Who'd be a state school teacher?

Retired, hurt, from a career that had changed beyond recognition; Some will enter the new year with enthusiasm, others with foreboding. Three teachers talk about work and morale
Click to follow
The Independent Online
When Paul Lockey went into teaching in 1986, it was all he ever wanted. "I loved the job, and the kids," he says. Yet for much of this year, after retiring at 45, he has been at home recovering from stress.

Paul was originally a pop musician, playing with - among other bands - the Foundations. But after marriage and a daughter, he went back to college. "I always wanted to teach," he says. "I saw it as a noble, satisfying job which helped the world." Once qualified, he got a job at Charlemont Primary School in Sandwell, "a lovely school in a nice area with a good reputation. It was heaven."

He went in to work at 8am, and after the children left he would willingly stay on until 6pm. "It was as quiet as a church then, and I would sit, reflecting on that day and preparing for the next, thinking of new ways to make it fun." Paul was happy, his headteacher was happy and the wit and camaraderie of the staffroom was a daily delight.

That halcyon time lasted three years - and then the first national curriculum document landed on his desk. By now Paul was in charge of maths at Charlemont and, in a dozen staff meetings, he conscientiously planned the required changes, meanwhile taking a six-week course for maths co-ordinators.

Then he was put in charge of science, just as the national curriculum science document came through. The round of meetings started again and he began a two-year diploma in primary science. But as Paul qualified, the Government changed the curriculum again: "My diploma was worthless. I was absolutely devastated."

New national curriculum documents - around a dozen in all - kept arriving. There were endless meetings: "I felt that even if I worked till midnight every night the work wouldn't get done."

He had lost those precious hours at the end of the day: "Invariably there would be a meeting, then it was: quick! Back to the classroom. It's dark, I'm starving, I can do half an hour's preparation, take the documents home, eat to survive and then plough on. I was running on an adrenalin high."

But it wasn't the workload that bothered Paul. "I expected to give my all." It was the sense of futility that was getting him down. "I thought: everything will change and we'll have to start the whole process again."

Nightmarishly, the dreaded paperwork seemed to have taken control. And he hated the sense of being driven, of having to fit things in. Worse, he felt as if the Government was taking revenge on teachers for past strike action.

One night, after hours spent ticking thousands of little boxes (the latest attainment targets), he could no longer move his hand. "I thought if I threw it all in the bin, or made it up, no one would know - because no one ever wanted to see it."

In the staff-room, often deserted now, there was no more laughter. "We were piled high with work and morale was very low." Paul had begun to feel physically weak, aching all over as if with flu. It was only later that a psychiatrist explained these were symptoms of stress.

Then one evening in the classroom, as he forced himself to tackle yet more paperwork, Paul was suddenly unable to stand. Palpitations and breathlessness hit him "like a bombshell". "I thought, oh God, I'm dying of a heart attack." In fact it was the first of many panic attacks which - over a period of a year - were to make it impossible for him to carry on teaching.

As the vicious circle of illness and mounting work made it increasingly difficult to keep up, Paul was sent on six months' sick leave for his "anxiety state". A further six months on half pay followed, and then early retirement in July of last year.

"The teaching I loved had become the job I hated," says Paul. "It was a hammer blow to me." He has started feeling better recently and is now teaching for half a day a week. But he is still "hopping mad" that teaching became a "political football".

"We wasted years doing what we thought was important - yet it was all as nothing to the people in power, who just changed it. I know now that I am only one of many thousands of teachers who have become ill with stress."

Simple things in the private sector made a big difference. Like having textbooks

"You'll never get back into the state system," warned a colleague. It was a bit like telling the birdman he would never return to Alcatraz.

A parent of the public school to which I had just been appointed supplied yet more unsolicited advice. "When you get there, your feet won't touch the ground," he laughed, obviously unaware that levitation among comprehensive school teachers is something of an art form.

Armed with these warnings and 16 years' experience in state schools, I embarked on a new career in the private sector last September.

Primarily, my application was inspired by the need for a new challenge. At interview, though, I could not entirely conceal the wish to escape funding cuts, increased class sizes, government initiatives and curricular changes, on top of which loomed the imminent threat of an Ofsted inspection. I was, without doubt, selling out, but at what price?

The first few weeks were a honeymoon. Although the facilities at my new school are overwhelming, it was the simple things that made the biggest impression. Like having textbooks, for example. A room of my own was a novelty, too. Perhaps the most pleasant relief was to begin teaching at 9am without having to go through the ritual staff briefing followed by morning registration.

Registration in my comprehensive was more than just roll-calling. It involved a battle for silence while reading the bulletin; receiving or insisting upon absence notes (usually the latter); following up disciplinary issues; collecting photograph money, trip money, minibus appeal money, and promoting the car boot sale in aid of the science-block roof.

