It took me a long time to decide to write this post. Part of it deals with a particularly unpleasant part of my teaching career and I was unsure whether to address it in public. However, it was several years ago, and I came out the other side to continue my successful teaching career. Please note, it is not my intention to be a ‘raincloud of doom’ or suggest that all schools are like this, in fact, in my experience, the vast majority of school are great, albeit pressured, places to work. My intention, or rather my hope, is that it may be of use.
Teaching can be an emotional job. Any profession that works with people, especially young people, has a level of emotional investment. When you feel that the future of those young people are, potentially, affected by the decisions you make, then those emotions can be pushed to breaking point.
On a good day, there is nothing that comes close to teaching (with the exception, I guess, of the medical profession) for sheer joy and exhilaration. The class who achieve great results, especially when you know how hard they have worked. The buzz when they just ‘get it’. A thank you note from a pupil. A lesson that goes as you have planned, or even better. Each of these, from the large to the small, are the things that make the job worthwhile.
However, there are times when things do not go well. Just like the positives in teaching, the negatives can run from the fairly minor to the awful. In the rest of this post I will give some examples of when things have gone bad, what I did, and what it taught me.
- The unruly class. Every teacher, unless there is some kind of miracle, will have a class who pushes them due to their behaviour. This can be a teaching group or a tutor group; it can make you feel alone and like you’re fighting a losing battle. It seems to be par for the course for pupils to see how far they can push a new teacher. Over the years, I have had several groups like this, it doesn’t necessarily get easier to deal with, you just have more tools at your disposal. In one school, I had a Year 10 class of 30 pupils. I was new to the school, so didn’t have any previous knowledge of the group, nor did I have a reputation I could trade on. There were play fights, silly ‘coughing’ games, and, memorably, a student setting fire to paper at the back of the room. The best way to deal with a group like this is to get tough: create and insist on a seating plan (ask for support from HoD or SMT if you think there may be arguments); have a quiet chat with some of the ringleaders, away from their audience, about their behaviour; call parents for good as well as bad behaviour (this is a hearts and minds campaign!); be consistent, and make sure you only punish those in the wrong, whole class detentions will usually make the situation worse; if you have supportive SMT, ask them to pop in when they are doing the duty rounds – reinforcing to you and the class that you are not alone; don’t plan whizzy lessons until you have the group behaving the way you want – group work can very quickly turn to anarchy if you do – keep it straightforward but challenging. In most cases, these will work – but it may (and probably will) take time, sometimes a whole school year of struggle. The group I mentioned above improved gradually, but it wasn’t until they moved into year 11 that they became the type of class that it is a joy to teach. In some cases, the situation is tougher or does not improve. If this is the case, you definitely need to work with your HoD and SMT. The temporary removal of a key player may improve things; it may even need to be permanent if there is no change after their reintroduction. The key thing to remember is that it is never the whole class, even though it can sometimes feel like it.
- The meeting with an unhappy parent. If you have been in teaching for any length of time, chances are you will have a meeting like this. In reality, this type of meeting is rarely the horror that a teacher has created in their own mind. If it is a tricky phone call, give yourself enough time for the call, have your notes to hand, stand up and smile – sounds odd, but standing up makes you feel more confident (you can always sit down as the call continues) and smiling comes through in your voice, making you sound friendly rather than confrontational. The key to this type of meeting (by phone or in person), and any other to be honest, is careful planning. Know what the meeting is for and have in mind the outcomes you would like; organise a time that is convenient (to you and the parent) and means that you don’t have to rush off; bring any paperwork and data that may be useful; and, if you suspect it may be a particularly tricky meeting (or the parent is someone who has been aggressive in the past) ask for your HoD or HoY to be part of the meeting. It is important to remember that, however vile little X has been, chances are mum and dad have heard a very different version of events, they may also feel that the fact that they have been invited in for a meeting is in some way a criticism of their parenting. Give them time to express their concerns. You need to be diplomatic and friendly, while making your point. This is where paperwork and data come in. In a meeting with a particularly ‘challenging’ member of my tutor group (I also had the HoY in attendance), the pupil’s main complaint was that I was picking on him and that he had done nothing wrong, and the parents were inclined to accept his view, mentioning a ‘personality clash’. This was proven to be untrue when behaviour slips from 6 different teachers were shown to the parents, indicating that the pupil’s poor behaviour was not an isolated incident – the impact of the paperwork changed the whole tone of the meeting. Overall, remember that the common ground between you is that you all want the pupil to do their best.
- The ‘bad’ observation. Remember, this is not a comment on you, nor is it a definitive judgement on your teaching, it is, at best, a snapshot. There have been several posts regarding the value of lesson observations (for example here and here) which make interesting reading. You should get feedback, ideally verbal and written and it should focus on developing your teaching. If you feel that the observation is unfair, challenge it and ask for your challenge to be noted, you can also suggest another observation. Leave it a few days and think through the lesson and the feedback – with hindsight, there may be things that you can change or work on. Then forget it and move on, after all, you can’t change it and spending your time dwelling on it will not help at all.
