Au revoir teaching: it’s not me, it’s you…

I’m not sure I have ever felt this happy.  I’d describe it as though someone has taken the strangulating clips off of my almost broken wings.

Friday 17th July: I leave my job.  Now there are some absolute gems I have met and enjoyed spending time with, namely my wonderful students who have made me laugh every single day, but it is time to exit.  If teaching was what it should be (getting to know students individually, adapting content to their talents, helping them achieve meaningful skills useful for the outside world), I would teach until the day I drop off this mortal coil.  However…

If you know any teachers you may get bored of the whingeing.  Believe me, said whingeing is entirely justified; some of the (pathetic) fallacies perpetuated by this ludicrous government include:

  • But you get unfairly long holidays!  Sure.  We get plenty – in name only.  Over the past 3 years I have worked every single holiday almost every single day.  Even holiday reading has been reduced to a syllabusised dreg through exam texts.   English teaching has died under piles of marking and the obsession with every student, regardless of academic ability, being forced to achieve a C (you know teachers are blamed for students not achieving this, right?  Also that we can’t actually hold the pen and write for every student in their exams?  Astronomical levels of accountability are destroying teachers’ health and souls).

Oh and you know parents who, quite understandably even if it is intensely annoying for teachers having to help them catch up, take their kids out of school for a cheaper holiday?  Yeah we don’t have that option.  Sorry, year 9, this trip to the Maldives had 75% off, see ya!  Hello, disciplinary/P45.  Just please don’t say this phrase ever again.

  • You only work 9 until 3 you shirkers.  Hmmm, where to start.  Most of us start work at 7.30am at the latest and the school day, not lessons, starts way before 9am.  Break is a 10 minute run down the corridor to grab a banana/spent keeping students back for no homework/being cheeky etc etc.  Lunch has been reduced to 45 mins of waiting for the microwave (no daylight allowed, oh no), students constantly handing in late homework/asking random questions, so all in all there’s about 25 mins no contact time.  Imagine being at work and having 300 people in one day demanding your attention from the minute you turn up to the time you leave.  I love the kids but, believe me, there is no free time and when you’re having a bad day (because *shockhorror* teachers are people with feelings too) there is nowhere, not even a cupboard, to hide.  I’ve tried.

Finish at 3pm?  Hahaha!  With your hilarity you are really spoiling me.  All teachers have it bad (ok, not PE, soz, but it’s oh so true) but English teachers’ marking is outrageous.  Most of us work every night until at least 8pm, though we have been known on many many occasions (data deadlines, anybody?) to work right up until midnight and beyond.

I can’t wait to have a 2 day weekend again.  The all day Sunday planning and marking and the pre-Monday dread and palpitations is going to take some time to ooze from my potentially forever scarred and scared adrenal glands.

  • You only need a board pen.  Yeah, if you’re teaching 4 extremely able students who are all able to work independently and without much stimulus, i.e. in no classroom in state education.  This is primarily what has driven me out of teaching – that we are regressing to teaching from the front and to the test for an exam system which is bonkers and completely out of touch.  The education system needs to evolve with the students it teaches and the world they will be navigating rather than pretending it’s stuck in a 1950s private elitist purely academic regime.  Cognitive dissonance anyone?

Very few schools have capitalised on young people’s new skills, especially regarding the internet and social media.  So if the moment they leave school they are on Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook etc etc and most work communication is through that big world web, why on earth are we in classrooms with no resources, backwards technology and teachers who know less about all of this than the students they’re meant to be educating?

We need to catch up.

There’s something to be said for young people having a break from visual bombardment but, believe me, their concentration skills are very different and we’re foolish if we ignore this.  I have been criticised for my colourful PowerPoints (only by other teachers, not by students) but the kids love them and by keeping them visually engaged, through the use of modern YouTube clips et al (many of which they have directed me to), I have learnt as much as them. Their brilliant grades, if you’re interested in that kind of thing, prove you can have fun and achieve above expectations, but my god I have had to nearly kill myself to twist the syllabus into something meaningful and relevant.  Creativity and innovation is being squeezed out of our young people and I can no longer collude in that. Darwin, teaching needs you.

  • Teaching reading and writing is easy.  Illiteracy is unforgiveable in our modern society, however we all need to take responsibility for this.  As I said above, young people have changed, their lives are so different even to those of us that grew up a couple of decades before.  They are very rarely seeing people read and write at home or on all of the media platforms they use; if you have been read to as a child you are already streets ahead of at least 90% of the population. It is a fact that the more we read the better we write.  People, including teachers, just don’t have the time anymore as family and work lives are full of so many other things – whether I agree with priorities changing or not is irrelevant, it just is the way it is, especially in less advantaged areas.

