From Miss Honey to John Keating: the narrative of the martyr teacher has to come to an end.

A friend and ex. colleague of mine recently asked me for some advice. She is currently working as an Assistant Head in a particularly challenging school: high levels of deprivation, tough behaviour and the sort of data that has you living in fear of “the call.”  She is a fantastic teacher: skilled, hardworking and completely committed to her work. “I know I’m making a difference where it really matters.” She said, “I can see the impact of my work which is fulfilling but I have no life and the stress is wreaking havoc on the other areas of my life and my health. But looking for a job in a less challenging school feels like selling out like I’m letting my pupils down. What do I do?”

My friend didn’t come to me because I am some sort of fount of wisdom, she came to me because she knows I was in the exact same position just two years ago. I was an Assistant Head of a challenging school in East London, regularly working 70 hours a week, which isn’t uncommon. Recent research carried out by the Guardian found that a third of teachers work over 60 hours a week, with over 70% believing it impacts on their mental and physical health.

working hours

Of course my situation was my own fault as much as any one else’s. New to senior leadership, I was committed to leading by example: I wanted anyone in my phase to be able to walk into my classroom at any time and see exemplary practice. My books were always (triple) marked and up-to-date, my displays relevant and my classroom tidy and organised. I met every deadline and said yes to anything and everything I was asked to do. I ran clubs, parent workshops and even holiday revision sessions (never again.) I was responsible for teaching and learning in KS1, leading English, the performance management of five teachers, mentoring an NQT, carrying out a full programme of monitoring every half term, coaching and team teaching with struggling staff and producing written data analysis every six weeks. Oh, and there was also the small matter of being a full time class teacher, desperately trying to get 30 six-year-olds, only 2 of whom had English as a first language, to meet National Expectations.

Why did I do it? The simplest answer is I didn’t want to let anyone down. And I WAS making a difference, which in itself was satisfying. The children in our school had such chaotic and challenging lives and I believed that dedicating my entire life to them was the honourable thing to do. There were children whose only meal between school lunches was the breakfast I brought in for them each day.  They needed me and I genuinely believed I would be letting them down by doing less. Not to mention that there was also the very real threat of academisation hanging over us if our results didn’t improve.  I was convinced that the level of work I was doing was necessary to “save the school.”

Other members of staff would comment on how organised I was, they would ask how I managed to Martyr Complexget everything done and I’d just sort of shrug and say, “I guess I’m just very organised.” When really I just wanted to scream, “ALL I DO IS WORK & SLEEP! I’VE LOST 10lbs THIS MONTH BECAUSE I DON’T HAVE TIME TO EAT! MY IRON LEVELS ARE DANGEROUSLY LOW BUT I DON’T HAVE TIME TO GO TO THE DOCTOR! THAT’S HOW I GET IT ALL DONE!” 

Looking back, that would probably have been more reassuring to my colleagues than pretending I was coping with a completely unreasonable workload. I was setting an example but it was unfair to expect anyone to follow it. But I remained determined to keep all the plates spinning – and I did a pretty good job of doing it and looking like I was coping. I was in full martyr teacher mode and everyone around me praised me for my hard work so I didn’t question it. Even when I called in sick to spend two days sleeping, I just told work it was a stomach bug and returned to my old routine once I was back. Even when I was crying as I drove to work, partly because of the stress and partly down to exhaustion, I didn’t think there was a problem with what I was doing, I just berated myself for not coping better. Reflecting on this now, it is no wonder I was ready to walk away from the profession by the end of the school year.

The problem is that we still celebrate martyr teachers; it’s the most damaging narrative in our profession. You see them in films and read about them literature: from Miss Honey to John Keating. Miss HoneyThey’re the teachers who sacrifice everything for their work. We are surrounded by the message that to be a good teacher, to truly make a difference, you must sacrifice your evenings, your weekends, your holidays, your time with your family and friends along with any hobbies or interests. And all for an average salary of £24,525.

