“Do I miss it? I miss the teaching. Those sacred hours between 9am and 3pm when it was just me with my class hammering out multiplying fractions, grappling with big questions and debating ideas. I miss seeing children succeed and make progress, not always in neat, measurable steps, but progress nonetheless. I miss finding new ways to challenge my pupils and researching new ideas to try out. I miss laughing with (and sometimes at) my class every single day.”
When I wrote my resignation post last May I received hundreds of emails from teachers all around the world sharing their own experiences, offering support and advice. Many suggested I’d enjoy working in an International School as an alternative – an option I seriously considered whilst we were living in the Netherlands. Were it not for the uncertainty of Brexit, there’s every chance I’d be due to start work at the International School of Amsterdam in September and it’s not something I’ve completely ruled out for the future.
But with international schools off the table for now I began to wonder if I could return to teaching in the UK. After all, my reasons for leaving were very real and, as far as I can tell, little has improved in the last year with regards to workload and assessment plus budgets have been cut even further. Did I actually want to work in education again or was I just not sure what else to do? Even though I’d been out of school all year I’d been writing about education, researching my book and producing lesson plans and resources for a children’s publisher. This has been interesting and challenging work but I missed school life. My husband pointed out the risk of looking back with rose-tinted spectacles and he’s right – my memories of working in schools don’t reflect the stress and frustrations I felt every single day. However rose-tinted spectacles or not, I was adamant that I genuinely missed teaching, warts and all.
So I started tentatively looking around some schools, doing some supply and casually perusing the TES. Supply work didn’t do much to convince me either way. For every school I’ve walked into and loved there’s a school that asks class teachers to meet every evening and complete a reflection form about their day. For every “your planning is just for you so do it however you want” there’s “have the planning on my desk so I can check it before you teach it.” It’s very much luck of the draw.
After a few weeks of supply I still wasn’t sure if I wanted back into the profession at all let alone in what capacity or position. I decided the only way to know for sure was to grab the bull by the horns and apply for a job. I applied for a role very similar to my last. I was shortlisted and went along to the interview. If you haven’t done one recently you should know that teaching interviews are becoming increasingly like “The Apprentice.” You’re given various tasks to complete – sometimes over two days. In one interview they sent half the candidates home half way through the day. At least I assume that’s what happened to them – they were ushered out of the room and never returned. The first task was to analyse a set of dashboard data. And just like that my rose-tinted spectacles shattered. I dutifully identified the key headlines and wrote some suggested targets and actions for the School Improvement Plan. Reading and interpreting this sort of data now comes very naturally to me but I find it hard to do it with any sincerity or enthusiasm. I wanted to write: “No firm conclusions can be drawn from this set of data – it’s not statistically significant. It is based on a sample of 60 children and most of it is likely to have been made up. I know we have to pretend these numbers are important because schools live and die by their data at the moment but I can’t play this game.”
At that point I realised I had no desire go back into having to drill children to identify the past-progressive tense before they can show me where the UK is on a world map, or teaching them grammatical terms that the DfE have made up for the sake of it. I take no job satisfaction or fulfilment teaching pupils to shoehorn exclamation sentences into their writing just so I can prove they are meeting the current national expectations especially as this seems to make their writing worse, not better. The fact teachers are expected to use this writing assessment framework is farcical – it is not fit for purpose.
Note: The teachers that endure these frustrations in order to provide pupils with the education they deserve are, in my opinion, heroes. They are marvellous, inspiring, incredible people and you’d be hard pushed to find better colleagues in any other profession. Schools are not failing, they are being failed by a chaotic assessment system, a severe lack of funding and ever-shifting goal posts.
“Have you considered the private sector?” My friend asked, who herself had recently made the move to the independent sector. In truth – I hadn’t. I’d always been driven by a sense of moral purpose: I wanted to improve the life chances of the most vulnerable children and give them opportunities they wouldn’t have otherwise had. I’d always said I preferred working in more deprived areas to more affluent ones because I believed I could make more of a difference. This belief turned me into something of a martyr. I’d work 60/70 hours a week because I believed it was the right thing to do. I let it impact on my health and wellbeing because the cause was more important than me. This approach was idealistic and well meaning but in the long run it didn’t help anyone because I was unable to sustain it. Also – children are children and all children need good teachers – not just the most vulnerable. My friend summed it up quite nicely, “Look – you aren’t going back to the state sector at the moment you’ve made that pretty clear so surely it’s worth exploring this as an option rather than ruling out teaching completely?”
