By Ben King
Returning to teaching…
Is teaching a calling? A vocation? Just a job? I don’t know. To be honest, it is probably all of those things and none of them all at once. For many it is something their parents did, they have dreamt about and that they are genuinely tearful for achieving. And that is spectacular. But does the idea of the job match up to reality? It certainly isn’t the cliche of ‘colouring in’ or ‘just playing’ (and yes I have said that to EYFS colleagues in jest). So what happens when the shine or vanish wears off? Is the alternative, the non-teaching world, what people imagine?
Having done ten years in a classroom I took a step away. I gave up a good job as a KS2 teacher and Reading Lead in a genuinely brilliant school with forward-thinking leadership that trusted and supported me. I gave up a good salary – not as good as many of my university friends but good nonetheless. Why? The year before, I had welcomed the nationally renowned Reading Rocks to my school and hosted workshops alongside many well-known teaching experts. I’d not long achieved a Masters in Educational Leadership. I just felt a little jaded. And that’s OK. If you feel the same, you are forgiven.
Doing essentially the same job every single day, year after year is tough. In the private sector, you may work similar contracts but you don’t literally teach why it was that Sparta takes boys away before puberty to train them for military conduct every week. The horror for me was opening ActivPrimary and realising I had taught identical lessons literally the day before 365 days ago. Obviously, I adapted lessons for the correct pitch, etc, but this is a genuine threat for teacher retention and needs to be taken seriously.
Yet I returned.
Why? Now that is a question. Mainly because I missed the process of teaching. I missed the feel of being in school and I missed being able to watch progress and development. Did I miss endless meetings? No. Did I miss doing things for Ofsted or even leadership? No. Did I relish the thought of it being frowned upon to nip for a pee mid-lesson in some schools? No.
So what has changed? What is the same? What have I noticed, having taken a year away? Well, that largely very little has changed. I have kept a presence on #EduTwitter and I have seen it transform slightly from a place of exchanging resources to one of exchanging emotional support and that is truly invaluable especially for those that perhaps don’t have friendship groups, or partners that are also in teaching, or who are familiar with it.
Our sector has taken a battering. Of that there is no doubt. Those outside of it can not grasp that while the people of this country were straining under the burden of covid, we were attempting to stop children from imploding because of it. We were attempting to “catch-up” children who suddenly missed two weeks (imagine that pre-covid), while also trying to hold our own health and emotional stability together. The first few weeks of school closures is a time I hope to never see again.
However, it is worth acknowledging that teachers aren’t the only ones that have been put under pressure, nor are they the only ones working hard. My time away from education did shine a little light on that. Outside of teaching there is a degree of ‘us’ and ‘them’, the new non-teaching colleagues that I had didn’t really understand the challenges that teachers faced either before or during the pandemic and to be honest I saw little to no explanation of it either.
In the year I was outside of the classroom, the only mention of unions I heard was a brief soundbite on the news occasionally and literally zero from the Chartered College of Teaching. This, I think, is where a level of distrust from those who don’t have children comes from.
In terms of the job, I genuinely believe that very little has changed. I taught before, during and now “after” (I am well aware Covid isn’t over but you know what I mean). The day-to-day teaching, the building blocks, are the same. What is not the same and what should be a primary concern for all educators is that the total inequity that has been brought to the front of our thinking. The sheer disparity between differing opportunities for home learning that children from different backgrounds have experienced has never been so obvious and it must be challenged.
We talk of schools being engines of social change and of course they are, however if once a child returns home there is little to no support, or little to no access to the required learning materials, then we are pushing against a locked door to a degree.
Now, that is not to say that no child can succeed without piles of books and supportive parents at home, but teachers have been saying for years that more support needs to be directed at not just extra funding for certain children while in school but some sort of support system for families out of it.
A new branch of Children’s Services perhaps, one that is focused on supporting not just health and wellbeing but also learning in the home. I had some children completing every single piece of work I set for home learning and screaming for more, sitting comfortably in their own study on a personal laptop and some children who didn’t even own a pen fighting over the one pencil in the house then not doing their work as they couldn’t access it online regardless.
These problems did not just spring up out of the ground. They were put in stark clarity due to new circumstances and should be acted upon.
Follow that trail and this in my opinion has had the single biggest impact on teaching and learning that I have seen in my ten years of teaching. Children have missed months of learning in the desired way and many haven’t been able to engage in their education in any meaningful manner at all.
When schools returned, those gaps of knowledge have, in some cases, been huge. No teacher has been trained in how to “catch up” children who all completed such differing amounts of work during a lockdown, let alone how to catch them up when different children have then also had to isolate themselves. This poses a genuine risk to our teachers and to our children and a new plan is needed.
The gap between our highest achievers and those that find learning a challenge also puts untold pressure on children, teachers and schools and the proposed solution, the National Tutoring Programme, is not fit for purpose. Give the money to schools, trust the heads of these schools to know what their children need and how best to achieve it and let’s take a long hard look at whether we are actually serious about supporting our most vulnerable and to create social change.
If we don’t, I fear retention and recruitment will continue to struggle, as more and more teachers buckle under a burgeoning crisis of learning.