15 months away from education gave me some much needed perspective. When I started toying with the idea of coming back I promised myself I could only do so on the understanding that my job would never be more important than my health or overall quality of life. I still work hard: on average 50-55 hours a week – but I don’t take any work home (apart from report writing.) My weekends are my own and I use my evenings to write, exercise and see friends. It’s not that I’m working less, I’m just working more effectively, learning when enough is enough and saying no more often.

It’s very easy for me to say, “I used to work too much and now I don’t and now life is much better” but it took retreating from the profession for over a year to realise that this was possible and to understand that leaving at 5pm doesn’t make me a bad teacher, or any less committed to my class. Once I’d accepted this, I then had to find the right school to return to. Last September I still had half a book to write so I wasn’t going to be able to give over my weekends to school work, even if I had wanted to. I needed a school with a realistic marking policy (no triple marking), a pragmatic approach to monitoring and a leadership team that would encourage teachers to have a life outside of work. The last one is easy: I think every head teacher would say they want their teachers to have hobbies, interests and time with their friends and family but this can sometimes be at odds with their policies and expectations. If we’re going to get rid of the martyr teacher complex from our schools it has to start with the expectations from the leadership.

I used to wear my 70-hour-week as badge of honour: it was worth it just to see the impact I was having and I would glow with pride whenever comments were made about my commitment and dedication. Now, I take pride in turning up on Monday refreshed and full of stories about my weekend to share with my colleagues and class.

I’m no Miss Honey, but that’s OK.

Ofsted Grades: The Good, The Bad and The Outstanding

Before Amanda Spielman took up the post of Chief Inspector, there were rumours she had plans to shake things up a bit. One example was her views about the “Oustanding” judgement. She told the Commons Education Select Committee, “I’m quite uncomfortable about some of the effects you see it [the grade] having in the system, I have to say.” However, since taking up the post in January 2017, little more has been said about the matter of Ofsted grades – until now. “Ofsted is buzzing with rumours that the grading system for schools is about be scrapped and replaced with pass-or-fail inspections” wrote Schools Week at the end of last month.  If this is true, it will be one of the most positive and significant changes that’s ever been made to the Ofsted framework. The system of grading schools is clunky, outdated and in desperate need of reform to the point that we’ve recently seen schools take Ofsted to court over their judgements, and win. Here’s why these grades need to be scrapped.

1. The problem with Outstanding

I’ve been through two “Good to Outstanding” Ofsted inspections in my career to date and whenever I think back on them I am reminded of this cartoon:

Who's a good boy?

Because let’s face it, we know Ofsted is flawed. We know that schools are more likely to be judged to be Good or Outstanding if they are in affluent areas. We know that primary schools with high numbers of children on free school meals are only half as likely as those with lower numbers of pupils on FSM to be judged outstanding (11% compared with 25% respectively.) We know that Infant Schools are three times as likely to be outstanding than Junior schools because their end of Key Stage data is teacher assessed rather than an externally marked test. We know all of this. It is the basis of much of our cynicism about the Ofsted process.  And yet, if the time comes that our own school is judged to be Outstanding our cynicism is forgotten as we break out the champagne cava left over from the Christmas party, clear a space on the wall for the letter from the Education Secretary and roll out the over-sized PVC banners (please Head Teachers, I know you’re proud but enough with the ridiculous banners.)

And who can blame us? An Outstanding judgement is great news for a school. Following the judgement it’s likely you’ll become oversubscribed. If you’ve previously been struggling to attract pupils you may quickly find yourself at capacity. Well-heeled, middle class parents will go to great lengths to get their child into your Outstanding school going as far as temporarily moving to a house within the catchment area or, should you be a faith school, making a rapid conversion to Christianity. You’ll find it easier to recruit staff and you’ll be inundated with requests from other schools to come and visit in the hope of being able to “magpie” some ideas. The perks don’t end there.

“That’ll shut the parents up for while, we’ve just added a few grand to the value of their houses.” one head teacher told me knowingly, the day we received our Outstanding rating from Ofsted. She wasn’t wrong: within London at least, being in the catchment area of an Outstanding school can add an average of 80K to the value of your property – (estate agents LOVE Ofsted grades.) Such is the power of these judgments.

