‘Let us never forget what a precious resource we are working with.’
These were the words to staff, at briefing, from our Head at the time, the morning after the Beslan massacre of 2004. As a man not normally given to public expressions of emotion, and one, if I remember rightly, with his own children around the same ages, the words have stayed with me through my career.
I stormed into Twitter two years ago, propelled by my research on teacher well-being. I was – and still am – privileged to become a mouthpiece on the issue of how we balance teaching and parenthood, and overwhelmed by the flood of responses to my research. The sea of research out there on the importance of looking after ourselves – and one another – in a job which requires such a level of emotional investment, risk and vulnerability, forms the bedrock of my ongoing research.
As a senior leader, I aim to be approachable to staff – and students. I talk openly about my own experiences and mistakes, and feel honoured when others feel they can trust me with a triumph in the classroom or vent after a difficult day; those ‘days which chew you up and spit you out’, in the words of a former colleague. I ensure I ‘never forgetting a five lesson day’ (courtesy of Vic Goddard). I value the creative and the unorthodox, and I would never condone a one-size-fits all agenda.
A couple of years ago, I rushed in frustration to my line-manager after a colleague dragged herself, grey-faced and on the brink of tears, into work for the third day running, when everything about her screamed that she needed rest. ‘In a way, though, I admire her,’ he said. At the time I was somewhat taken-aback. Today, I’m starting to see what he meant.
Another former Head used to talk about the importance of ‘doing up your own seatbelt’ before you look after others. And those of us who’ve been sleep-deprived, nutrition-deprived and struggled to give our loved ones a fraction of the attention they deserve for weeks on end know that, in the words of a wise and frank lady at the Teacher Support Network, in that state, we’re ‘no good to anyone’. We have to look after ourselves.
In answer to the question: ‘what is teacher well-being’, which I’m asked a lot in various forums, I will continue to give the answer, ‘it’s about being proud of, and fulfilled in, the work you do’. Well-being is not about going into teaching expecting it to be easy, believing you know it all already (regardless of your life experience) or waiting it out for the holidays. As leaders and experienced teachers, when we remember our early days, do we not all remember the steepest learning curve of our lives? (Aside, perhaps, from early parenthood?). The struggle to find, and constantly redefine, our classroom identity through different contexts and life experiences continues. Do we not still have lessons where we are bitterly disappointed with the outcomes, and spend nights worrying about how we can put it right?
Recognition for a job well-done, gratitude for when teachers go above-and-beyond, as so many so frequently do, TLC after a difficult incident in the classroom, respect for background, ethos and values… These are non-negotiables, and every member of a school community has a right to these. I would never shy from standing up to bullying or ill-treatment of staff, any more than I would tolerate it when directed at students.
But seeing an NQT – or indeed a member of SLT! – in tears after the class that went horribly wrong will never send me into panic or despair. The tears, the frustration, are a sign of how much we care. They are symptomatic of an ongoing, and frequently difficult, reflective process. A recognition of the enormity of the role we play in young people’s lives. This job is bigger than our own concerns, our own egos, our own pursuit of excellent.
So, whilst I will champion a teacher’s right to be happy, recognised and respected, I will never apologise for challenging those who are not giving the students the quality they deserve. Our students are entitled to well-planned, thoughtful lessons, which have been planned with each unique member of each unique class in mind. Our students are entitled to regular feedback on their week. These, again, are non-negotiables. There can be no excuses for delivering a resource planned by someone else, with no forethought. There can be no excuses for a book left unmarked for weeks on end.
We all make mistakes. We can all be disorganised or remiss. I’m reminded of berating myself for shouting at my 2 year old for the fourth time in a day. A friend’s hugely reassuring response was: ‘they have to learn that we have limits. Don’t beat yourself up.’ In my third lesson with my new GCSE class, in an attempt to start a written dialogue in books, I asked students to highlight triumphs, areas for development, and a question for me. ‘When are you going to mark my book?’ asked C. in Year 10. Last week, as I went through her assessment preparation in detail, she said, ‘see, this is why it’s so brilliant when you go through our work with us!’ She made me rightly jump to action on the first occasion, and justifiably proud of having done a good job on the second. She was right to hold me account.
It is our job to mark our students’ work and plan their lessons well, evaluating and adapting my delivery according to their response. It is not our job to follow a rigidly planned lesson-by-lesson Scheme of Work. Not often I write in praise of OFSTED, but the emphasis on ‘effective over time’ (rather than singing, dancing outstanding-ness for show) and on ‘mastery’ rather than content overload (thanks to Mary Myatt for the insights) should make us all stop on think.
So again, I will not apologise for challenging a teacher who has not marked their books. I will not apologise for asking for evidence of planning if the delivery is below what our students deserve – I may even ask for it in advance! In return, I will offer training, coaching, teachers to see, students to talk to, and as much of my own time as necessary help things get better. I will offer you a chance to vent, and be honest with me about your frustrations, and then I will sit with you and help to find solutions, and ways forward – where there is a will, there is always a way.
The TeachMeet mantra is, ‘leave your ego at the door’. Perhaps it should be the mantra for the whole profession. Teachers are often passionate, driven people. There will be personality clashes, and frustrations and inadvertent belittlings and mistakes. We’d be silly to expect otherwise. But humility is all. The job is bigger than we are. And with a sometimes overwhelming weight of responsibility and a justified desire for respect and recognition, it is vital that we recognise how privileged we are to be influencing young people, day in and day out. Ill-treatment and lack of support of colleagues do happen – luckily not in places where I’ve worked -and should bring shame to us all. These anomalies aside (and I do believe they are unusual), if the weight of responsibility is greater than your sense of enjoyment, determination and fulfilment in the job then there are times, regrettably, when it may be time to move on from teaching.
Because it is our duty – and our privilege – as educators to continue to step up and give them the best we possibly can – day in, and day out.