Teaching in Britain: Long hours, high stress, ‘immense pressure’

Irish teachers report faster career progression abroad, but often at a cost


Why have so many Irish teachers left the country in recent years? What are their jobs like and how does the education system there compare to Ireland? Do they plan to return to live and work here?

As part of a series about teaching overseas, Irish Times Abroad conducted an online survey for three weeks in January in an attempt to answer some of these questions.

With 175 responses to the voluntary online survey, no “scientific” conclusions can be drawn from the multiple choice answers, but some very interesting trends and differences emerged in the open text fields.

The most startling was the consistently negative portrayal of the pressure felt by Irish teachers working in Britain, with one secondary school teacher, who has been working in the UK since 2014, describing the state system as “barbaric”, with “constant pressure and fear of observations and endless justification of what you are doing in the classroom”.

Britain was the most common location for survey respondents; 21 per cent (37 respondents) were living there. Long hours and a heavy workload were mentioned by many of them.

The work load is insane and even working through the weekend does not keep my head above water. The hours are ridiculous, most mornings I start at 7am and finish at 5.30pm (on a good day). (Secondary school teacher, UK, left Ireland  in 2010)

The workload is difficult to manage. You pretty much have to live and breathe it. The additional hours, expectations and pressure is immense. What’s good about it is permanent job, career progression and the kids I teach are great. (Secondary school teacher, UK, left Ireland in 2009)

Working hours were shocking with very limited work life balance. As a result, I have not been able to sustain many friendships over the years. Before having my own children I was at work before 8am, often didn’t leave ‘til six and brought work home. (Primary school teacher, UK, left Ireland before 2000)

While survey respondents working in Britain generally reported faster career progression and more job security than they would have in Ireland, it comes at a high cost for many of them.

I trained in the UK and many of the people on the course have returned to Ireland or gone travelling rather than continue to work in the UK as the pressure is unbelievable and unsustainable. I’ve known at least three teachers that have had nervous breakdowns and many more signed off sick with stress. Teaching in Ireland appears a lot more sustainable but finding a permanent job is not easy. (Primary school teacher, UK, left Ireland in 2010)

I know far more teachers in the UK suffering from serious stress-related illness/burnout. On the plus side it’s easier to secure a permanent job and progress quickly - I was a senior school leader by my third year. (Primary school teacher, now in US, left Ireland in 2010)

Ireland vs abroad

Three-quarters of respondents to the survey overall had left Ireland since the recession hit in 2008.

One in three respondents said they had not left Ireland by choice, but because they “felt they had to”. Reasons cited for leaving involuntarily included a lack of full-time work, insecure contracts, and “poor wages, poor benefits, (and a) two tier payscale” (primary school teacher living in the UK since 2010).

Ireland has great teachers, great students and a great education system that have been sold out to save money. (Secondary school teacher, Malaysia, left Ireland in 2016)

Public opinion towards teachers has turned negative in the last number of years, many of my friends do not support the teachers’ plight… What other country in the world takes money from education, health and law enforcement? I tell other nationalities this and they think it’s utterly bizarre. Our nation’s future is in the classroom. (Secondary school teacher, Chile, left Ireland in 2012)

Just 30 per cent were working full time in teaching before they left. Twenty per cent were unemployed, while the remainder were working in other jobs, or teaching part-time, or both. Eighty-seven per cent are now teaching full-time abroad, while just one per cent said they were unemployed.

Of the 175 respondents, 144 (82 per cent) said they would not have had the same professional opportunities if they had stayed in Ireland.

When asked how teaching where they live compares to Ireland, 114 (65 per cent) of the 175 respondents said career prospects were better there, with just 10 per cent saying they were better in Ireland.

In Oman the education system is only very young, there are plenty of opportunities for progression to middle and even senior management. (Primary school teacher, Oman, left Ireland in 2015)

Where they live also rated higher than Ireland for salary and benefits, job satisfaction and working conditions. When it comes to working hours, however, more than half thought Ireland was better.