But the best thing about receiving an Outstanding judgement is that Ofsted then pretty much leave you alone. In 2011, the government introduced a policy that exempts Outstanding schools from further inspection as long as they maintain their performance. This has its own problems. It means there are some schools that haven’t been inspected for over a decade. Which means they haven’t been inspected since the new curriculum was introduced, or the new assessments. It means a head teacher could take over what they believe to be an Outstanding school only to find the reality is very different. Which leads me to another snag with the Outstanding judgement: it can put off potential headteachers. After all there is only one way an Outstanding school can go and no head teacher wants to be the person that “lost the Outstanding.”

However, whatever downside there is to the Outstanding judgement, they are nothing compared to the damage done by the dreaded RI.

2. The problem with Requires Improvement

It is my opinion that one of the most damaging changes made to the Ofsted framework was changing the “Satisfactory” judgement to “Requires Improvement.” Think about what that word, satisfactory, for a moment.

Satisfactory: fulfilling expectations or needs; acceptable.

A satisfactory judgement meant just that: this school provides an acceptable standard education to its pupils. In 2012, it was decided that satisfactory was unsatisfactory and that all schools should be striving to be good or better. A noble intention indeed. But this wasn’t just a discussion about semantics. It was announced that schools will only be allowed to stay as RI for three years – after which they would be subject to regular re-inspections every 12 to 18 months. Every 12 to 18 months: every other school year.

Trying to improve a school with an inspection every other year is like trying to fix a leaking pipe with someone interrupting every two minutes to say, “Is the pipe fixed yet? How much progress have you made towards fixing the pipe? Why isn’t it fixed yet? What are you going net to fix it?” A report in 2017 found that the proportion of schools that had “recovered” from a Requires Improvement was the lowest on record and that doesn’t surprise me. That RI label makes it harder to recruit staff and, because of the endless pressure of regular inspections, makes it much harder to retain the staff you have. The NAHT Recruitment Survey conducted in 2016 found that schools judged Requires Improvement or Inadequate found it significantly harder to recruit staff. This then becomes a vicious cycle because those schools need the most skilled and effective teachers if they are going to improve. The label of “RI” may actually be holding the school back from being able to do the things it needs to do to improve.

Ofsted recruitmentWhich leads to my next point. Having worked in a Requires Improvement school I have seen how difficult it is to make real, meaningful change in such a short window of time. It takes more than 12 months to make proper, lasting change and the threat of bi-annual inspections mean you end up spending most of your time trying to collect evidence that your school is improving rather than putting your time and energy into the things you need to do to actually improve. We knew why our school required improvement and we were very clear on the areas that needed work, however the one thing we really needed is the one thing you’re no longer given under the current inspection framework: time.

3. Removing grades lowers the stakes

Anyone who was teaching in the days when individual lessons were graded as part of an inspection or performance management will know how that one grade will overshadow any feedback. You’d sit listening to the observer talk thinking, “Yep, that’s all great, but what was the grade?” It was a ineffective system that treated trained professionals like children and scrapping it has been entirely positive. Now, feedback after an observation becomes a discussion about the strengths and weaknesses of the lesson; there’s no judgement, no label, just some things to consider and work on. It’s more professional and more meaningful.

If Ofsted were to stop grading schools, then inspections would no longer be such a high-stake process. If you knew there was no threat of academisation, or the head teacher losing their job or the humiliation of being “downgraded” at the end of it then the whole process would be far less threatening.  If at the end of the day you were left with a list of strengths and weaknesses that, let’s face it, as a school you would already have been aware of, then inspection would no longer be something to be feared.

This is still a long way off but the fact this conversation is even happening suggests Amanda Spielman is listening and understands the need for reform.


No, you don’t need a fidget spinner break

fidget spinner

Having not worked in a school since July 2016, I missed the start of fidget spinners craze but, after entering the world of supply teaching, I’m pretty much caught up. Fidget spinners are toys that have been cleverly marketed as having stress-relieving benefits. I don’t know whether that’s true or not – it appears that the evidence is inconclusive.  What I do know is that any stress-relieving benefits are negated by the amount of stress fidget spinners cause for the other pupils and teachers trying to work.