Supervising the swift removal of unacceptable rings, ear-rings and nose- rings was followed by inquiries as to the dietary habits of those who insisted they were eating sherbet dabs for want of breakfast; by which time the class would be clamouring for the doors in order to sit next to their friend during the obligatory John Patten-inspired "act of worship". Half an hour into the day and blood pressure was already simmering ominously.

Whatever else may have been said by supposedly informed opinion, everyone knows - except, it appears, Ofsted inspectors and Eton-educated members of the Cabinet - that class size is the single most important advantage to the public school. Not simply because one can more readily deal with the individual needs of each pupil, but smaller classes mean more manageable rooms, a more intimate approach, less opportunity for distraction and a more positive teacher-pupil relationship. It also means less marking and therefore less rushed and less meaningless marking.

When I casually remarked to a colleague that I was enjoying the smaller class sizes, he retorted with: "Yes, but wait until end-of-term reports." For weeks I contemplated what kind of encyclopaedic profiling was about to be required, and was relieved to discover the report forms were exactly the same as those I had previously used. There was, however, one essential difference: I now teach 80 pupils per week. Previously I had reports to write for more than 200.

The old snowstorm of paper was unremitting. A day or two off would mean returning to a pigeonhole tightly packed with paper. I now boast a pigeonhole empty for sometimes four consecutive days.

Paperwork is about accountability, not standards. The public school is accountable to its customers, which in many ways mitigates the need for continual self-justification. Standards are assumed to be high unless proved otherwise. Comprehensive schools, however, from government and press perspectives, are assumed to be underachieving unless they can prove to the contrary.

The job is demanding. My new school is coeducational and non-selective. A large number of dyslexic pupils attend as well as those for whom English is a second language. In fact, given classes of 30, a budget reduction of several millions and a great deal of government intervention, it could almost be a comprehensive.

MARTIN DIMERY

I still love my job. Must there be something wrong with me?

Marion Plowright is a teacher who wholeheartedly loves teaching, has never regretted doing it or thought of leaving the profession. It is a sign of the times that this makes her somehow peculiar.

"People say, you're the only person I know who still enjoys teaching. But how many teachers have they spoken to? The implication is that if you enjoy teaching there must be something wrong with you."

Marion has been teaching for 22 years, apart from a six-year maternity break. She is now head of drama and of personal and social education at Central Lancaster High School, a town comprehensive competing locally with two opted-out grammar schools.

"There is a complete misconception that teaching here must be very difficult," she says. "But there is tremendous diversity, which makes it exciting. I work with bright, happy kids who love drama."

Some, it is true, have low aspirations and little self-confidence. "They are the ones I love teaching the most," she says, "because drama builds their confidence and opens their imaginations. You should see their faces when we do a production. They come off stage after a performance and they hug me; they cry. I think I must be one of the luckiest people."

Recently she overheard some pupils saying, "Oh, great! It's drama next," and she was delighted because she likes and respects young people. "I love the 11 to 16 age group and the froth of life they create." They have more to cope with - divorced parents, uncertain job prospects - than her generation ever did.

"I believe in their right to education and that I can make a difference, preparing them for adult life, sparking their imaginations, encouraging self-confidence and empathy. And they devour everything I give them."

Then she is laughing and protesting in case she sounds pompous or smug. But she feels she is a "born teacher", so why not say so? She aims to deliver "high-quality communication and lots of praise". She tries to avoid sarcasm and to avoid misusing her power. All this and she is closeted with 20 or more teenagers at a time for some eight hours a day.

"I do get very tired," she admits. "Sometimes I wonder - can I work at this pace for the next 15 years or will it kill me?" Chronic money shortages at school add to the pressure as "free periods" (non-contact time) get swallowed up covering for absent colleagues.

"We work through lunch and often after school. There is no time to draw breath or deal with admin." As for Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education) checks, despite being specially commended in a recent visit, she finds them "every bit as stressful as expected".

More than anything, it is the low status of teaching today that makes her angry. "The climate of education is now extraordinarily difficult. It's such hypocrisy to say that raising standards is important and then go teacher-bashing."

Teaching does take up "large areas" of her life. "But if you are doing something you feel is worthwhile, why should you feel bad about that?" She could do with more "unwinding time" at the end of the day, however. Sometimes when she gets home to her own children (Joseph, 13, and Laura, 16), her patience has worn thin. If they are demanding, she can snap at them: "And then I hate myself." Yet being a teacher, she believes, has helped her to communicate as a mother, and vice versa.

Fortunately, her husband, Tony, a university lecturer, shares her passion for drama and their social life revolves around the theatre. Last year he directed an amateur production of The Crucible with Marion in the role of Elizabeth Proctor. Performance is in her family. One sister, Rosalind Plowright, is an internationally famous opera singer. Another, Louise, played Julie (the hairdresser) in EastEnders.

"I have thought - I could do that," admits Marion, "but no more than that. Teaching for me is a positive choice. Although I regret the negative political climate in which I have to work, I just love young people. I just love teaching."

Comments