This blog post comes from our anonymous blogger working in a secondary school.
The other day one of my Year 8 students said something disconcerting:
‘If you’re so smart why didn’t you become a lawyer or a doctor? Why are you just a teacher?’
This ‘just’ has haunted me for weeks. For that little just isn’t simply a word but the key to a much bigger issue.
When I was six, I remember pretending I was a teacher to a classroom of stuffed animals and when I was 18 I remember being convinced that I’d graduate, become a teacher and then travel around the world being paid to live in exotic paradises. Yet when I was 21 I found myself living in a run-down rental, working as an underpaid temp in a soul destroying office, not speaking to my Dad because he’d finally had enough and was trying to force me to apply for a PGCE. What happened? Why did the job I was clearly destined for lose its appeal for so long? Why did it take Teach First, an educational charity marketing teaching as the ultimate challenge, to make me see the light?
If I was to be honest I think it’s because somewhere in the middle of university I began to crave what most want at some point in their life; I wanted to be involved in something incredible or to do something that was impressive. I finished my degree no closer to understanding what I wanted but convinced that I didn’t want to be a teacher. I saw teaching as ordinary, the very opposite of incredible.
Education in Britain is currently a hot topic. Even those not in the profession or with a child in the system are aware of mounting pressures on students to achieve and on teachers to deliver. In my first year of teaching a colleague muttered the line ‘If I was just starting out I wouldn’t bother now. I’d choose another profession.’ As a fledgling teacher I simply had to laugh nervously.
Teachers are being squeezed from every angle. The pressure to be outstanding is enormous. Yet despite this pressure people are still choosing to train. Applications for post graduate training is up by 3.6% from last year whilst the ‘quality’ of applicants is also rising with 14% of those applying possessing a first class degree. Teach First is to receive £32.4 million from the government which will be invested into expanding the number of graduates they place into teaching. By 2014/15 Teach First aim to train 1,500 graduates, triple the numbers on the programme in 2010. By 2016 they believe they’ll have 2,000 training through them. Clearly there are more than enough people in the UK willing to become teachers. Many claim that teaching has been transformed in the past few years into the career of choice with the heady combination of challenge, holidays and honourable work finally turning heads. However in all of this the opinions of those that really matter seem to have been forgotten.
When I asked my classes what they wanted to be when they grew up only 3 students out of 90 said a teacher. When probed further I found their desire stemmed from admiration. They wanted to be a teacher because of a teacher they adored; they wanted to be their role model not a teacher. A Year 11 student informed me with winning tact that, ‘You can’t complain about us. You chose to work with us.’
Not all young people are disenchanted, obviously. But it is a fact that many are, often with this disillusionment being reflected in behaviour. 50% of teachers leave the profession in 5 years or less. Is it any great shock when lack of respect by those they work with is part of the daily routine? No, perhaps not. Yet if we put ourselves into the student’s shoes it does become a problem. Students currently view teachers as odd creatures. Most simply don’t understand why someone would choose to come back to school and teach them, something the majority of us probably thought to some degree whilst growing up. A large number of pupils are disengaged and don’t feel highly enough about themselves. They don’t think they are worth teaching and treat teachers accordingly. Teachers should be building self confidence, yet with so many leaving, students’ negative beliefs are confirmed and their respect plummets further. The number of Teach First recruits that stay on in teaching has risen to 67%. Fantastic but will this last? A cynic might see the rise in teacher training applications as a result of the thinning job market and the 67% as clever presentation since this statistic only applies for those staying after the initial 2 years. What about after 3 or more years? How does the government prevent what seems to be a fairly predictable exit from teaching after such a short period?
Teach First appealed to me, as I’m sure it did for many others, by the way it sold teaching. Suddenly what had appeared dreary seemed incredibly exciting and extraordinary. It was no longer “just” teaching. It was TEACHING and that made all the difference. As a result I went in full of passion and pride that I may not have had in such abundance if I’d gone down the PGCE route. I felt part of something special, something all teachers should feel, because the organisation reminded me that teaching isn’t just teaching. We need to remember to take pride in what we do and accept that students will behave like animals sometimes. By displaying an enthusiastic mindset pupils will start to understand that teachers are not there because they couldn’t make it in the real world but because we find them exciting and find the idea of helping them to discover and shape themselves both worthy and endlessly fascinating. Once they’ve accepted this then maybe they will start to engage and show respect. Teachers will then want to stay, pupils’ self worth will swell, positive engagement in lessons will rise further and a new positive cycle will emerge.
After all, they are the reason we teach and as long as they see us as ‘just’ teachers we have to some degree failed them. Regardless of what statistics and government reports say, until young people see teaching as remarkable, the public – and as a result even teachers – never will fully. Surely it is up to us, as educators, to make that happen.