There seems to be three different attitudes to fidget spinners in schools. Most schools have taken the sensible approach and have banned them outright. (I feel as though I should be wearing a hairnet and shaking my stick at children running down the street as I write this.) Some schools have tried to embrace the trend and actually give children fidget spinner breaks halfway through lessons. Others have tried to incorporate them into the curriculum and planned maths and DT schemes of work around this new fad.

And some schools have banned spinners only to have replaced them with equally disruptive equivalents. “Feel free to confiscate any fidget spinners if you see them – they’re not supposed to have them in school,” one teacher said, as she showed me to the classroom. She then added, “We’ve given them fidget cubes and stress balls so they shouldn’t need the spinners.” The stress balls ended up being chucked around the classroom or rolled down the side of the hall in assembly and one of the fidget cubes was pelted into the face of an unsuspecting child, which I doubt did much to relieve his stress.

But it doesn’t stop there. Other behaviour management strategies I’ve seen include: Tangle fidget toys, Pause and Walk and Brain Breaks: for every X minutes of work a pupil completes they get a twenty minute break to go and play football, play on the computer etc… I only learnt about this one because a child said to me, “Miss – you forgot that me, Joe and Grace have Brain Breaks. We didn’t have them this morning and we’re meant to have them every twenty minutes.” My response was, “No – you forgot your Brain Breaks this morning which might mean you don’t actually need to take them – look how much work you all did instead!” Whatever the strategy, the message to those children is the same, “Don’t worry you’re not expected to behave the same way as everybody else. If you’re finding the lesson difficult or boring you can just play with this instead.”

Vising so many different schools and witnessing these strategies has left me with this nagging question: when did it become unacceptable to expect children to work for an hour? Most children don’t need a fidget spinner to get through a maths lesson. They need to sit down, listen, think and have a go. It won’t always be easy or fun because learning isn’t always easy and fun but we’re not doing these children any favours by lowering our expectations of them.

I believe we should do our best to engage our pupils and make learning accessible but I don’t believe that pupils have a right to never find something difficult or boring. Learning new things IS difficult and sometimes it is boring: it involves endless practice and repetition and, just when you think you’ve mastered it, there’ll be something new you have to learn. But if the lesson is well planned, if the task has been modelled and scaffolded and there are a number of additional resources available to support the children who need it then there’s no reason why 95% of children can’t get through a lesson without a break.

There has been some research into whether these sorts of toys help children with ASD and ADHD and if that’s the case then fantastic – I’m not suggesting for a second we take away a useful tool for helping those pupils but in the last few weeks I’ve taught classes where EVERY child has a fidget toy. It’s all got a bit emperors’ new clothes. Someone appears to have gone round and said to schools, “I can fix your pupils’ poor behaviour and lack of concentration, all you need is to buy this shiny, gadget.” I can’t blame schools for wanting to give it a go because ultimately all of this is  symptomatic of a much wider problem: behaviour is getting worse and schools are struggling to manage it. 

Behaviour management shouldn’t just rely on individual teachers. This happens a lot in primary schools – behaviour management seems to centre on the teacher’s relationship with their class. And yes, it is worth knowing that Jonathan responds better to humour and the Amy is bolshy until she trusts you and after that she’ll do anything for you.  And it helps to know when your class are producing their best work and when they’re trying to get away with handing in any old crap. This is fine when a class just has one class teacher but ultimately children need to learn to behave for any adult that teaches them which is a why behaviour management should be a whole school concern: centralised sanctions and rewards and a simple, whole school behaviour management policy. Teachers are being left to make it up as they go along which is how we’ve got to brain breaks and individual behaviour plans for over half the class.

Maybe I’m wrong and turning 30 has turned me prematurely into a grumpy old woman with no sense of fun. But we do pupils no favours by making endless excuses for them and offering them alternatives to participating in lessons.

The Grey Area


Over the last 18 months, politics has become more emotive, polarised and tribal than ever before. If you’re to believe social media, it would be easy to think the whole world divides neatly into two categories: you’re either a racist Brexiteer or a liberal Remoaner, a Corbynista or a Blairite, a Globalist or a Nationalist. The days of moderate, reasoned debate with people with opposing views are long gone. This is highlighted by a piece of research that found that 51% of voters who voted in the referendum felt disgust towards those who voted differently to them. It has stopped being about convincing others of your opinion and instead it’s about insisting that our “side” is right.