- The assault. This is something that really should not happen. I find it bizarre that buses and post offices have signs saying that verbal and physical assaults will not be tolerated, and yet schools don’t. It doesn’t help young people to think that this sort of behaviour is ever acceptable. In fact, I am aware of at least one case where a pupil, (who was used to verbally and, on at least one occasion physically, abuse teachers) was punched when he pushed and swore at a ‘non-school’ adult outside the school. In my whole teaching career I have only been assaulted physically once, when a pupil in a classroom pushed me head first into a wall. If you are in the unfortunate position where a pupil assaults you, remember it is not your fault, take some time out of the classroom (I stayed in the corridor outside the room until someone came to remove the pupil, partly because I was so shocked that I was shaking, and partly because I was very tempted to punch the little sod), if possible get someone else to cover your class for the remainder of the lesson. Write the incident up in as much detail as possible, make a fuss and demand that something is done about it by SMT (chase it up until you have a response), consider reporting the incident to the police (you are perfectly within your rights to do this and the school cannot insist that you don’t). Remember, the school has a duty of care for your safety as an employee. In most schools, this sort of incident will lead to the pupil being excluded, either temporarily or permanently. In my case, the pupil was (very reluctantly) temporarily excluded for 5 days, his mum took him on holiday for 2 weeks and he was put back in my class on his return (and gloated to his mates that his mum had said he shouldn’t pay any attention to that ‘bitch) – but that was one particular school and a set of circumstances which lead me to my final point.
- When it really hits the fan. Like it or not, there are some bad schools out there, I don’t necessarily mean the ones in deprived areas where the pupils have challenging behaviour. What really makes a school a bad place to work is ultimately the management, either those who are incompetent or those who are unpleasant and unsupportive. For those of you who have read my previous post on job applications, you will know that I have twice worked in schools which, with hindsight, would have been best avoided. The school I worked at was a tough school with challenging pupils, I had worked in similar schools and had been teaching for more than 5 years, but SMT made the school an unpleasant and depressing place to work. Teachers were routinely sworn at and assaulted by pupils, the school had a very high staff turnover (in fact one teacher’s leaving speech – limited to 30 seconds due to the numbers leaving – paraphrased Wilde, saying ‘to lose one teacher is unfortunate, to lose 15 looks like carelessness’). Each staff meeting was prefaced with an announcement by the head about how awful the teaching staff were, how all poor behaviour was down to the teacher and that it was our job to get the pupils good results. Unions were not encouraged and any union meeting was attended by one of SMT who made notes. There were several events which pushed me to the edge at this school, firstly, the assault I mentioned above (made worse by the fact that not a single member of SMT asked me if I was OK and their insistence that it was my fault – for trying to pick up a tennis ball he had thrown); being expected to take on the HoD’s work when she was promoted to assistant head, while still doing my own and teaching a full timetable; the total lack of support from SMT for poor classroom behaviour (any incident was viewed as poor teaching – this included one poor teacher who was racially abused by members of her class); an onslaught of emails about my ability as a teacher and middle manager, despite my observations being mostly ‘good’. I almost left teaching as a result, but applied for, and got a new job – even with the ‘neutral’ reference from the head (although she made it tricky by insisting that after 2 interviews I had to take any others as unpaid leave). I hoped, with the end in sight, things would improve – they didn’t. There was pressure to cheat on pupils’ coursework (something I refused to do); SMT ‘popping in’ every few lessons and making negative comments in passing about the few seconds they had seen; no behaviour support at all, duty calls went unanswered. Stress began to build, I felt sick at the thought of work, I could talk about nothing else, I began to get twitches in one, then both eyelids and constant headaches. Finally, I was told that the head wanted a ‘little chat’ one break time. When I got there, she, and one of the deputy heads, proceeded to ambush me, telling me that they were disappointed, that I was not a good teacher, that I could be disciplined for a badly marked piece of coursework (which I had not taught or marked). Her parting comment was ‘I hope you can do better at your new school’. I mustered all my strength (helped by the knowledge that I had only about 6 weeks left) and told her that I knew I would do well at my new school, because I knew I was a good teacher. The rest of the day was a blur. When I got home, my headache was worse, I was shaking and felt unwell – my husband insisted on taking me to the nearby NHS walk-in centre. They took my blood pressure, 255/135 (ridiculously high) and asked me about possible causes of stress – by the end of the appointment I had been signed off work for a week. A follow up appointment a week later showed my pressure was still high, and any mention of the school sent it higher (even today , 6 years later, writing this causes my BP to shoot up). I was eventually signed off for the remainder of my time at the school, going back only once to collect my belongings. If you find yourself in a similar position (and I hope you never do), keep detailed notes and copies of all emails and observations. Contact your union – at a local or regional level if you prefer, but don’t rely on them to act (I contacted mine who knew the school by reputation but actually did nothing to help beyond suggesting I looked for another job). Speak to supportive friends, or someone like the Teacher Support Network, see a doctor and if necessary take time off. Stress can be awful as you can feel like a bit of a fraud, like you shouldn’t leave the house because you are off work – but you are allowed, and must allow yourself to start having a normal life so you can get better. Stress and high blood pressure can cause serious and life-threatening conditions so should not be brushed under the carpet. The best thing I can suggest is to leave the school – not necessarily teaching, unless that is the best thing for you. No job on earth is worth making yourself ill for and being miserable.
I hope that few, if any, of these happen to you in your career, but if they do, I hope this post has helped, at least a little.