Tag Archives: teaching career

On teaching: Why I am quitting after fourteen years

Dear Mr Gove,

Like many other highly qualified and experienced teachers, I am quitting the profession. I can no longer work in a system which pretends to be inclusive while widening the gap between rich and poor; places no value on the arts subjects; treats its teachers like naughty children who need constant monitoring; makes changes to courses, content and assessments with little regard to evidence; and reduces children to target grades. Although I am leaving to pursue a career in Educational Psychology, the timing of my leaving is no coincidence.

I really don’t get what you are doing? I don’t understand why you believe breaking up the collective strength of Local Authorities and encouraging schools to open in unsuitable buildings with unqualified staff is the right way forward? I don’t understand why certain subjects are being elevated above others? Schools are not training camps for the Corporations. Are they?

Schools should be where minds are opened and critical questions formed. Where literature, art, dance and film are celebrated and our future actors, writers, directors and choreographers are nurtured. That’s what I signed up for. To share my passion for my subject and foster a curiosity and desire to learn that extends well beyond the school years. Teaching is so much more than just knowing your stuff. I have spent fourteen years developing expertise in how we learn.  I am at my peak in terms of experience and mastery, but I must redirect this expertise into a new career in order to regain my autonomy.

The reality is I am impotent in the face of damaging policies that are leaving students stressed and disillusioned. I am sick of having to positively spin changes to assessments and courses to keep the students motivated. I am sickened by the media frenzy every August that grows ever more hateful, fuelled by a government that accuses teachers of cheating and manipulating results and belittles the hard work of our students. I am sick of the constant monitoring and grading of lessons that has crept into every school. I am sick of ever moving goalposts, attacks on my professionalism (and the impact that has on my relationship with parents and students). I am sick of the vitriol.

I never thought I would want to leave teaching. The very first day I entered the classroom I knew I had found my calling, my place, my home. I have loved being a teacher. I am teacher; it runs through my core like a stick of rock.  But I can no longer be a teacher.

My profession, full of dedicated people who go the extra mile, is being trashed on a daily basis. Each morning I hear another news story in which teachers are exam cheats, lazy, militant, uncaring, in it for the holidays, the pay, the pension, unfit to do anything else, whinging tax burdens. The school I was once loved to arrive at each morning has changed. Learning walks, monitoring visits, work sampling, quality assurance observations, performance management observations and mocksted’s are stifling creativity, experimentation and fun.

The constant changes to how we teach and what we teach, to appease a baby boomer electorate (with rose-tinted glasses of a 1950’s idyll that never existed), heap on more and more pressure. The progressive attitudes such as modular exams, which level the playing field and give students a chance to build their knowledge and skills incrementally, as is the case in the real world, are gone. Despite the media hype, more and more young people are leaving school with qualifications and permanent exclusion is at an all-time low. Compare that to the ‘golden era’ of 1950’s education, which you seem so fond of invoking,

[when] the school system did not do particularly well by the great majority of those born in 1958, leaving them with few qualifications and putting them at a considerable disadvantage in earning power.

Unlike your empty rhetoric, the The National Child Development Study, from the Centre for Longitudinal Studies, which has been following 17,000 people since 1958 provides conclusive evidence that the grammar system was divisive, labelling many (usually working class) children as uneducable.

Only 12% of them moved on from primary schools, via the 11-plus, to a grammar school. Most of the rest attended schools that lacked pupils in the top end of the ability range. A similarly small proportion went on to university. By the age of 33, just 14% of men and 11% of women in this cohort had achieved a degree.

Academies and Free schools are the grammar schools of today, able to apply their own selection criteria, leaving Local Authorities impotent to challenge them. Well done, Mr Gove, for returning the UK to a two tier education system, which only serves the elite. Bravo!

nearly two-thirds of those born in 1958 left school as soon as they could at age 16. By the time they were 33, around 15% still had no educational qualifications and a further 10% were only qualified to a level below O-Levels. A further one-third had O-Levels but no qualifications higher than that.

Today, by contrast, the great majority of young people stay on in education to 18. Some 40% go on to university.

This may come as a surprise to you, but I wasn’t in it for the pay. I wasn’t in it for the holidays, or the pension or because I am lazy. I wasn’t in teaching because I was unable to do anything else. On the contrary I chose to be a teacher. And now I choose not to be a teacher.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying the education system in the UK doesn’t need improving. We need to invest in high quality teacher training that ensures the profession uses evidence based techniques in pedagogy and doesn’t assume that children – complex, intricate individuals – can be taught with the one dominant method; however compelling it is to present a simple solution to the electorate. We need to invest in science and technology, but not lose sight of the need for a civilised society to contain more than just engineers and mathematicians. We need to respect and trust our teachers, nurture their talents and listen to them. They are the experts not the enemy.

So, I say to you Mr Gove, stop painting us as incapable, inadequate and selfish when we challenge you. Please. Before you lose even more of us. Change and progress can come about with the support of teachers not in spite of them. We are a pretty well educated bunch. We can see what is wrong and what the solutions need to be. Engage with us, don’t alienate us and please stop dragging education backwards into a ‘golden age’ that never existed.

