Beyond the chalkface

Why I left teaching after 21 years

Yesterday I listened to several panelists explain their journey into tutoring at the Love Tutoring Festival run by Qualified Tutor. Some of them had been a teacher for many years and some of them seem to have disliked it from the start. This got me thinking about my own experiences, for I was someone who loved my job, indeed I felt it had helped to keep me sane in times when I might otherwise have struggled to stay afloat.

No other job takes you out of yourself in quite the way that teaching does. No other job brings you so many laughs per hour, with so much variety woven into it, despite the fact that outstanding teaching can only thrive (in my humble opinion) within watertight perameters and established routines.

Teaching is a wonderful job and it genuinely pains me to see it talked down by the media. It pains me even more to see how the profession is haemorrhaging its own staff – often its best and its brightest – as we helter-skelter into a recruitment and retention crisis of epic proportions. When I left teaching in 2022 I was part of a very depressing set of statistics, as retention reached its worst level in history. There is something very terrible going on.

Some members of the tutoring profession, of which I am now a part, seem to me to have some rather fanciful ideas when it comes to mainstream schooling. Their belief seems to be that there is no “one size fits all” and that provision must be broadened to suit the whim of every child and every parent, to bend its nature to every individual need. The reality – of course – is that this is simply not possible. If the state is to provide a basic education for all children and if that provision is to be free to access – and I cling to the belief that these principles are not up for debate – then we have to provide that education in a setting where it can be delivered to large numbers of students at a time. There really isn’t any other option that works. Sure, you can tweak things around the edges and many schools do outstanding work accessing a variety of provision for individuals that goes beyond that model, but I haven’t yet met a sensible Headteacher that would throw out the model altogther.

One of the main problems in the profession, as I see it now from the outside, is that teachers are our own worst enemy. Whenever we are provided with models that take the pressure off us, we complain. Schools which centralise behavioural systems and provide staff with explicit guidance on how to teach and provide materials to use face complaints that teachers’ autonomy and professionalism is being questioned. It’s all pretty exhausting. I felt that morale was low amongst the teachers that I knew when we returned after Covid, but nobody seemed able to agree on why they felt this way. All of us seemed to have a different opinion on what the problems were and even where we could agree that something was an issue, SLT faced wildly differing takes on the solutions to that problem. I am very aware that whenever I beat a path to the door of my go-to Deputy Head, what I was saying to him probably contrasted irreconcilably with something that somebody else will have pitched to him just half an hour earlier.

So what I have to say is entirely personal and my pathway out of teaching – although not uncommon – is peculiar to my own experiences and my own responses to them. It is true that my attitude towards my job changed and that my feelings shifted quite dramatically over a reasonably short period of time. I am not sure that much could have been done to prevent this, although I have a few thoughts that I will choose not to share about how my departure could have been prevented, or at least postponed.

There is no doubt in my mind that the Covid pandemic played a part in my shift out of teaching. First of all, it exposed me to a different way of working. Tough as that period of isolation was, it did expose me to the experience of working from home and I didn’t hate it in the way I expected to – in fact, I rather enjoyed it. I liked the freedom of not having to be up, dressed, out and battle-face on by 7.30am. It made me think about the benefits of flexible working in a way that I had never done so before. Combined with this, the pandemic changed the world irrevocably, and this created other pull factors. I work in a very niche subject and I knew that finding enough work would rely on parents embracing the concept of online tutoring. I had pencilled this in as likely to happen within the next five to ten years, but the pandemic fast-forwarded the process overnight. Likewise, whenever I had previously considered the idea of quitting the chalkface in favour of full-time tutoring, I had dismissed it on the grounds that I would be free all day while my friends and husband were at work, and starting work at the point when they all became free; this seemd like a bad idea in terms of my personal life. However, once again, the pandemic changed all that. All of my friends – with the exception of those that are teachers – now work from home either some of the time or all of the time, meaning that their time is also flexible and that it is possible to schedule an early-morning walk, a coffee or a lunch into their day.

The year we returned to school after the switch to online learning during the pandemic was – let’s face it – hell on earth. Bubbles were a dismal failure in secondary schools, a frankly appalling and ill-thought-through brainchild of government that to this day I fail to see the point of. We were forced to teach in unsuitable environments, we were forced to be peripatetic, we were freezing cold, some of the time we were forced to wear masks and all of the time it was miserable. I hated every last second of it. So when we returned to normality the year after and I found myself back in my own classroom, mask-free, I expected my love of the job to return. It didn’t. Perhaps the experience of the year before had fast-forwarded a process that was already happening? I’m not sure. For whatever reason, the love had largely gone.

In the end, the decision to leave was quite sudden and precipitated by a couple of incidents that happened in that final year. A couple of incidents while on duty in the grounds of the school tipped me over the edge and made me feel – quite simply – that I did not want to do this job any more. Both involved groups of older boys and both found me as a lone adult, feeling threatened and being pushed around by a bunch of teenagers – either physically or emotionally. It was not pleasant. I handled it at the time and indeed was able to get back into my own classroom and get on with my job. But I was overwhelmed by a sense of fear and rage – fear that as I got older this would get less and less easy to deal with, and rage that I was expected to do so. Truly, there is no other job in which you can feel threatened – either emotionally or physically – by a gang, then be asked to reflect upon what you could have done better in that situation. Do I think that behaviour in schools has got worse since the pandemic? Yes, I do. Was it perfect beforehand? Far from it. But my tolerance has gone and I am simply not prepared to put up with it any more. Ultimately, this was what drove me out of mainstream teaching.

Photo by 2y.kang on Unsplash

Author: Emma Williams

Latin tutor with 21 years' experience in the classroom. Outstanding track record with student attainment and progress.

2 thoughts on “Beyond the chalkface”

  1. Very moving and insightful. It sounds like a rocky road out. Glad you’ve modified a sticky situation into something much happier for yourself, passion and obvious high amount of knowledge to share.

    I agree the way the media denigrates the key professions that makes for a decent and well-functioning society is painful and shocking. The MSM is deeply flawed.

    As someone who didn’t quite fit into the model of formal education, perhaps there is a bit of room for flexibility in the pupils and teachers timetable the way the rest of the workplace is loosening up?

    I would love to have flexible learning with my daughter say for one day a week where I could take her out of school on a curriculum relevant trip?

    Great blog!

    Keep up the good work.

    You have an authoritative voice that cuts through a lot of the hot air on the Internet.

    Nikki 🤓

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