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The Secret Teacher: Our students used to be more content in themselves

We were more available to them - and students thrive when teachers are fully present and able to go above and beyond

The Secret Teacher: ‘Our students used to be more content in themselves. We were more available to them...’ Illustration: iStock

Teachers are facing extinction, and being part of a dying breed is not easy. That the life is being sucked out of the teaching profession has featured in plenty of headlines so that is hardly news. But in private and away from the media, individual lives suffer the impact with some teachers choosing to step away from the profession and for any number of different reasons.

There are others who feel denied the luxury of choice and are forced to abandon the classroom, in many cases because they cannot secure work. And others again feel powerless to do anything other than remain despite facing enormous challenges in their professional lives and/or workplace. Behind all these general descriptions are human life stories, which often include those of immediate family members. With too few thriving for whatever reason, teachers are less and less a source of strength and solidarity for each other. Hover in any modern staffroom and you’ll observe that the trend is away from making oneself available to others and towards preserving oneself.

Teaching is a far lonelier profession than it was when I joined several decades ago. Time was our friend then, and not only because we were younger! There were fewer administrative demands and the onslaught of initiatives and circulars had not yet started. With teaching perceived as an easy number we were an obvious target for criticism, but our togetherness meant we could withstand it well. If you’re detecting a whiff of nostalgia for the good old days, you’re not wrong.

But we don’t only feel that for ourselves; our students were more content in themselves then too. We were more available to them, and students thrive when teachers are fully present and able to go above and beyond. The various ways that so many schools ensure a holistic approach seemed to hold a larger space in those days – their merit seemed genuinely noted and valued. There’s a permanent pressure around catching up on missed work these days, which may not suck all the life out of extracurricular activities but certainly takes from the joyful abandon they once held. Pressure has crept in there too; most things seem more driven by measurable achievement than in the past. This has a knock-on effect in peer settings for teachers and students.

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Schools are encouraged to measure results against the national average, and there’s an inevitable internal tally of which teachers did best too. An entirely unhelpful addition when there will always be someone truly gifted at achieving the bare pass marks with a whole class group that a colleague might well have given up on. Or the not-so-brilliant-any more teacher who appears to have achieved magnificent results when in fact the parents were forking out for grinds as they couldn’t risk their children losing valuable CAO points.

These days there are hard-fought battles for posts of responsibility where previously such roles were attributed according to seniority in a school and required no competitive process or interview. Workloads and timetables are closely scrutinised, as time allocated to wellbeing has had to come from other subjects, to give just one example.

The crucial and unhelpful evolution towards dissonance among teachers means we find ourselves more emotionally distant from each other at a time when the need to pool our skill sets and resources is greatest

So many candidates feel time is wasted on applications and interviews for jobs that are most likely “gone” to someone who has already established themselves in the school. The pressure of applying for a job while holding down another inevitably impacts professionally and on personal lives too. So many different factors have contributed to the divisiveness that now exists in schools that it would be impossible to name them all here. Doubtless there are strains I have not even mentioned, but these are no less significant and their impact is undeniably felt in the lives of those experiencing them.

Covid merits mention too, as it has changed schools in ways that we barely speak of. Only now are some of the real issues emerging and doubtless there are more to come. The unwillingness to fully engage with learning in some classes at lower secondary has to be seen to be believed. And there is apathy too, as the lack of concern shown for such an extreme lack of application to learning adds another layer. And make no mistake, despite this, these same students will one day join the points race for a college place. And we will be faced with pupil panic and parental pressure. The miracles that no educator has ever been able to perform will be expected, and we will be faced with the tough choice between voicing the grim reality or following the script which tells us to keep hope alive so that the learners’ spirit doesn’t break on our watch. I don’t see anyone too concerned about whether such demands risk breaking a teacher’s spirit.

This crucial and unhelpful evolution towards dissonance among teachers means we find ourselves more emotionally distant from each other at a time when the need to pool our skill sets and resources is greatest. To call this an SOS might be over-dramatic, but plenty in the profession would argue that it’s entirely apt. Whether it’s about Saving Our (Education) System or Saving Our (Individual) Schools, the single greatest influencing factor is the professional body which does the frontline work with the client, in this case the pupils.

You might argue that there is so much to this that it is impossible to know where to start, and that would be a fair observation. But I maintain that the single most helpful thing anyone can do for teachers right now is to be available and open to discovering what lived experience in the profession is like. The stories are there, and they risk remaining buried for want of a listening ear.