With the autumn term now underway as summer comes to an end, here is an account from a secondary school teacher of what life is like for those in the teaching profession in the current environment.
I am a main pay scale secondary teacher, and like most in my position I have a typical ‘contact’ time – ie teaching workload – of 20 out of 25 one-hour teaching periods a week. Teachers with various responsibilities are usually given time off to fulfil their responsibilities, right up to deputy heads, who might teach only six periods a week and head teachers, who only teach one or two.
As well as this teaching load, I have five 20 minutes registration periods a week. Even these short periods aren’t exactly a doddle, since I am not just registering attendance but usually checking and recording reasons for lateness and absences, monitoring students’ homework diaries, checking uniforms and equipment and sometimes dealing with behavioural issues affecting my students.
Of course it is the lessons themselves that take up the greatest amount of my time in school. Teaching each lesson demands full concentration – it’s not like in an office job where it’s possible to ‘switch off’ now and again. Switch off in a lesson and you’ve lost the engagement of most of your 30 students! It’s not surprising that, like most teachers, I highly value my ‘down’ time in the staff room.
It goes without saying that lessons are expected to be of a high standard. There are enormous pressures on teachers to perform at the present time. Ofsted, the schools inspectorate, in its wisdom, has now decided that ‘satisfactory’ is no longer good enough (whatever the Oxford English Dictionary may say) so schools aim for a high percentage of teaching to be judged by Ofsted or school managers as ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’.
All lessons have to be planned, and there is a huge burden of expectation put into that planning. For example, lessons are expected to be clearly ‘differentiated’ for different ability groups: students who may be struggling are expected to be given less demanding learning tasks and others who find the lesson too easy should be given ‘extension’ work to provide greater challenge. Teachers are expected to be aware of the preferred learning styles of their students – who are audio-visual, practical or kinaesthetic (learning by doing) learners. Differentiated lesson plans can mean effectively preparing three different lessons for three different levels of ability or expectation and, remember, this is for every period of teaching.
For each lesson, learning objectives need to be explicit and are usually expected to be shared with the students. Likewise, all lessons are expected to have definite outcome in terms of their learning.
Lessons are expected to be divided into at least three separate phases – with an introduction to set the scene (sometimes called a ‘starter’), followed by various learning activities and finally a ‘plenary’ when the teacher, by questioning, can assess how well learning has taken place. Questioning is an art in itself, of course, and teachers are often challenged, and judged, on the style of their questioning.
Teachers don’t mind planning, of course. In fact it has to be done…lessons don’t just happen by magic. I am an experienced English teacher and although I plan my lessons and teaching schemes topic by topic, most if not all of the expectations placed on me I can manage successfully in my head. Most of what is listed above in terms of expectations is done intuitively by experienced teachers who are familiar with their subject and with the students in front of them.
What I find very onerous and completely unnecessary is that I should have to produce written lesson plans, including not just the lesson itself, but all of the following: the context of the lesson within the broader topic, the differentiation, the learning objectives, the expected outcomes, the National Curriculum levels being addressed in the learning, the special learning needs of particular students, any risk assessments (for Science and technology colleagues) and so on, and so on. Doing this for 20 lessons a week, for an experienced teacher is a bureaucratic nonsense. But for many school managements or heads of department and definitely for Ofsted, it’s a must.
I have a good relationship with most of the students I teach, but for many (especially less experienced teachers), classroom management remains one of the most stressful and contentious issues. I have often seen young teachers in tears in the staffroom because of the stress they are under in the classroom.
I think teachers understand that you can’t expect the same level of commitment to learning or cooperation from children as you might expect from adults. Teachers have to learn to handle a measure of low-level disruption by finding ways to engage students one way or another. It’s part of their repertoire of skills.
Most teachers I know agree with the principles of so-called ‘inclusive’ education. Students who have disabilities – and that includes behavioural and emotional issues – ought to be given the same opportunities as all other students and they ought not to be shut away in separate institutions where they will will inevitably fail.
But the principle of inclusive education demands a level of support that is invariably missing. I have yet to teach in a school where the structures in place for supporting emotionally disturbed (and therefore disruptive) students are adequate. That means too, that the structures are not in place to support teachers who are stressed by excessive classroom disruption. Management of poor behaviour is made a lot worse by large classes in secondary schools.
What compounds the stress is the attitude that some school leaders have that poor behaviour is the teacher’s fault – because lessons are not ‘interesting’ enough. It would be nice if teachers were able to plan lessons that were more interesting – but that takes research, planning and preparation – above all time that teachers just don’t have.
Much of their ‘free time’ is taken away by the increasingly bureaucratic demands being placed on them by the performance and blame culture. Paper work follows paper work, follows paper work. Ask any teacher how many pieces of A4 paper appear in their pigeon-hole every week – most of them demanding responses, data inputs or some additional tasks to fulfil – and they will tell you it is numbered in the dozens or scores.
Last but not least, there is the marking. I teach English and there is invariably a lot of marking involved. I will get my ‘knuckles wrapped’ and parents will complain if a book is found (and school senior managements do book audits to check marking) which has not been marked for several weeks. Marking is expected to be informative, not just random ticks, so that it gives feedback to students and there is a further expectation that there are follow-up in lesson time after the marking is done.
Only vary rarely can books be marked in class, although teachers do it if they can. In practice, despite all the talk about ‘work-life balance’ there is an unspoken expectation that teachers mark at home during evenings, weekends and holidays.
With the pressure now coming down on teachers’ wages and conditions by this government, a lot of teachers might just decide to start being awkward and refuse. Given the stresses teachers are already under, day-in and day-out, the present round of cuts may well just be the last straw.