Teachers in Ireland really need to appreciate the working hours and salaries and benefits that they have. I know they feel that the public attitude has changed a lot towards them over the years but believe me it is much better than in the US where the attitude is “ if you can’t get a job you can always teach”. (Pre-school teacher, US, left Ireland before 2000)

English-language teachers

English-language teachers reported significant variation in the salaries, benefits and working conditions on offer between countries. One EFL (English as a foreign language) teacher working in China said the opportunities there were “unrivalled”.

I work with people who have taught English in Vietnam, South Korea, Thailand, Japan amongst others, and the majority of them come to China because of the superior benefits on offer here. The wage to cost of living comparison is greatly in your favour. Most schools offer free accommodation… (and) in my school we receive reimbursement for one round-trip home per yearly contract. The best thing is the holidays... the package we receive in China allows us to travel more than we could have dreamed of. On top of that we can save a significant amount of our salaries. (EFL teacher, China, left in 2015)

Teachers in Asia frequently mentioned the enormous pressure placed on students to perform well, with one English teacher in South Korea describing the atmosphere as “gruesome”.

There is a lot of pressure put on the children from home and a lot of the local kids have extensive tutoring outside of school time. (Secondary school teacher, Hong Kong, left Ireland in 2010)

In Korea, students are under an immense amount of pressure from an early age in comparison with Irish students. (EFL teacher, Korea, left Ireland in 2015)

In China, children spend long hours in school, and must work to the bone in order to meet the pressure placed upon them by society and their parents. (EFL teacher, China, left Ireland in 2016)

International schools in the Middle East have become a popular option for Irish teachers in recent years as demand for English-speaking teachers there has increased. Several survey respondents working there wrote about the drawbacks of the private school system, and the pressure put on teachers by the school and by parents.

A lot of people see the Middle East as a way to make money fast, but it can be very tough living here, the schools are much more pressurised, especially the British schools or majority Arab national schools who expect to see results even with the children with special needs. Trying to mesh a set curriculum, like the British one, with a different country and culture, with religion and the Arabic language thrown in just puts huge pressure on teachers and children; pressure that not all people, or teachers can stand. (Primary school teacher, 2015, left Ireland in Oman)

Will they return?

When asked whether they would like to return to live in Ireland within three years, respondents were almost evenly split between those who said yes, no, or were undecided.

Canada has been more country of residence for five and a half years now. It’s now under my skin although it is not home like Ireland is. I once cursed Enda Kenny in 2011 for what he had done to me as I boarded a transatlantic plane. Now I find myself trying to decide between returning to staying. I’d like to get my citizenship I think, that would allow me live in either country or both and then I wouldn’t have to chose. (Primary school teacher, Canada, left Ireland in 2011)

Just 10 per cent of respondents said they thought career prospects for teachers like them had improved in Ireland recently.

If I could pick up my school and take my job satisfaction with me, I would move home to Ireland in the morning. (Secondary school teacher, Australia, left Ireland in 2011)

Others said they would like to move home but factors other than work, such as the cost of rent or difficulty getting a mortgage, were preventing them from doing so.

We wish to return to build and live in Ireland. But when we do we cannot access child allowance or a mortgage so it’s makes the decision to return extremely fraught with what we see as unnecessary red tape! We want to return and set up home but who will help us when we do? (Primary school teacher, United Arab Emirates, left Ireland in 2013)

Would they recommend working abroad to other Irish teachers? It seems many of them would, as the personal and professional benefits of teaching in another country often outweighed the negatives for respondents.

Teaching abroad is a challenging, demanding but ultimately highly rewarding experience that I would recommend to all. It pushes you out of your comfort zone and keeps you on your toes and learning all the time. However, at times, it stings that I am working to help privileged international students achieve their goals and not Irish students. (Secondary school teacher, Sri Lanka, left Ireland in 2011)

I have taught in Switzerland, London and Australia. Each had their merits; multicultural communities, cultural immersion and lifelong friendships with people of diverse backgrounds. I occasionally experienced overt racism, loneliness and nostalgia for the “old sod”. Having said that, I wouldn’t change a thing about my experiences. I am more compassionate, empathetic and emotionally intelligent as a result of my travels. (Secondary school teacher, UK, left Ireland between 2000-2007)

This article is the last in a series about teaching abroad. Read other articles from the series, including information on how and where to find a teaching job overseas, and first-person stories from Irish teachers around the world, here. 

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