This is a guest post submitted by an anonymous teacher.
Dear Theresa May,
Teachers are constantly told how important detailed and concise feedback is to aid the development and learning of their students. And quite rightly so – we need to know where we are going right and where we are going wrong if we are to inform future decisions and learn effectively. This is why I thought I’d write you an open letter with some feedback about my own experience of the teaching profession so that you may take on board my feedback and help to improve our education system.
Firstly, I’d like to share some details of my training experience. I did a Maths degree and earned a 2:1 with honours. I decided that teaching would be a good profession to go for so applied for a PGCE. As a Maths graduate, who is a keen singer and performer, teaching seemed like the perfect fit. I loved my subject and I loved talking to people and communicating. I was snapped up, and was thrilled to be snapped up as one of our new, up and coming (and much needed) Maths teachers in London.
My first PGCE school placement was interesting to say the least. By the time I started it, I had done the theory on lesson planning. I knew to assess prior knowledge. I knew to ask challenging questions. I knew to “praise the positives” and not to fixate too heavily on the negatives. I knew that I needed to carefully differentiate my lessons and to relate them to real-world situations which the children in my class could understand. I was READY!
Then something changed. It was like the school stopped seeing me as a student teacher, and instead started to treat me like a free supply teacher
I was placed in a school where behaviour was known to be challenging, but I was ready for that, too and had lots of classroom management strategies up my sleeve. My initial lesson observations were promising and I was off to a good start. Then something changed. It was like the school stopped seeing me as a student teacher, and instead started to treat me like a free supply teacher. I was left on my own with my classes, placed on the cover rota and my mentor occasionally stopped by to observe enough of my lessons to fill in his paperwork and fulfil what he perceived to be his end of the bargain. At the time, I didn’t even realise that there was anything wrong or abnormal with the school doing this.
I started to lose confidence in my ability. Classes became unruly and difficult to manage when the students realised that I had lost the support of my peers. A year 7 class (yes, 11 and 12 year old children) locked me in a cupboard when a new exercise book was requested and I had to get one from said cupboard at the back of the classroom. (How did they lock you in, you silly teacher? I hear you say? You shouldn’t have left the key in the lock. Well, I didn’t, but the combined weight of an entire year 7 class against the door is enough for even the sturdiest of teachers to struggle against). Fortunately, on this occasion there was another door to the cupboard which linked to a neighbouring classroom, so I was able to escape!
On another occasion, a student decided to try and communicate with a friend who was in the classroom underneath ours by leaning out of the window and attempting to knock on the classroom window a floor below. All that was left visible were his legs which were barely still in the classroom. Bearing in mind that there was concrete playground underneath, I had visions of a smashed head on my watch, so I demanded that the young man in question get back inside immediately. On being ignored, I took hold of his legs and dragged him back into the classroom and shut the window. Except his fingers were still in it and they got shut in the hinge. I was held accountable and disciplined for “hurting” the 14 year old boy in question. I felt terrible and was scared that I was perhaps not cut out for teaching after all. My confidence was smashed. What if I child had died on my watch?
My second teaching placement wasn’t much better. I was in another “challenging” school, only this time I had quite a high proportion of special needs children in my lessons. As my PGCE training had only just touched on SEN as part of differentiation, I wasn’t very well prepared for this aspect of teaching. I wasn’t introduced to the SENCO and the TAs never spoke to me – we floated around the classroom on separate rafts. I didn’t know what to do with a TA – nobody had ever told me…. and I didn’t know anything about autism or ADHD or how to adapt my lessons for children with specific needs. And worst of all, I wasn’t given guidance on how to do these things. It wasn’t until later that I realised it was up to me to decide how much SEN knowledge to learn in my own time and that if I wanted guidance on adapting my lessons, I had to find this guidance on my own. I had (wrongly) assumed that my training would cover everything I needed to know to get started in the classroom so I blindly followed the principles of mainstream teaching with the SEN children in my care. And it often led to difficult confrontations in the classroom (which I know now could have been avoided).
Admittedly, this school did have a better support system for trainee teachers, but accountability for poor behaviour was still very much put upon the teacher. We had to produce all-singing, all-dancing lessons to keep the children engaged. But I was ready for that and spent many hours planning lessons, making resources and teaching classses which were graded as “good” time and again. So, when this school approached me and told me that they had an NQT spot available, and that I should apply for it, I was thrilled! I would be employed from July 1st, so any worry about where my money would come from over summer was gone and I could spend my July and August preparing lessons ready for my first real year as a teacher. It felt like things had turned a corner for me.
Then September came and in my first week of teaching, I was given a new timetable. All those hours I had spent during the summer holidays planning lessons and trying to learn the names of children in my classes had been wasted. Not only that, but I was given post-16 courses to teach which I had not trained for. There were no other teachers in the school delivering these courses, and all that I was given was a 2-page scheme of work to cover the entire 2 year course. There was absolutely no support available and I wasn’t offered any guidance on where I could gain more information. I was fobbed off with comments like “use your professional judgement” by senior staff. Unfortunately, as a brand new teacher, I didn’t feel that I had much in the way of “professional judgement” yet and I spent many nights crying and planning what I felt were inferior lessons until the wee small hours for fear of letting my students down with my inability to teach them appropriately.
Then there was the other end of the age range. In my year 7 class, there were 2 boys who made it virtually impossible to teach anything. They’d misbehave to the point of taking clothes off and standing on desks half naked, shouting over me while I tried to deliver a lesson. The usual behaviour strategies had zero impact (they’d seen it all before) and they’d got to the point where they realised that the worst we could do was put them on report (big deal, their parents didn’t care if they got a bad report), make them work with the head of year in the office (a treat in their eyes), or set a detention (which they wouldn’t show up for). If a call home was made, parents either claimed that “it was our job to keep them in line in school not theirs” or they’d lament that they had problems with their behaviour too, and didn’t know what to do about it. The school refused to consider suspension or expulsion because it would have affected their funding… so the kids knew they were pretty much untouchable.
While on duty one lunch time, I was patrolling school corridors. One of these students came running, screaming down a corridor while a teacher was on the phone home to parents. I put my arms across the corridor and made a “ssshhh” noise and told the boys that they should be outside, not screaming in the corridors in their lunch break. One of them decided to run at me and barge into me (since I was blocking the corridor). I was later called into a disciplinary meeting (in fact, I was escorted by a police officer in front of my year 10 group, half way through a lesson to this meeting) for “hitting” this child. Given that other staff were present and had seen that this was not, in fact the case at all, I was mortified that my superiors had not even asked me what happened before sending police to escort me to a disciplinary meeting. (Which, in the end, came to nothing).
This was the straw which broke the camels back for me and the teaching profession. I left soon after this. I had entered teaching to inspire our next generation and to impart my passion for a subject which the government were crying out for teachers in. I left it feeling unwanted, unsupported and completely disillusioned. The leadership team didn’t even invite me for an exit interview or ask why I was leaving. They had such high staff turnover, I suppose they didn’t have time to do that.
So, Theresa May, I’m giving you my feedback instead. I was a teacher keen to make a go of what I felt was a worthwhile career, but it destroyed me within two years. And I’m not one to give up easily on things. So, perhaps it’s time to start supporting our teachers a bit more effectively and listening to their needs rather than cutting budgets, piling on the pressure and then wandering why there is a recruitment and retention crisis in the teaching profession.