The Retention Of Older Women In Teaching

By Maz Foucher

 

When I first started teaching, I worked alongside teachers from a whole age range – from 21-year-old NQTs to those in their 60s on the verge of retirement. There was always someone older and more experienced to give support and guidance. How then, by the age of 40, did I find myself the oldest member of our full-time teaching staff and the only one with more than 10 years’ experience?

This changing demographic within our staffrooms is indicative of a huge issue within the profession. In 2023, Teach First found that only 35% of female education staff felt that headship was compatible with parenthood. However, this also applies to many full-time roles within education. It has also become incompatible with many of the other aspects of life that women in the 40+ age bracket experience. Often called ‘the squeezed-middle age’, women in their 40s may also be juggling the needs of elderly and ill parents alongside those of young children or teenagers, as well as tackling their own health issues. In 2022, like many of my colleagues and teacher friends, I concluded that the role I had was no longer sustainable, so I left.

Statistically, one in three teachers leaves within the first five years (Zuccollo, 2022). Additionally, the largest cohort to leave are women in their 30s, often parents of young children (DfE, 2022). I am highly concerned about a teaching profession which is losing teachers at such an alarming rate so I am working to improve these statistics through several projects I have taken on since leaving, including my Regional Representative role with the MTPT Project.

Through this, I help teacher-parents (primarily mothers) to form supportive networks, to access coaching and CPD and to share advice on how to juggle teaching when you have a young family. However, barely a week goes by without a conversation with an older teacher who has also left the profession: women like me who are experienced teachers who no longer see where they fit within education.

I initially believed it was a regional issue related to the educational landscape in which I worked. However, I now speak to women all over the UK and I don’t believe it’s limited to the Southwest. It seems that the ever-increasing workload coupled with years of moral stress and secondary trauma are the perfect recipe for a career disaster.

Personally, I had survived the main pinch points for career retention: I made it through my first five years of teaching (and fifteen more) and survived the hectic years of having young children. Logically, at this point women should be ready to thrive within the profession. However, it simply felt like I was at a career dead end with nothing more to give. Like many of the friends and colleagues who had left before me, I could list the things that were wrong but was unsure whether the issue was with me or with the profession.

I opted to take a sabbatical year while I considered this and whether it could be fixed. Within this time, I also studied for an MA in Education Leadership and focused my dissertation research on teacher retention. I decided to speak to those recently qualified primary teachers who were leaving within the first five years of their career.  I hoped that comparing my experiences with those of these newer teachers might help me find the key to staying in the profession or at least what I could do to support others.

What I found was startling. The interviews I held with recently qualified teachers were emotional and often upsetting. Despite being at opposite ends of the career ladder, their stories were eerily like mine. They too had struggled with:

  • excessive workloads.
  • the lack of compassionate support.
  • the lack of autonomy.
  • accountability and performativity cultures.
  • increasing behavioural needs of children.
  • ever-increasing requirements for differentiation.
  • The lack of resources to support students effectively.

However, whilst I am incredibly grateful to my research participants for sharing their experiences, these were all things that I should have been able to influence for myself within my own working life through my SLT role. These weren’t the final straw that led me, and the experienced teachers I know, to leave teaching.

Many of the other issues that my peers have articulated relate to how older, more-experienced teachers now feel within the profession. Rather than feeling their experience is valued, they are now made to feel guilty for being too expensive, too critical, too much of a threat to younger, less-experienced staff, especially those in leadership.

The current trend which sees people reach headship quicker than ever means we have leaders with less knowledge and experience of teaching managing systems with high-stakes accountability. The competition caused by the external publication of data leads to often arbitrary links being made between data and teaching approaches. We are attempting to apply superficial actions to complex issues and making causal correlations where there often are none.

Increasingly, we see policies which reduce teaching to a set of instructions, or non-negotiables, to make the intangible (learning) seem tangible.  If you have been in teaching long enough, you know that these won’t often be the long-anticipated answer, they are simply different models.  What works for one child or class won’t work for everyone. Schools are all different, with different cohorts of children, and the learning of children is determined by so many different external and internal factors that can’t always be measured in the way that it is claimed.

Once you have seen enough of these approaches come and go, you grow tired of it, and this is partly why so many of us are leaving. Where older teachers were once respected for their experience, they now feel like a burden by being the ones to point out the flaws in current policy.

The recommendations I gave in my dissertation about newer teachers are similar then to those that would have supported me to stay. A reduction in workload, an increase in autonomy and more support to deal with the intensification of the teaching day would all of course have been beneficial. However, I still believe that some tangible changes at an HR and leadership level would have helped me, and many of the teachers I speak to, to remain in teaching.

  • Firstly, opportunities to work with an older, more-experienced mentor or career-based counsellor would have made a huge difference. Teachers who come to this pressurised point in life and their middle years of their career need the sort of emotional support and guidance that sadly an inexperienced leadership team are unable to give. Having researched reflective supervision, I believe this sort of approach would have helped enormously.

 

  • We also need to normalise and encourage flexi-working, and to have access to this at different points of our lives. The damaging and restrictive idea that teaching or leadership posts can only be full time needs to change. I have seen part-time teaching and leadership done brilliantly, with huge success. In a profession full of such intelligent, creative people, it’s about time we found ways to make this work as it would allow many, more-experienced colleagues to stay.

 

  • We also need to encourage career paths that don’t always head upwards but which allow people to stay in teaching and develop their careers as respected members of the profession without having to go into management roles. Career pathways that head sideways and backwards simply mean that staff have had different priorities at different times. We need to allow people to slow the pace of work when they need to, and to step back up when they are ready. When recruiting, we need to be much more open to this, applying compassion rather that critique, to allow people to take steps in different directions as their circumstances change.

Overall, it is tragic that most of the experienced teachers I have worked with over the years have now left the profession, long before retirement. The skills that experienced teachers bring could be pivotal to reversing the retention issues we now face. Many of us are great teachers who have helped hundreds of children and families and supported countless new teachers to join the profession. We have extensive curriculum knowledge, vast experience of different pedagogical approaches and masses of life experience which we could be using to coach and mentor those newer teachers who are struggling.

By twenty years in, you have come across most things and seen things come and go. My concern is that, when the pendulum swings back to giving teachers more professional autonomy, there will be very few people left who remember what this looks like. Instead of being made to feel like a burden for being too expensive and too critical, experienced teachers should be seen as a force for good.  Ultimately, it impacts negatively on the nation’s children when we keep losing experienced, knowledgeable professionals from education.

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2 Comments

  1. Anna Cooper Reply

    A very interesting article. Very much like the evidence based approach. Lots of thought provoking stuff, but sadly my experience tells me not much will change. There is no longer any centralised approach possible given the academisation changes. There is little impetus to think ahead in a fragmented system such as we have now.

  2. Such an insightful and rare article. Teaching is my heart and soul, but have left at 49 for a fresh career. After 23 years in the same (good) school, needed a change of scenery and a new challenge, but too expensive to move sideways.

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