Just one minuscule example: if I am teaching a novel to the whole class we have to read it all together, otherwise they just wouldn’t read it at home due to differing home circumstances and personal processing skills, so this takes up most of our lesson time.  Then we’re meant to comprehend the plot, the characters, the theme, the setting, the context and, most importantly, analyse the language in so much detail we tick all the incomprehensible exam board boxes.  Thus a whole Victorian novel, using language so antiquated even teachers need to keep a glossary, and all of these skills are meant to be taught in about 6 weeks of 3 or 4 lessons per week. In the new exam system if you cannot do all of this, which most adults would find beyond challenging, you will fail.  Oh and by the way in case you didn’t know, now all students have to memorise all texts – yes, including a whole Shakespeare play, an entire Victorian novel, a play/another novel and 15 poems.  Off. By. Heart.  Could you honestly do this?  I wouldn’t want to and I want no part in it.  What is it they are learning from this experience exactly?

I have always loved English and reading and writing but students who feel like this are very much in the minority these days.  Literature is vital to expanding our vocabulary and our minds – but then I am an English teacher and value the book world.  In shocking times books have saved my sanity and therefore my life.  There is a book out there for everyone and it is not necessarily Dickens or Daphne du Maurier – if we want to expand our literary knowledge to that extent that is what A levels and university are for, and indeed something I hope parents will push as much as any self-righteous English teacher.  But I appreciate that is idealistic.

I want our young people to do the best they can do but if, in, you know, their real lives (which frequently can be beyond totally sh!tty by the way) these qualities aren’t important to them we should be focusing on other skills and life avenues.  Yet always always always encouraging reading for pleasure – and this is something our education system has entirely lost sight of, as though deconstructing a novel to its grammatical atoms somehow makes you clever.  It doesn’t.  Open-mindedness, thirst for knowledge, the ability to empathise – that’s what books are for. And a place to go, to escape to, when you can not physically go anywhere.

Essentially, I have 4 hours per week to teach literacy plus English Language and English Literature skills in classes where I just have no time to give individuals the time they so desperately need.  I can’t be a part of this farcical, outdated, unwieldy system anymore.  Yes, it makes me angry.  Enraged.  So I’m out.

  • Coursework makes it easy for students – rigorous exam courses are what young people need.  No. Coursework made an unjust system slightly more just.  Though only if it was done properly.  Unfortunately, there has been so much bending/snapping of the rules by schools to ensure that students achieve that heady accolade of a C grade in English (even – well, especially – if they are not capable of this independently) that it has led to a colossal workload for teachers – largely because of school management’s fear of not achieving their magical A*-C percentage on the national league tables. I want no part in this shambles.  Nor the new exam system.
Trite but true

Trite but true

Now there will be one exam paper for all – written by people who have never taught young people, usually older white men who choose the most ridiculous ‘literary’ extracts and have no idea how to even word the question so that all abilities can understand it.  There is no longer any ‘core’ paper for those who struggle with processing and comprehension, or indeed Special Educational Needs or English as an Additional Language.  Without a doubt, they will fail.  Academia is not, and should never be sold and promoted as, right for everyone.  This government has openly admitted they want less young people to pass/achieve top grades, pitting every student against one another in a bell curve of successes versus failures – to ENSURE, to MAKE SURE YOUR CHILD CAN FAIL.  Are you happy with this? (YOU MUST WATCH THIS: http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_changing_education_paradigms).

By sending the message that if you don’t jump through a certain hoop (memorising all of your learning for two years to spew out over 3 hours) you are useless, what are we sending young people out into the world having learned?  I achieved top grades in the days when coursework was minimal and most courses had end of year 11 exams, but the exam anxiety was entirely detrimental to my physical and mental health.  Seeing exam desks still makes me feel sick.  Plus I have never seen so much exam anxiety in students as I have this past year – because they are absorbing the pressure from school, teachers, parents and the media.  Be kind to them, world, they need you more than ever.

Don’t believe the hype thrown around by the media by people who have never taught, or who taught a long time ago or who currently teach but from a privileged position.  The worst thing we could do, we are doing, is to try and emulate exam robot factories like Singapore, Mr Government.  Make like Finland, you English twonks, as they believe in: learning through play; giving autonomy to schools and teachers; no tuition fees; fully subsidised healthy school meals; classes with a maximum of 20 students; reading purely for pleasure not just for exams (Finland publishes more children’s books than any other country); well-educated teachers with Masters where approximately 10% pass the qualification, so that the profession is highly sought after, respected and better paid.

So, yeah, I’ve whinged and I’ve complained.  I am outraged at the system organised and enforced by non-teachers and I will defend hardworking teachers to the end of my days.  I believe I have every right to.  I love the students and I love sharing my knowledge; it has broken my heart to say goodbye to these wonderful rascals.  But I love my health, my family, my friends, my life and my soul far more.

So au revoir teaching, it’s definitely you.

D's lovely leaving letter - my year 11 student and finalist in the Wicked Young Writers' Award 2015 as part of my creative writing club

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