There is much work to do around recruitment, retention, and workload to develop the long-term attractiveness of the teaching profession. Christian Mba explains why our pursuit of high-effort teachers can lead to a vicious cycle of burnout.

 

Unprecedented. It’s almost as if this word didn’t exist before March 2020. It did (possibly in a glass case with a sign that read ‘for use in the event the UK comes second in Eurovision and/or in the event of a global pandemic). There were so many unprecedented events that it almost became cliché to say an event was unprecedented. Post-covid (if I can say that) who could have anticipated the impact it would have on every aspect of our lives, particularly our concept of work?

Cue The Great Resignation. The term refers to the higher-than-usual number of employees voluntarily leaving their jobs since late 2020 and early 2021. But in teaching, we know that this phenomenon has been taking place quietly for over a decade now. I always feel a sense of sadness when I see a blog post or tweet by another teacher leaving the profession. There are many reasons why teachers leave the profession. Some are personal and specific to the individual; many are to do with macro issues within the wider education system in the UK.

There is much work to do around recruitment, retention, and workload to develop the long-term attractiveness of the teaching profession. The issues with the education system are well-rehearsed and not the focus of this piece. While we must keep a clear view on the future, there is a risk we may miss what is happening in the present. In my opinion, there are several schools engaged in what I call The Boxer Paradox.

What do I mean by this? Well, it’s an idea based on Boxer from Orwell’s Animal Farm. First published in 1945, Animal Farm is a satirical allegory that tells the story of a group of farm animals who rebel against their human farmer, in the hope of creating an equal society. Aside from Orwell’s political commentary, he introduces several memorable characters, with Boxer being my personal favourite.

Boxer was the admiration of everybody… always at the spot where the work was hardest…His answer to every problem, every setback, was ‘I will work harder!’ – which he had adopted as his personal motto. But everyone worked according to his capacity. (Orwell, 1945:17)

Everybody has encountered a Boxer; a highly motivated individual who seems to flourish in the face of challenges. Orwell describes Boxer as being able to do the work of three horses, making him an invaluable asset to Animal Farm. It seems that his motivation was predicated on his belief that he possessed the potential to develop his abilities through the exertion of effort. Boxer exhibited the type of resilience and motivation that most, if not all organisations crave for in their employees, especially in teaching.

Consider how many teaching vacancy adverts seek to employ ‘an inspiring and enthusiastic teacher’ or ‘dynamic and inspirational teacher’ or ‘passionate and enthusiastic teacher’. Of course, these are the types of individuals we should seek, recruit and employ. This is the type of teacher I have aimed to be throughout my career; these are the people I want teaching my children. More than ever the education system in England needs highly motivated teachers and school leaders, skilled professionals able to develop their capacity to prepare young people for an unknown and unpredictable future.

But my point is this: once we have sourced these motivated individuals, what are we doing with them? Like Boxer, these individuals work hard, they are resilient, they possess an internal locus of control, willing to work harder to overcome setbacks. And yet Boxer, the hardest working animal on the farm is sent to the ‘knackers’ having exhausted his ability to keep working hard: The Boxer Paradox. His unexpected and callous demise in the novella reveals that Boxer was only ever a commodity. He was used until he could serve no other purpose than to supply the ingredients for glue.

At the outset, I am sure nobody, least not Boxer, would have imagined that his story would have concluded in the way it did. It is here that I see parallels for schools in the UK. Schools are under pressure to secure the best outcomes for the young people we serve. This is not possible without a skilled and motivated workforce. We ‘do it for the kids’: it is the due north of our moral compasses. So, when faced with problems, challenges and setbacks that come with education, we simply roll our sleeves up and say ‘I will work harder’. Schools however, like Animal Farm, can quickly become ‘greedy organisations’ (Gronn, 2003 cited in Bottery, 2012:457).

Not intentionally, but faced with the bottom line, it is easy for schools to put blinkers on and gallop towards shifting metrics of success, leaving in its wake broken professionals and knackered careers. It should be a concern to us all that we are churning out teachers. It is almost as though the process goes: recruit, burnout, repeat. Bottery (2012:458) rightly contends that educational leaders and schools must reject attempts to ‘extract all available work, every last drop of effort, in order to rack up record results in a more efficient manner’. Within education, teacher motivation is a rich, natural resource which must be sustainably sourced, otherwise the overuse and depletion of this resource will lead to the decline in the quality of systems overall (Bottery, 2012).

However, this is not me railing against accountability. We should be held accountable for what we do in our work as educators. We know that we have a professional responsibility to our children and young people, their families, and the wider communities we serve. I am writing here about the professional responsibility we have towards each other, the other adults in the building. When a parent sends their child to our schools, there is an unspoken pact that we make that says: ‘Don’t worry. Your child is safe here. We will look after them.’ I believe the same should happen with colleagues when they respond to our adverts seeking motivated, inspiring and enthusiastic teachers. We should make the same pact: ‘Don’t worry. You will be safe here. We will look after you.’

It has been my distinct privilege to work with early career teachers, as well as experienced colleagues and to support them in their careers, to develop them as leaders and to watch them flourish in their next steps. It mirrors the work we do with our children and young people; our schools should be places where everybody grows, everybody learns, everybody has an opportunity to be the best version of themselves.

In the medical profession, doctors take an oath to ‘first, do no harm’ recognising the preciousness and value of life. The best school leaders I have worked with and observed have been guided by a similar set of principles, seeking to create school cultures that nurture and elicit teacher motivation in a balanced way.

I am thankful to work in a school where this is the case, where staff are looked after; their motivation sourced sustainably to ensure that both staff and students flourish. We cannot immediately solve the issues that exist within our wider educational ecosystem, but we can create individual school climates where teachers willingly offer up their discretionary effort because their work is appreciated and acknowledged; they are valued and nurtured; they are safe.

This will not solve the recruitment/retention crisis overnight, but it would go some way to ameliorate the levels of teacher attrition we are currently seeing. Many schools across the country have already crafted cultures that make them great places to learn, work and grow. Imagine if that was the case in every school – that really would be unprecedented.

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