increasing burden of social problems which make the process of education more difficult almost to the point of impossibility. Yet there are solutions to all of these at school senior leadership level.
I have blogged before about how senior leaders should be like magic umbrellas, shielding their staff from the crap raining down from above. This is part of the essential function of senior leaders. We can’t make Ofsted, Gove, poverty, neglect or bad parenting go away, but in every case we can mitigate and mediate. The principal burden of Ofsted inspections lies with senior teams; the inspection essentially tests the accuracy of the SLT’s self-evaluation judgements. A good SLT wil not pass the pressure and stress of Ofsted on to their staff. SLT set the staff performance management and appraisal agenda within their own schools; a good SLT will ensure that these are fair, transparent and developmental. SLT puts the curriculum and support structures in place to provide the best opportunities for learning for all children, tailored to the intake and context of the school. SLT have the incredible responsibility of interviewing and hiring the staff in the first place, exercising critical quality control and looking for the sparkle that comes from a love of teaching and an unabashed enthusiasm for the privilege of working with young people. SLT sets the ethos of the school – trusting and supportive, or punitive and controlling.
Of course, some teachers will join the profession and find it’s not what they thought or wanted. They will leave; they should leave the profession. It’s best for them and it’s best for the children they teach. If your heart’s not in it, you shouldn’t be doing it. But when the spark of a great, dedicated and passionate teacher is there, it is the duty of school leaders to catch it, nurture it and provide the conditions in which it can thrive.