And it’s not just in politics. Increasingly debate about education is presented as binary choices: you’re either a traditionalist or a progressive, you can believe that the curriculum should be knowledge heavy or skill heavy, you believe learning should be teacher centred or child centred. Those debates aren’t new but recently we’ve gone further as we try and present how these two apparently opposing philosophies work in practice. There are no excuses, no PowerPoints, no worksheets, no textbooks, no teacher talk and, in some cases, no talking at all. Silence is either golden or oppressive, your desks are either in rows or grouped like a science lab, children should only be studying the classics or staring gormlessly at “Where’s Wally?” books. For someone who worked for seven years in the grey area, it’s maddening.

I’ve worked in schools that expected their teachers to have PowerPoint slides up for EVERY lesson. So you’d see teachers painstakingly creating slides to shoehorn into the lesson just so that box was ticked. More often than not these slides were a waste of the teachers’ valuable time and added nothing to the lesson. But that’s not to say I’d never use a  PowerPoint or that it can’t be a useful resource.

I’ve also worked in schools where teachers are always expected to be working with a guided group. Sometimes this worked brilliantly and provided an opportunity to work intensively with a small number of pupils. However there are plenty of examples that I can think of when the most useful place I could have been was at the front of the class. It wasn’t the guided groups that were the problem it was the fact that we had to ALWAYS be with  group that lead to it feeling restrictive.

I’ve also worked in schools who banned worksheets and others who expected them for every lesson.  These schools all believed they were doing the right thing for the children. They could provide you with justifications and probably at least one piece of research to support their ideas. But ultimately when you insist a teacher always or never adopts a certain method or practice then you are ignoring the fact there is always an exception (and there IS always an exception.) It ignores the grey area.

My first ever head teacher once told me he believed that a school should be like a laboratory. Every teacher would work away in their classroom with their class on different projects and trying new things and every once in a while a member of staff would stick their head out of the door and shout, “I’ve got something great – come and have a look.” We were free to teach how we wanted and it brought the best out of the staff. That school was, and remains to this day, outstanding by any measure.

For me, it’s the grey area where the learning happens. The teacher who one day imparts knowledge from the front of the class to children sat in rows but later that week pushes the tables together for group work. The teacher who knows that worksheets and PowerPoints are neither a silver bullet nor the root of all evil and uses them as and when they judge to be beneficial. It’s the teacher who has high expectations and understands that, “my dog ate my homework” is not an acceptable excuse but that doesn’t mean that there are no excuses. It’s the teacher who knows that silence is sometimes essential but a noisy, bustling classroom can be equally effective.

The problem with teaching in the grey area is that it’s complicated and messy. It’s a skill one hones over time which means sometimes getting it wrong but I believe, ultimately it creates a more skilled teacher than one who has never been encouraged to take risks, or explore the possibilities. It takes a strong school leader to leave their teachers to teach how they see fit. My favourite head teachers to work for have always been the ones who have said, “as long as I see evidence that what you’re doing works – you’ll be left alone.” But it takes a bold and brave leader to do that because it means they won’t always know exactly what is happening in every classroom.

As with so many things in our society at once, the debate about education is becoming a needlessly polarised debate between two arbitrary and absolute camps. Learning means coming to terms with complexity and understanding that what holds in one situation doesn’t necessarily hold in another. Beware the absolutists on both sides- freeing people from that sort of rigid thinking is one reason we have an education system in the first place.

Do I Miss Teaching?


Next week it will be six months since I taught my last lesson. That sounds a bit like an AA introduction doesn’t it?

“Hi my name is Zoe.” 

“Hi Zoe!”

“It has been six months since my last lesson.”

And then you all clap. I think. I’ve never been to AA but I’ve seen films.

