This is the third part of my Reflection Series – a self-reflection of my year teaching in the UK.
What is something you found particularly frustrating this year?
There are so many frustrating aspects to this job, unfortunately, so it is a little hard to choose one to write about. I decided to focus on the one that had the largest impact to my time here in London, and one of the driving factors for returning to Australia—immense workload combined with a lack of support from senior leadership and from my recruitment company.
We all know how difficult a job teaching is. We have such huge demands placed on us, that anyone who is not also a teacher cannot possibly understand the extent of it. We work long hours, and yes I understand most other jobs require that too, but we also deal with the education of young people. This includes dealing with social, emotional, mental, physical, behavioural, and intellectual aspects of the lives of others on a daily basis. I know of no other job that has that demand on such a large scale, save for parenting.
The scale of this I faced this year was mind-boggling. I taught split-science KS3, as well as KS4, across a two week timetable. This meant that I was seeing 427 students each fortnight, many of them only once within that fortnight. It was impossible for me to learn all of their names (I’m just not skilled like that), let alone delve as deeply as I would have liked into their personalities and educational preferences.
Being the equivalent of a supervisor or manager of that many individuals is a truly unique experience. Show me any company in the world where one person has that level of responsibility. Lack of understanding about their personalities made me feel like a less effective teacher. I wasn’t able to tailor lessons as well as I would have liked, nor deal with behaviour issues in a personalised way.
It was simple things like book marking—we were expected to diagnostically mark, with an improvement target, each individual students’ book once every three weeks. To really provide quality marking and feedback, I would want to spend on average 5 minutes per book. This would include time to read their work thoroughly, check numeracy and literacy, provide written feedback and provide a small task for them to do to improve their work. Times this across 427 students, and we’re looking at a total of 35.6 hours of dedicated marking time every three weeks. That’s almost 12 hours a week, purely spent on marking books. We get an average of 4 hours ‘spare’ time within our timetable a week. And yes, we finish the school day at 3.30pm, but after that on every day except Tuesday and Friday we had hour long meetings and/or interventions. Then some of those Tuesdays had professional development sessions, or delayed meetings.
This meant that we were pushing together our marking and planning time into the 4 hours spare time during the school day across the week, with say 7 hours’ worth of time in the afternoons (if you took our ‘work day’ as finishing at 5.30pm, even though I started each day at 7.30am). That gives us a total of 11 hours in which to do our planning and marking, yet it barely covers the amount of time needed to do the marking alone.
And yes, many people will stop me at this point and say that marking is planning. No, it’s not. It’s preparation for planning. Marking gives you an insight into what’s needed in your planning, but it is not actually creating lessons.
And again, some people will stop me and say we should be working longer days to make up for the time we get off in school holidays. Throughout this year I was working 10 hour days on school premises, with more time in the evenings and weekends at home, and days during the holidays too. Don’t come to me saying teachers get an easy deal with loads of holidays and time off. Just don’t.
The increased accountability is actually insane. We are now spending almost as much time justifying our teaching, as actually teaching (that doesn’t include the planning time either by the way). Senior leadership teams keep coming up with more and more tasks that the teachers should be doing, like phoning home for student absences, or escalating behaviour management issues on our own. This just feels like an ever increasing lack of support from the senior leadership teams within the schools—how can we be effective teachers when we have the ever-lessening amount of time available for actually planning and teaching (you know, teaching, that thing we’re literally employed to do) taken away from us for administration and justification tasks.
The most frustrating aspect of this, aside from my own personal frustrations at feeling like a poor teacher, was the lack of understanding from the senior leadership.
When we tried to explain all of this as a challenge of our profession and a cause of incredible stress (to the point of health issues in most members of our department), and as an explanation as to why we thought it was an unreasonable workload, we were literally told ‘I don’t understand where the problem is’. We tried multiple times, in multiple different ways, to get our point across (including me breaking down and crying during one meeting when trying to explain the level of stress it was causing me), only to be looked at like we were shirking responsibility, or worse, that we were being lazy.
The only way we found around that was by cheating the system. We printed out more generalised targets onto stickers to save time physically writing them. We chose pieces of work with as little writing as possible, such as annotated diagrams or graphs, to cut down the time spent physically reading the work. We even came up with a series of symbols to use instead of phrases, so that the students would write in the comments themselves from a key we provided.
I’m sure you’ve all read the physical intimidation incident—the grand outcome of that actually didn’t end up being anything more than I wrote in that article. None of the boys received more than the afternoon in in-school withdrawal, and in fact they continued on throughout the year intimidating and bullying more staff and students. That was the hardest to take. The feeling that I was powerless against this group of teenage boys, simply because the school didn’t see any problems with the way they had dealt with the situation.
This leads me on to the agency. All I can say is a phrase I’ve been saying daily for the past month or so—what a joke.
I called about the incident, only to be told to call back the following week as my consultant was out (sounded like a pub) at the time. I then called back to be told I’d get a call back after a meeting. We never seemed to be able to find a time.
I called to ask about getting a raise, as I’d taken on additional responsibilities and had been working 12 hour or more days for the majority of the year. Plus I found out that I would have been paid more if I’d gone through other agencies. I was answered with literal ‘uuhhmmmm’ and ‘Oh I’d have to see, I don’t think the school will do that’. Surprise, surprise, I never did get that raise.
Any time we called, we didn’t get a call back. Any queries we had were answered in the most evasive, least detailed way possible, often deferred to other parties, like we weren’t worth the time. We were rarely given a check-up call (probably 3 or 4 in the entire year), and none of those was in the last 6 months.
Then there was another issue with getting intervention weekend pay from the school. Called the agency only to be told our consultant had left (apparently up to two months previously, we never found out), and that we had a new consultant. They’d never once considered giving us a call, or even an email, to let us know. The new consultant only contacted us after we’d spoken to the regional manager (another evasive type, who would definitely call me back Monday afternoon, but never did).
We are still trying to sort out the intervention pay, but it literally feels like the recruitment company has wiped their hands clean of us. We’re not staying on next year, so we’re obviously not worth their time any more. All in all, I would not recommend anyone to go with this particular company.
About the Author:
Emily is a secondary science and math teacher in Australia. She enjoys blogging about her experiences, facilitating the ‘light bulb’ moment in her students, and drinking tea and wine. Emily is currently on maternity leave with her first child. You can read more teaching articles from Emily here, or about her life as a new mum over at Actual Mums.