Teaching is a profession in crisis; one that only teachers seem to be able to acknowledge

It’s often said that the quickest way to wind up a teacher is to suggest they’re always on holiday, have an overall cushty gig at work and that they’re always complaining about conditions that other professions just accept. Though the reality of teaching today is in such stark contrast to the aforementioned that it’s unreal. The Stakhanovite work ethic toward a gargantuan workload and pressures upon teachers is undoubtedly incomparable to most professions; to an extent that it would break most. In fact, it was recently reported that a banker-turned-teacher returned to the banking industry having deemed teaching too exhausting in comparison.

Teaching requires a depth of mental, emotional and even physical mettle that simply isn’t required in many other professions. The policies of successive governments and the agencies that officially and unofficially do their bidding for them, worsen conditions and heighten pressure to excessive levels. Nonetheless, the government and the media seek to demonise the profession along with other public servants. 

Teaching today has become characterised by heightened bureaucracy, ideologically driven policy, an intensified testing and assessment culture and an underlying misery of teachers. Consequently, the profession is at breaking point. In objectively highlighting the problems facing teaching, it is haemorrhaging staff and the number of staff leaving the profession has risen by 11% over three years. And while there are still those who seek to become teachers, those numbers are struggling to meet demand; a challenge that is compounded by the exodus of teachers from the profession. 

Morale amongst teachers has hit incredibly low depths and a rapidly rising number of teachers are subject to depression and stress which has almost become an accepted albatross in the profession. And as is the case with some mental health conditions, it’s commonly seen to manifest itself in physical illness with some teachers effectively being retired by the job while still in their prime. 

Needless to say, teaching is currently a profession in crisis. Though unfortunately, teachers seem to the only ones in acknowledgement of this.

Many teachers work at least a 10–12 hour day — and that’s just while at school and excluding time working at home. Those hours at work aren’t punctuated by cups of tea or coffee, checking social media, the news or pretty much anything else like the working day is in most other professions either. Even toilet breaks can be a rarity and many teachers will ‘realise’ at the end of the school day that they’ve not been since the morning as a result of simply being too busy. 

In addition to actually teaching students, managing class sizes with an average of 30 students and being accountable for their attainment, safety and wellbeing at school, there’s a whole host of further responsibilities for teachers. Planning for additional adults in the classroom, marking, planning, assessing, analysing data, preparing resources, additional management responsibilities where applicable, constant meetings and administration and any other responsibilities that are filtered down from the government via senior management all feature in a day in the life of a teacher. 

It’s a similar story at the weekend with work continuing then too. And while the holidays seem frequent, within the above workload for consecutive days during half termly blocks of 6–8 weeks, they’re needed to punctuate the pressures teachers face. Not to mention most teachers spend at least some time working during the holidays too and a work-life balance is largely non-existent.

The government and education policies are at the crux of the current state of crisis in teaching. Education has become a political hot potato for point scoring. Meanwhile, teachers are left subject to deteriorating conditions as the profession is torn down by politicians and used as vehicles in achieving their agendas such as the ideologically driven pursuit of academies and free schools

Politicians have transformed education into a hugely bureaucratic sector that is void of support and appreciation for teachers. The latter has also signalled a diminishing of autonomy and faith in teachers’ judgement which translates into a lack of trust in the profession from the government. Moreover, with practitioners being periodically observed, and regularly undertaking continuing professional development (CPD) to further their practice, the government’s stance is an affront against teachers. 

It’s a disparaging approach that has also led to an intensified testing culture, even amongst young children, where tests are used as a gauge of a teacher’s ability with no regard for external factors beyond their control. Consequently, many teachers have felt compelled to ‘teach to the test’ which was recently criticised by schools minister, Nick Gibb. Well, I wonder what led to that approach, Nick?

The low morale and feeling of unappreciation amongst teachers undoubtedly stems from the government. Yet rather than address the problems in the profession, the government remains haughtily nonchalant and refuses to acknowledge let alone address the very crisis they are arguably the architects of. Put simply, the government just don’t care. Alas, the government’s lack of empathy for teachers has also percolated through schools via school management teams.

Management in schools, faced with their own pressures and targets, feel their hands are tied to alleviate teachers of many of the pressures they’re subject to. Indeed, many teachers feel a disconnect with management, many of whom represent a new generation of teachers who have spent little time in the classroom and since completing their teacher training, have had a blinkered desire to reach senior management. It’s led to schools increasingly being run by staff who have little classroom experience and therefore an accompanying lack of empathy for the stresses that come with it. Furthermore, schools have become corporate environments with their eyes on ever-moving and increasing targets at the expense of regard for students and teachers. 

With teachers’ backs up against the wall, where can the profession turn for support in reversing such a relentless tide? One would assume that trade unions would be in the vanguard seeking to redress the current state of teaching. The teachers’ trade unions remain committed to teachers and traditionally, have been staunch and effective allies of the profession. Although in light of the crisis facing the profession, their response disappointingly doesn’t appear to be commensurate in recent years.

As a committed supporter and longtime member of the trade union movement, I acknowledge and appreciate what the teaching unions have done for the profession in protecting pay and conditions. More so, I salute the tireless work that is done at local level by union representatives in representing members in individual cases but also providing a collective voice for members in respective branches and regions. The teaching unions in the UK continue to articulate the concerns of teachers. However, many teachers would sadly argue that at a national level, the unions have gone off the boil in the vociferousness of their response toward the government.

Juxtaposed with the British Medical Association’s (BMA) campaign and industrial action in support of junior doctors, the teaching unions currently appear meek and relatively mute in their support of their members. I fully support the junior doctors and they’re one of the few groups of professionals that can empathise with the long hours, demonisation and unappreciation from the government and pressures experienced by teachers. The BMA is clearly being proactive in supporting their members, significantly at a time when the government is seeking to shaft them even further. Nevertheless, while teachers have similarly long been at breaking point, the teaching unions seem relatively inactive in contrast.

I understand the considerations of industrial action as a union’s last resort and an option that no union takes lightly. And industrial action isn’t the only recourse for the teaching unions. But things have come to a head in the profession and on a national level, teachers do not feel that the unions are playing the role they have traditionally done in supporting their members. And this comes at a time when it has arguably never been more needed in contemporary history.

With the profession currently in such a state of distress, some reading this may question why so many teachers remain. Similarly to junior doctors’ commitment to their patients, teachers are altruistically committed to their primary stakeholders of their students. Despite any lamentation teachers may have, many see walking away from the profession equating to walking away from their current and future students which is no easy option for a teacher to consider. 

Teachers work in a capacity where they can directly impact the betterment of their students’ lives. After all, most of us will attest to a great teacher who made a difference to our lives which is undoubtedly a privileged and hugely fulfilling position. The reward of seeing students’ progress and aspirational growth, both academically and socially, also provides a high within teaching that had long outweighed the lows. Yet those lows have increased to the extent that the once welcome imbalance has reversed; a sad and poignant reality that prefigures further departures of committed and good teachers from the profession. Teaching has traditionally provided a sufficient allure to those that want to make a difference in society. However, akin to the experience of junior doctors, when such inherent and altruistic motivation and attraction has been eroded, you know things have gone awry.

Teachers will tell you that the moments of appreciation they do receive from students and parents are one of the great features of the job that are still present in teaching. It’s too bad that such sentiments aren’t acknowledged more broadly; especially by those who can and should reverse the fortunes and perception of such a noble profession.