Last year my resignation letter caused far more drama than I’d anticipated. I wrote it on a Saturday night whilst babysitting my nephew (he was only 18 months old at the time and asleep – I wasn’t just ignoring him for the whole evening.) It had been in my drafts since I’d told my head teacher I was leaving in the January (much to the disappointment of one breakfast TV show that rang to ask if I’d like to resign live on air – no I bloody don’t.) I posted it at about midnight and went to bed. The following morning I woke up to nine missed calls, a flurry emails and an invitation to go on BBC Breakfast the next day. By the time I got hold of my Head of school he told me he’d already read the post because a member of his family had shared it on Facebook. The week that followed was surreal and hugely overwhelming: from press turning up on my Mum’s doorstep,  to supportive phone calls from the wonderful Kevin Courtney and Martin Ellis-Hall.

Anyway. Now I’ve left. I didn’t have much time to process that over the summer as we were finishing the preparations for our wedding. Then we took 10 weeks to channel our inner-Palin and circumnavigate the globe and now we’re now settled into our new life in Amsterdam pursuing careers in writing.


An entire term has passed by without me entering a school. Do I miss it? Yes. I miss the teaching. Those sacred hours between 9am and 3pm when it was just me with my class hammering out how to multiply fractions, reading endlessly and learning about the world. 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, researching new ideas and trying them out. I miss laughing with (ok sometimes at) my class every single day.

I miss these monsters.
I miss the colleagues: teachers are some of the smartest, funniest and most interesting people I’ve ever met and our colleagues from the six schools we’ve worked in made up over 70% of our wedding guests and remain our dear friends. I miss the sense of community and camaraderie that comes from working in a school.

I don’t miss how much of my life I had to sacrifice to do the job well. I don’t miss: leaving the house before 7am, working until 7pm, working some more at weekends, inputting data, analysing data, feeling guilty about the data. Worrying about the results, worrying about forced academisation and worrying about Ofsted. I don’t miss the fear. The fear that’s felt by both my head teacher friends and my NQT friends.  Fear of being caught out, or of failing – because there is no time to fail any more. A head teacher cannot have a bad set of results and an NQT cannot have a bad lesson observation without questions being asked. I appreciate this isn’t true of every school. I was part of a new SLT who were hired to help improve an “RI school”  – which let’s face it was never going to be a straightforward job but it isn’t just RI schools feeling the fear. I don’t miss the frustration at having to tell parents of able writers that, because their child hadn’t used what the DfE call exclamation sentences, they were not meeting national expectations. Actually whilst we’re on it – I don’t miss the DfE at all.

I now have two things I never have as a teacher: time and energy. I exercise every day. There are some incredible people that can do that as well as work a 60 hour week but I was never one of them. I have time to speak to my husband – as in properly speak to him for hours. He’s one of my favourite people in the whole world but when we were both senior leaders we’d stagger through the weeks barely acknowledging one another, sleep and drink through the weekends and repeat. Now we have time to visit new places, go and see exhibitions, I even stay awake when we go to the cinema. I’m not too tired to answer the phone. The number of phone calls I didn’t answer simply because I couldn’t face talking. Not talking to that person just talking in general. I really noticed it this Christmas. In the past the Christmas holidays were a lighthouse in a rough sea that called to me throughout that long autumn term. It was a time to recover and recharge. This year I relaxed and took three days off from responding to emails etc… and I actually had enough energy to get out and see people. I was present for entire conversations and not thinking about work.

We have one life and I am determined not to spend mine working 60 hours a week for 40 years. I just can’t. Not because I’m afraid of hard work – I got my first job at 14, held down two jobs whilst studying at University, helped set up a business in my year out and then went into teaching. I am happy to work hard but I will no longer sacrifice my relationships with my friends and family, my health and my wellbeing for my career – no matter how worthy or noble the profession. Life is too short to only work.

I’m sure there are plenty of people reading this thinking, “What a load of crap – teaching doesn’t have to be like that and it isn’t at my school.” And that’s great. But it was very much my experience. The hours and energy it required were just not sustainable long term.

But I do miss it. And if the time or school came along where I could do the job well on a 40-45 hour week and if we ever get past this high-stakes testing and schools being judged on their ability to jump over an ever-raising bar then yeah, I’d be back.