Should struggling teachers stick, quit, or shift?

Posted on 9th July 2016 by Joe
A signpost with three arms, all pointing to 'here'

Picture a teacher, Jeff.  Jeff’s an eternal morning optimist.  As he strides to school, he gets excited about a creative lesson plan that’s brewing, and he rehearses saying inspirational nuggets to his classes.  He believes that – this day – things will be different: he’ll remember to issue behaviour sanctions and put them on SIMs, he’ll take only 30 minutes to plan that Year 10 lesson, and he’ll definitely, definitely mark that full set of books before supper time.

But at supper time, Jeff is exhausted. And, what’s more, he still has those books to mark.  He’s spent an hour on the Year 10 lesson and hasn’t got past the ‘Do Now’, because he’s worried it doesn’t feature enough differentiation to satisfy an observer.  He realises, yet again, that he’s struggling to keep up with his workload.  He admits to his partner that he’s not coping, that teaching is affecting his sleep, and he doesn’t think he can continue at this school.  It saddens him deeply to know he’s invested years of his life into this profession, only to now feel like a failing teacher.

We know that, unfortunately, there are lots of Jeffs in our schools.  I’ve been a teacher for 8 years, and for long periods of time, I’ve been a Jeff. Perhaps you’ve been one too.  So what should we say to Jeff?

Option 1: Next Year Will be Different…

Jeff, if you decide you’re going to stick it out at this school, then it seems like you’ve got to change something.  This isn’t easy.  We’ve all established work/life “I won’t work on Sunday!” red lines that we’ve ended up crossing.  Consider whether there is something genuinely significant that you can change about your daily routine or the responsibilities you have.   Discuss it with your colleagues and line manager, and put everything into it.

Option 2: Save Yourself!

So let’s assume you’ve tried all that, maybe over a number of years, and you now know you don’t want to stay.  The decision then becomes: quit the profession, or change schools.

For most teachers, quitting the profession is a tough choice, for two central reasons.  Firstly, the fear of what the future may hold.  Secondly, the shame of breaking a duty to students and colleagues.

Your fear will be part rational, part irrational.  I don’t know how much of each, as I don’t know your personal situation – if you can weather a large drop in pay, if you have a family to support, if you have other obvious career avenues open to you.  And yes, we are increasingly seeing “I quit teaching, this is why (and I’m now euphoric)” letters popping up in our feeds.  But are these representative?  And do they tally with your situation, Jeff?

When it comes to the shame, I’m sure almost all teachers would join me in saying: you should feel none.  You’re not letting us down.  You’re not letting your students down.  Leave well: with good notice, with honest words of appreciation for colleagues, with reminders to relevant parties about students you think need close monitoring.  It’d also be great if you found a way of letting other teachers know why you’ve made the decision, so we know what we can do differently.  But ultimately: look after yourself.

Option 3: The Big Move

Before choosing to quit the profession, do consider this last option seriously.  I find it very sad when I talk to a teacher who believes that, since they’re struggling at one particular school, this means they can’t teach anywhere.  That they are simply a bad teacher.

Teaching is such an intense and personal experience that I think we all fall into the trap of massively over-estimating our own role, whilst under-estimating the role of the school we’re at, and the national context.  Jeff, don’t let yourself think: “either I can fix this, or I can’t, and I’m a failure.”  Maybe the school hasn’t helped you fix it.  Or maybe this is simply not the right school for you.

There are thousands of schools set up in different ways, with different leadership styles, different workload patterns, and – crucially – different levels of satisfaction amongst staff.  And if it’s the educational landscape of the whole of the UK you can’t stand?  Look beyond our borders.

So if your fire hasn’t gone out – if you still feel that yearning for (teaching and) learning – then find out as much as you can about other schools, talk to as many other teachers as possible, and write that application.

Helping our Jeffs

Now, does Jeff currently have enough to go on to make a really well-informed decision about what other schools are like?  Whether his school may be part of the problem, and if so what school might be part of the solution?  I’d argue that sadly the answer is ‘no’.  We’re not doing enough to help our Jeffs.  To do this, we need to give teachers across the country a voice so they can talk to him.

As well as reading a school’s latest Ofsted report, finding its position in a league table, and flicking through their suspiciously utopian prospectus, we want Jeff to also get the insider view from the teachers themselves.  Jeff may still decide to leave the profession, or give it one last shot at his current school, but he’d do so from a more informed decision.

Here at Happy Teacher, we’re trying to make a radical change to teacher voice by mapping teacher job satisfaction across UK schools.  Please let us know what it’s like to teach at your school by completing a review.

If you are finding yourself struggling with the day-to-day demands of teaching, know that there is support out there.  For example, The Education Support Partnership provides live chat and email support services.

Photo credit Greenzowie