As I listened to my friend list some of the benefits of the independent sector I couldn’t help but think that she could be on to something: no SATs so no teaching to the test, no half termly “data drops,” fewer behaviour issues and, most importantly, with those barriers removed, the time and space to teach a broad and varied curriculum. In theory it all sounded ideal but I still had a few doubts: Would I be selling out? Would I actually be able to make a difference to those pupils lives? Shouldn’t I just suck up the frustrations of working in the state sector for the sake of the pupils? And the most difficult question of all: what the hell would I tell my friends?
These questions were still buzzing around my head as I arrived for an interview for a class-based leadership role at a prestigious independent school in North London. Given that most of my preconceptions about private schools were from pictures of politicians in their Eton days and reading “Malory Towers” as a child, I was relieved to see that the pupils weren’t wearing straw boaters or walking in straight lines with books on their heads. They were just children. Admittedly very impressive, articulate children but also silly, lively and fun just like all children.
My niggling questions were silenced the minute I started teaching my interview lesson. The pupils were engaged, well-behaved and offered thoughtful, intelligent responses. They worked hard and we got through far more of the work than I’d anticipated. I wasn’t stopping to deal with behaviour, or asking pupils to be quiet, or confiscating fidget spinners. I was just teaching. It was great.
When the head teacher called that night to offer me the job she said, “Ultimately, what I think we can offer you is the chance to fall back in love the profession.” I accepted without hesitation.
I’ve been able to spend quite a bit of time at the school over the last few weeks. Yes the facilities are beautiful, the pupils are well behaved etc… but what really excites me is the breadth of the curriculum. There are no tests to teach to, no interim assessment frameworks to work towards – no bloody exclamation sentences. Maths and English are important but so are geography, science, music, history etc… The pupils I met on my last visit spoke knowledgeably about their topic on the Qing dynasty, they proudly showed me the Chinese carriages they had designed and made and they even taught me some mandarin.
When Michael Gove was Education Secretary he said he wanted state schools to be “indistinguishable” from private schools but at the same time introduced reforms that drove the two further apart. The SPaG test is a classic example: I’ve spent some time reading the pupils’ work and it’s blown me away. It’s well written, carefully structured and engaging. Nobody reading it would question the pupils’ understanding of grammar but SPaG isn’t a word these pupils have heard. I couldn’t say whether they can name and identify the subjunctive mood and the past-progressive tense but they can all use it which is surely the whole point of teaching grammar in the first place.
It doesn’t seem fair to me that if you want your 10-year-old to spend their last year of primary school learning about history, art and geography instead of SPaG and reading comprehension practise you have to pay for it and I’m not suggesting for a minute that that’s the situation in all schools. I imagine there are some schools that have managed to juggle preparing pupils for statutory assessments whilst still offering a broad curriculum but it hasn’t been my experience. I don’t blame schools for this. Schools are doing what they have to do to stay afloat whether that is putting pupils on an 80% maths and English timetable, booster classes at lunch time and after-school or cancelling World Book Day, trips and other extra-curricular activities until after SATs week. I don’t know a single school that’s happy about taking those steps but that is how high the stakes are at the moment.
For a while I didn’t tell anyone about my new job as I was worried about what they’d say. However the more time I’ve spent at my new school the more confident I am that this was the exactly the right decision for me at the moment. I’ve gone from feeling a bit guilty to genuinely excited about teaching next year. Don’t get me wrong, there are stresses and challenges to working in the independent sector – it’s not a silver bullet. But is has got me enthusiastic and passionate about teaching again and that’s exactly what I needed.
And as for telling people? Three of my friends confessed they were thinking of making a similar move themselves. However the best response so far as been from one of my relatives: “Well, as long as you don’t try and turn your class into Communists* then I think you’ll be OK.”
*By Communists she means Labour voters.