This week we caught up with Harry, a teacher who is head of his department at a state school in North London, and came into teaching via TeachFirst. He chatted to us in depth about the challenges of the profession, if the ‘teaching crisis’ in the news is as awful as it sounds, and what it takes to be a great teacher. Harry has asked us to keep his identity private so unfortunately we couldn’t include a photograph of our talk. It’s a long read…but a good one!
Hey Harry, so we’ve been hearing a lot at the moment about how stressful it is being a teacher, namely the teaching ‘crisis’ that keeps being mentioned in the press. Do you think it’s a fair representation of the current situation?
I guess it kind of depends what you mean by ‘crisis.’ I’d say there are greater demands in certain schools that have got extenuating circumstances…
What exactly do you mean by extenuating circumstances?
Some schools might be under extra scrutiny as a result of Ofsted.
So underperforming schools?
Yes, and schools that are serving more deprived areas, meaning they’re already more likely to struggle hiring teachers. Especially schools in the slightly outer London region, so in the Reading area for example, attracting teachers to these areas and these schools is a challenge. And as time goes on, without addressing the need to reduce the workload of teachers, you are gonna be facing a potential crisis point, but I don’t think it’s necessarily reached that point yet.
Do you think all the news coverage is putting unwanted pressure on teachers and on the profession, or is it important to expose the issues before it gets to – maybe – crisis level?
It’s quite enlightening and reassuring as a teacher to know that a lot of the issues you see day to day are themselves being recognised say in the press, it’s highlighting the issue and getting it into public discourse. And hopefully it’ll be a sign that it’s not just teachers themselves that are complaining, but there’s actually reason for that, and a lot of the research is coming from think tanks that are slightly outside the classroom but still very much related to education, that are looking at the conditions and the pressures on teachers.
I think one of the most startling figures recently, according to one report 30% of teachers that started in the state sector in 2010 have quit the profession. Why do you think this might be?
There’s definitely the pressure – the relentless pressure – and if you’re coming into education at quite a young age you’re not necessarily prepared for it as a career, and it can be quite overwhelming. Certainly my experience is…there’s just so many things to be doing. And teaching itself is hard enough, as it is, going into that classroom, let alone with all the other administrative work that goes within it, and is part and parcel of being a teacher. So the workload can be quite overwhelming. But I think it’s also teachers themselves, certainly younger teachers starting out, often don’t really help themselves, and maybe allow the pressure and allow the expectation that they’ve got so many things to be doing, and they have to do them all to the highest possible ability, which of course is not possible. And by doing that, you’re adding extra pressure on yourself, so potentially it is self-driven and self-sacrificing.
That being said, you’ve got say the difference between TeachFirst and those that did a PGC and other teaching routes, and there’s no directly comparable data for retention rates at the moment, but at the moment the combined statistics for the last four years is I think 54% from TeachFirst are still within teaching, and 70% are still within education, while for those who did a PGC it’s more like 63% so slightly higher. I think a lot of the teachers that go in are staying, but there’s maybe a move away from this idea of seeing teaching as a professional career for life, and people are going into it knowing they might also want to get out of it.
That’s something else I was going to ask – do you see yourself teaching indefinitely? Or is it’s something that could lead down another path?
When I originally had applied [for TeachFirst] I wasn’t totally sure. I came from a background of education – both my parents are teachers so I’ve seen first hand exactly what it’s like to be a teacher and the pressures that brings. When I applied and got on with my first position in a school, it was hard but I wouldn’t say it put me off. From the perspective that it could possibly be a stepping stone of sorts…well, it’s been a good number of years now and I can see myself in terms of progression throughout the school. My hard work’s been rewarded so I can see myself staying in for the foreseeable future at least, for sure! Whether that’s for life I don’t know, but there’s definitely room for me if I did leave to come back – there’s always going to be a real draw to the classroom.
Ok cool, it sounds like you’re pretty sanguine about the whole thing! Another thing that gets thrown around is that teachers are super-stressed, and it’s a very stressful profession. Would you say that’s been your experience, and your colleagues’, or is it more about how you manage it?
I think it’s a bit of both. I teach at what could be classed as a more challenging school, in terms of the background of the kids, the behaviour at the school, and the position the school is under in terms of government scrutiny, so that in itself is going to be a stressful situation – before you’re even teaching! Starting off in that world of teaching isn’t easy, it’s a stressful job, but I think there’s also so much emotional stress, that it’s very difficult to be switching off or relaxing in the classroom.
One thing that seems to come across in the news is that most teachers are saying that what’s really difficult is the conditions – it doesn’t really seem to be about pay, but much more about the stress and demands of the profession
Definitely so. It’s in the old adage – you don’t really go into teaching for the pay. But the pay in itself is actually not bad at all. There is a lower glass ceiling than when it comes to say, private sector, but the pay for a starting teacher is on par with if not above average graduate salaries, and I feel that you know what you’re letting yourself in for with teaching. There’s always something else in there, driving you, and you’re not in it for the money. That desire, drawing you to be there helping the students that have been entrusted into your care, that I think actually there is that greater draw to get through. There’s got to be something more to teaching than simply the pay – it’s such an emotionally draining and emotionally stressful job, there does have to be something else keeping you there, getting you through those tough times. You need something to cling on to when the job is getting stressful.
It definitely seems like teaching attracts people with a huge amount of passion for what they’re doing, despite the difficulties. Could you give us an idea of your average work day?
I’m much more of a morning person myself, and the school day starts much earlier than most other jobs. Any time from 8 or 8:15 you’ve got to be interacting with people.
And you’re on top of that?
You’ve got to be on top of that. So I get to work realistically for about 7:15.
