It’s been one whole year since I hung up my teaching boots and left for a new career. I’ve sat down to write this post 100 times but somehow I can never finish. Finally, I’ve been able to get off my chest why I chose to leave teaching and it’s all too sad that my story is not unique.
It’s rather fitting that I should share my story in September, the start of a very busy school year, when all teachers and students return to the school grounds with fresh enthusiasm and motivation for the year ahead. Except last year I didn’t return.
After 14 years of education, higher education and then 2 years working as a teacher I had a strange feeling of excitement in the pit of my stomach that for the first time in my 23 years I wouldn’t be walking through the school gates.
To start from the beginning, I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do after graduating. Having always been an extraverted and caring person, I was constantly told by family and friends that I should consider a career in teaching. I remember doing a quiz in sixth form where you answered questions about your personality type and it would tell you what career you were most suited to and for me teaching came top of the list. I’d taught drama and dance in voluntary positions almost all my life and always been told I was a natural leader. I, myself, wasn’t totally convinced teaching was what I wanted to do and tried to resist it for much of university. I put off thinking about graduting but when the panic struck I began to start listening to those around me. ‘Teaching is a good skill to have’, ‘It’s a steady income’, ‘Do it for the holidays’, ‘You can work your way up quickly’ were all phrases I was told time and time again. Everyone couldn’t be wrong, surely? I began to look into my options for teaching training.
Sure enough, in a couple of months I’d managed to secure a teacher training position in the North West that offered the School Direct route. It was basically on-the-job training, you had a mentor, and a few days in university for the first year before you were let lose in the classroom on your own. Sounds perfect? Sadly, I’d later find out that it wasn’t. That first year of teacher training was the one of the lowest places I have ever been in my life.
We were thrown in at the deep end from day 1 of training. To my dismay my mentor, a young woman in her late twenties seemed to quickly take a disliking to me. She made a habit of telling me how much she missed her last trainee and how I could never fill her shoes. There was a toxic atmosphere in the department I worked in, derogatory terms were used to talk about the head of department and I wanted to remove myself from the staff room every time she walked out and they all started talking behind her back.
The atmosphere around school wasn’t much better. Students were given a 15 minute morning break and 30-minute lunch in year groups, where they were contained in the dining room and a small yard. I was told lunches were kept short and contained to minimise behaviour problems, I just wanted to let the kids run free, kick a ball around and get some fresh air.
The staff would ignore you in the corridor and I rarely heard a conversation between a teacher and student without a mention of hitting their MEGs (minimum expected grade). In truth, it felt more like a grade factory, obsessed with Ofsted outcomes, and sadly the wellbeing of the students and the staff were not a priority.
In my first week of training we had an Open Evening to advertise the school. I had only been living in the North West for a month. I had no idea about the area, the local schools and how my school compared to them. I was thrust into a room with prospective students and their parents whilst my mentor giggled in the other room with another colleague for the evening, leaving me to completely fend for myself. A parent started to quiz me on the school and I had no-one to turn to to ask for help. I blagged my way through and managed to escape to the bathroom. That was the first of many tears that year.
The pressure and humiliation continued. As trainee teachers we were observed every lesson and graded once a week. In my school we were either told we were ‘Beginning’, ‘Developing’, ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’. It’s a pointless system, no matter what experience you start with you’re given ‘Beginning’ in the first few months. You then work your way up until you’re graded ‘Outstanding’ and the scale acts as more of a rite of passage. If you stay at ‘Beginning’ too long you’re sent on your way but regardless, myself and my fellow trainees found it a really discouraging exercise designed to pick faults in everything we did from how we allowed the students to enter the classroom to how we marked homework. What little that was left in terms of positive compliments was washed away by the amount of hills we were told we’d have to climb to be considered ‘Developing’. For a bunch of teachers, they really didn’t know how far a bit of positive reinforcement and a compliment can go.
And the paperwork, oh the paperwork. For every single lesson we had to keep a copy of a lesson plan, a print out of the power point and a reflection sheet. At the time we were told we’d get quicker at writing these but in truth, as soon as we all got the hang of it, the amount of lessons we were given increased. On top of each lesson we had to complete a weekly timetable, a weekly review and we also had to observe other teachers and write about their lessons. We had to keep evidence folders to show that we were meeting all of the teaching standards, these were in the form of students work, our mentors observation notes and our lesson plans. I’d spend all day in school and then all evening planning my lessons only to be told that I didn’t spot that Jimmy was chewing gum and I should probably have found a more challenging task for Alice as she finished the task quickly and was helping her partner.
For a whole year I cried every evening on my drive home from work. I wanted to quit everyday. The only thing keeping me going was my bursary for training and the shame I thought I would feel if I quit. I wasn’t the only one, everyone who was training was also feeling the same way. If I could speak to that broken Gaby right now I’d tell her to not even think about the money and leave. Instead, I chose to go to my Head of Training to let her know I was struggling with depression and anxiety. I was turned away and told they couldn’t reduce my timetable or I’d fail the year and if I really had a problem I should speak to someone at the university I was affiliated to. I had no relationship with my university mentors as I was only there for a couple of days in the year, I didn’t feel like I could talk to them, so I tried to power through. I became a hollow shell of myself, the Gabs everyone once knew wasn’t there anymore, I’d lost my love for life, put on a bunch of weight and stopped seeing my friends.
Easter came around and I got some rest-bite from my alternative 6-week placement school. The staff were kind, supportive and encouraging. They boosted my confidence, so-much-so I was offered a position to teach there the following year and I accepted. I wanted to prove to myself that I wasn’t going to be defeated.
I returned to my original school for the end of the summer term and the anxiety followed. I quickly realised that it was this environment that had made my teacher training so negative. I was excited to finish and left the UK for some travelling in my summer break.
When I returned to the more supportive school the next September I had all of my own classes and was ready to hit the ground running. My form group I had been assigned were sixth form and despite the tiny 4 year age gap I managed to develop a special bond with them and enjoyed helping them apply for university and preparing them for adult life. In this school the teachers were kind, caring and easier to work with. The behaviour was harder to deal with but the kids were real. They shared their problems and would tell you about their lives. Some were from really difficult backgrounds but I enjoyed teaching them and seeing them grow the most.
Before long the marking was taking over. Assessment week seemed to come around quicker each time and I end up spending the majority of my weekends marking and preparing for school. If I didn’t spend the weekend working, the guilt was an even more horrible feeling. I started to realise that at 23 my quality of life was poor. I’d begrudge getting up for work everyday and the repetitiveness of it all was hard to keep momentum. I, like many other teachers I knew, spent my days in work praying for the next holiday, when I’d have time to catch up on all the marking I needed to do.
When I was asked to renew my contract that summer I politely declined. I had no idea what I was going to do instead, but I knew teaching wasn’t right for me.
If you’ve got this far, you probably think my experience is unique, that I just couldn’t hack it and that my heart wasn’t in it. But the sad thing about my story is that I know I am not alone.
I now work in events, still a very stressful profession, yet my mental health is back to normality and guess what, I actually enjoy my weekends!
What I wanted to achieve from writing this post is a call for more mental health support for newly trained teachers (and ones who trained a long time ago for that matter!). If I had got the support I needed early on in my training I might actually still be teaching now. But sadly, like many others, I didn’t and so I now represent a large statistic of newly trained teachers who have left the profession in less than 5 years.
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