Why I’m leaving education.
Back in the day I had an unfortunate habit of leaving early, and leaving without saying goodbye. I’d slip out, cutting clean the bonds that bind and preventing myself from getting pulled back in. As I leave education, I have felt a strong urge to bid farewell properly; to give an account of myself.
And clearly I’m not alone. Anyone who has friends working in the British education system, or friends of friends, will be familiar with the valedictory ‘Letter to Gove’ that appears in your news feed when yet another teacher quits. They usually start with a slighty self-aggrandising vindication of how much the teacher concerned is concerned with children – with lovely lovely children. With how much they are committed to the day-to-day teaching of children, the small moments of honest joy in the job, the extra-curricular activities, the ability to inspire and be inspired. They go on to detail the details of the job, noting how a teacher has to be a social worker, therapist, cleaner, data-analyst, and so on. They’re not complaining, though, because this is the job they signed up for – the job they love.
But they’re leaving the job. Why? Variations on a theme: workload, stress, accountability, data, observations, management, pressure, testing, ofsted, performance-related pay. Ultimately, though, all of these would be bearable if not for the pernicious, catch-all bogey-man: Little Mickey Goggles.
Little Mickey Goggles has, we are told in so many words, single-handedly dismantled an education system he detests. He came into office with an agenda and has pursued it with a ruthlessness, subtlety and mendacity that has destroyed the morale of the staff, eroded the foundations of teacher-led teacher-training, nibbled significantly (and probably irrevocably) at the system’s resistance to privatisation, and created a climate of fear from top to bottom. The fear prevents teachers from doing what they know to be right – what the children they are responsible for desperately need.
All of this is true. And, by and large, I feel it too.
And yet I’ve found it very difficult to write my own vindicatory letter. Hence the irony. Hence 2000-odd words in three posts instead of a simple status update.
All of the above is true, and I agree with it, but it is not enough. Something is missing in the explanation teachers are giving for leaving the profession.
Why, for example, do teachers feel such intense fear and stress despite the immense job security they possess – greater than almost any other profession? Although working conditions have been changed to make it easier to sack teachers, ‘capabilities’ is still an immensely complex procedure that, with decent union representation (and I’ll come to them later) is unlikely to succeed. Why, given this security, do teachers forget what they believe in, ignore the children in front of them, and bow under the pressure, doing things that they don’t believe in? (Or, eventually, leave the profession because they don’t believe in what they are doing).
The teachers that are leaving, and feel the need to justify themselves, are those that have passionately-held beliefs about the right way to educate, often borne out of a strong personal philosophy of childhood. For them, teaching is unbearable now because they can’t do what they know is right for the children and families in their care. For them, there is no real disincentive to doing what they know is right. What little likelihood there is of getting sacked for failing to knuckle under should surely be more than balanced out by the likelihood that they’ll leave the profession through burn-out soon anyway. Or worse, they jump before they’re pushed.
So, the question is why has a profession full of passionate, principled and intelligent people become so very afraid? Why aren’t they standing up and fighting? Why aren’t I?
Well, the simple explanation is that the system is set up to make every person within it feel as isolated as possible, and as responsible as possible. The stakes are so high, and the solidarity so low, that the safest thing to do is to conform to the expectations of those that ultimately judge your worth, so that – if nothing else – you’ve not let everyone down. Play it safe, get through the next inspection, and then maybe, just maybe, think about making things better.
Again, this is true, but why does this structure – this systemic fear – exist in teaching? Or, to phrase it another way, why has the profession let itself become so very afraid?
This question gets to the route of my ambivalence about blaming Little Mickey Goggles, or the ofsteds. It is not, I don’t believe, enough to point to the system, the structure, or to the bogey man as it’s head boy. We are the system; we choose the bogey man. The language of the vindicatory letters I have found it so hard to write is one of powerlessness – images of weight, inertia, and hopelessness abound. But this will not do. Alongside the pressure and the system are 1 / 6 / 30 / 60 / 180 / 480 children’s faces looking back at us, willing us to do right by them. And the same number of families wanting their children to be what we believe they should be: happy, confident, at home in the world, not world-racing test machines. Why choose the Man and not these lovely, real, ever-present all-too-human pressures instead?
Which brings me to me, and my vindicatory letter. I’m leaving, after all. Why haven’t I lived up to my beliefs? I’m deeply committed to my educational ideals, and can express these in ways which can be convincing. I’ve enough savings, few enough commitments, and a securely middle-class enough upbringing to have no fear of having to change profession mid-stream should I end up at odds with the system.
Why haven’t I fought? Ultimately, I couldn’t.
And this is why there is no vindication in this letter. Everything which people write about Little Mickey Goggles is true. He exists. He’s as bad as we think, if not worse. But this is not enough, for children also exist, and they are much, much more real. I am responsible for not being able to fight, for choosing not to fight. I hope to be able to rejoin the battle later on, but at this point I can’t. I don’t regard this as a failure, but neither do I see leaving the profession as a noble act – the final martyrdom of Saint Phil. I’m leaving because I no longer enjoy being a teacher enough to balance out the fear, and am beginning to see the effects of this in the children I teach.