The 1958 generation also had poor basic skills. When they were aged 37, a sample was tested for basic numeracy and literacy: almost half had ‘very poor’ numeracy skills and 6% had difficulty with reading.Those with poor numeracy and literacy were, not surprisingly, much more likely to be unemployed.

So, as we contemplate the almost daily bad news about class sizes, school drop-outs, and the poor basic skills of school-leavers, we should perhaps pause to remember that – while there is certainly still plenty of room for improvement – the answer does not seem to lie in a nostalgic return to a past system which served the few very well and the majority poorly.

And watch out Mr Gove, I may be leaving teaching, but I am not leaving education. Once I have my Doctorate I will make it my mission to support the profession that has given me so much joy and satisfaction. I will fight every policy that is based on nostalgia and flim-flam. I will insist that teachers are trained to teach before they are let anywhere near a classroom.

Long after you’ve moved onto to whatever will promote your political interests further I will still be working to improve the life chances of all children.

 

 

 

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An open letter to Ann Saunders (Former Deputy Head Teacher – Sittingbourne Community College)

Dear Ann,

I don’t know if you will even remember me, but you gave me my first teaching job in 1995 after I responded to an ad in the local paper to teach GNVQ Health and Social Care.

Teaching was something I had always wanted to do, but without a degree I didn’t think I had a hope in hell of securing a position. At the time I was a registered nurse with a toddler and new baby, married to a Sergeant in the Royal Engineers and living on an army base in Chatham. I am not sure what possessed you to take on an unqualified and completely inexperienced novice like me, but you did.  Looking back I must have driven you mad arriving in your office every morning to show you my lesson plans and a bombard you with a million question, but never once did you act like I was a nuisance – even though, as Deputy Head, you had a zillion things to do. The eighteen months I spent at Sittingbourne Community College made me surer than ever that teaching was the career I wanted to pursue. You also saved me from certain death by mother and toddler conversations (I was never cut out for full-time motherhood). You generously gave me your time and nurtured the teacher within. I was in total awe of your ability to manage a class of boisterous fourteen year olds without ever losing your cool – and vowed to one day be as good as you. I particularly remember one student on the Child Development NVQ course who claimed to be psychic and remarked on more than one occasion that she had a strong sense of twins when we were together in the same room. Disinclined as I am to believe in the mystical, I chose to believe in her assertion – daring to hope it meant that you saw yourself in the untrained, but eager me.

It was with a huge reluctance I left Sittingbourne. My husband, John, had been posted to Hameln, Germany (the town where the Pied Piper stole all the children).  I cried on and off for days at the thought of leaving the UK and a job that I loved, but as we celebrate twenty-two years of marriage and he supports me on yet another life-changing adventure, I can honestly say I would follow him to the end of time and beyond.

In Germany, with teaching jobs in short supply, I returned to my first career of nursing, but kept my skills up to date by using my NVQ Assessor qualifications. As you know I was studying for a psychology degree (OU), which I finished in the final year in Germany in 1999. My husband left the army and we bought our first house back in my home county. We arrived in the UK just in time for my graduation. I was presented my 1st Class honours (BSc) by Cherie Blair – when Tony Blair was still riding high and we all believed this prosperity and peace would last forever. Armed with a degree and the invaluable teaching experience I gained in Sittingbourne, I trawled the papers for a teaching job – despite still not having a teaching qualification. Another wonderful teacher, Mr John Brandon, Head of Mark Rutherford Upper School in Bedford, gave me that chance and funded my training to reach Qualified Teacher Status.  A year later I repaid his faith in me and started Mark Rutherford’s first psychology department (which is still going strong today). I spent four years at the school developing my teaching and middle management skills and completing a Masters in Research Methods. I also learnt to control my classes without losing my cool (most of the time). Five years later, in 2004, with my children entering middle school and the addition of a cat and dog, plus another house move, I applied for Head of Department at a well-respected local school and got it.

In the ten years since, my two children have grown up and left home, one to Warwick to study philosophy, and one to Honduras to work as a teacher volunteer (now returned and off to UCL to study languages in September). The cat and the dog have gotten a bit decrepit (and been joined by a scruffy rescue puppy) and I have somehow reached my forties and have too  many grey hairs. In that time I have mentored five student teachers (one is now a head of department) and built a thriving, successful department as well as enjoying the challenge of enhanced roles in learning and teaching . I have taught psychology to hundreds of students and have finally mastered the art of behaviour management – almost 🙂

At forty-three it is time for me (before it is too late) to say goodbye to my role as a classroom teacher and begin a new and exciting career. A career that would not have been possible if eighteen years ago you hadn’t hired a twenty-something nurse whose only classroom experience came from watching Dead Poet’s Society (five times).  A week ago I accepted a place on the Doctorate in Child and Educational Psychology at University College London (UCL).   I am incredibly fortunate to have been offered only one of 11 places from a field of 300 applicants! In three years’ time (all going to plan) I will be a Chartered Educational Psychologist and have the skills and professional standing to enable even more positive change in the lives of young people.

So thank you Ann Saunders. Thank you for everything – it all started with you 🙂

Your humble student (and spiritual twin),

Juliet O’Callaghan

Me and my son in 1995
Me and my son in 1995
me and both my children in 2013
me and both my children in 2013