But that works a lot better for me and my routine. And there are teachers who get in pretty much on the bell, and that’s their routine, and they may be staying later. But I find I quite like having things set out and quite structured to start the day off, especially as head of department as well, that’s something that I feel – you’re not just sorting yourself out in the morning, but you’re organising and managing others too, so it’s also about making sure your team are able to do their job satisfactorily. So that time in the morning is useful to set myself up. So realistically in at 7, 7:15, and depending on the week I’ll usually try and get away by 6/6:30, and I usually try not to bring the work home. Which I can do if I’m brutally efficient with my time at work, sometimes working through lunch. That designated lunch hour doesn’t really exist
It’s nominal, and I’m happy to work through that and have an intense day so that when I get home I feel I can relax and try to switch off. I very rarely work at home, and if I do it’s out of my own choice, maybe reading around some stuff for an A-level course. But usually 6:30, maybe 7-ish on a bad day – and I try not to work on the weekend. But that does require me to be incredibly strict with myself in terms of my routine.
Of course. So how many hours a week would you say you work, do you think it’s around average for the profession, or your school?
The latest report that came out said I think that one in five teachers are working 60 hours a week, and while I would say that’s definitely excessive – although there’ve been times certainly earlier in my career when I was probably doing that. Realistically for me now it’s probably on average about 50 hours a week for the actual working day, maybe 55 with everything else factored in. Personally though I do have a cut-off point. On a Friday evening – that time is my time, and I try very hard not to work Friday evenings.
That’s a good night to take off.
Definitely so, definitely. I think you need it after the week, for taking care of yourself, which some teachers don’t do. Certainly early on in their career it’s all about ‘work, work, work’, and I think that does get in the way of your mental capacity.
Of course. So you said earlier that some schools are more challenging than others just due to circumstance, so maybe the teaching crisis statistics don’t give you the whole picture. But have you felt the effect of government directives and education cuts at the school, and in your day-to-day work?
I’d say – in terms of education cuts at the moment – London schools have been working with a premium really since new Labour tried to turn them around. And they’ve gone from being some of the worst performing to some of the best performing nationally, and it’s a real success story, but that’s because the funding has been disproportionately based on improving London schools. So going into next year, there’s a 10% cut in London schools to be redistributed to other areas. So in real terms that equates to about a million in terms of the school I’m working in.
That’s a lot.
Yeah, it’s a big chunk of funding gone, so we have to work around that. In terms of departments, I’d say you’ve got the bare minimum resources still there – they haven’t said no to ordering textbooks or anything like that. But I’ve noticed that with the steps they’ve put in, there’s a real drive for efficiency in schools. Which I guess is no bad thing, as it’s trying to ensure they’re not wasting money and are getting the best deal, which is good practice…but in terms of funding, realistically, yes – money is tighter.
I’d say in terms of provisions for extracurricular activities, yes. And in some cases, there are teachers who – they’re not getting fired by any means, but they’re leaving and they might not always be replaced. Or if you’ve got teaching assistants who are leaving…
It sounds like teaching assistants have also had quite a hard time of it, because it’s a slightly less secure position than a full-time teacher?
They really have. And a lot of people use it as like a stepping stone to get experience in the classroom
But you often hear they end up doing a lot more work than they’re supposed to, given their position?
Definitely so, and I’d say certainly in terms of the pay that they get, it’s quite fair for everyone to realise now that they are having a really tough time. And in some ways it’s not been helped by the academisation process, where you’ve got control being taken away from local authorities and being given directly to schools, when often teaching assistants have been funded and provided by the local authority as opposed to private agencies. Because the schools themselves are sort of at the mercy of private agencies due to prices they are going to be paying, and recruitment and retention fees. So there is a noticeable lack of teaching assistants for the most needy students. In a lot of schools – especially challenging schools with a disproportionate number of students with special educational needs – their requirements really aren’t being met.
There are students with the old educational healthcare plans, and they are being covered, as they legally have to be because the schools have funding for it. But students who are in that weird grey area of definitely having special educational needs, but not having the support of a plan, their provisions are often not being met, and so it’s usually up to the classroom teacher. They have to be differentiating between students, and trying to plan lessons that are stretching those at the top, but also catering to a huge range of students – and the extent of the mixed ability in a classroom can be quite profound.
Absolutely. So would you recommend teaching to others?
Um…I definitely don’t regret going into teaching at all, myself, and I think it’s an incredibly worthwhile profession. Out of a lot of friends my age, a good four years or so out of university, there are very few who honestly, hand on heart, I can say that enjoy their job, and as tough as mine is, and it takes a certain type of person to do it, I’m really happy in my job. Realistically, would I recommend it to people? It’s not for everyone, but I would say if you’ve got an inclination to go out and become a teacher, then I don’t see why not, at all.
That’s awesome. It’s nice to hear someone in the profession saying it’s not all doom and gloom, despite the news coverage, even though it is hard! And finally, what’s the funniest thing that’s happened to you in the classroom?
Ooh, that’s a tough one. The kids themselves are going to be – you’re at the mercy of their humour.
Hah! I bet.
I was building quite a good rapport with a GCSE class last year. It was quite challenging, but the boys all liked football, and they enjoyed that fact that I support quite an obscure team who they’d never really heard of.
Millwall. So in terms of that, they enjoyed following Millwall’s results and watching highlights then giving me banter at the beginning and end of lessons about it.
So they got into Millwall for you?
They really did, and they gave me a lot of chat back for the team that I support.
That’s one way to show respect for a teacher.
Definitely. And even now, if they see me in the corridor, even they I don’t teach the class anymore they all seem to be clued up and know about the team’s results. So that’s quite good.
Awesome. Cheers Harry, thanks so much!