Sticking with it

Teachers are exhausted. Teachers are jaded. It’s tempting to walk away.

But, says teacher and author Emma Kell, there are so many reasons to stay.

The end of term is within sniffing distance. Only it’s 2020 and nothing is ordinary. The sense of impending freedom, of a well-earned break, of the sweet sorrow of goodbyes to children and colleagues, are all far removed from anything we have seen or known before.

In ordinary times, making a big decision about leaving a school, or even the teaching profession altogether, is extremely difficult. The competing loyalties towards your own loved ones and the children at a school, not to mention your own wellbeing, are complex and hard to negotiate. Making such decisions when on your knees with exhaustion, as most of us are at the moment, is nigh on impossible.

Whilst I am unapologetically committed to keeping as many great educators as possible in the profession, there are sometimes reasons to move on. You should seriously consider doing so if:

  1. You are mentally or physically unwell as a direct result of the demands made on you by your school.
  2. Your relationships with loved ones are suffering as a direct result of your work.
  3. Your values are consistently compromised by your work.

However, there are many more reasons to stick with it - at least for now - and I can promise that you are not alone with the doubts and questions you are currently experiencing. Here are a few doubts that educators have expressed, and some of my responses.

Teacher and writer, Dr Emma Kell shares her reasons for sticking with teaching when you might be tempted to quit.

"I feel useless."

As educators, it’s in our DNA to make a difference. It’s been simply horrible to feel for months that there are students so far out of our reach that we just can’t help them.

Acknowledge these fears and the discombobulation you feel - they are common and infinitely understandable - and know that your presence in September will be valued. It’s going to take us all, especially the students and especially those who have struggled during this period, months to get back a sense of some kind of routine. Your calm, positive presence alone will make a huge difference. If you are new to a school and imagine you can’t do much to help, think again: your fresh energy and commitment will be something your colleagues will value hugely.

"... but I can't teach!"

This is common amongst new teachers who have missed almost half of their course. You’re all in the same boat! It’s our job as schools to ensure you are properly supported and the gaps (which have been entirely outside your control) are filled. Don’t worry. Schools are planning for this.

And if you imagine you’re alone, please know that we teachers of 20+ years of experience, still have nightmares about walking around endless school corridors in our pyjamas knowing that a Year 10 class, somewhere, is running riot because we’re not there. It’s normal. You can, and you will be able to teach!

"I'm sick of feeling undervalued and as if nothing I do is good enough."

The performativity agenda in schools has for many years created a mantra of ‘requires improvement’ and has driven many from the profession. We have a unique chance now to rethink what really matters in schools and hope that schools and the powers that be will grab them.

Beyond this, there has been a sense that teachers simply aren’t valued, which through this period of school closures has, at times, felt more acute than ever. Experienced educators, in their exhaustion, have struggled to shrug off (as they ordinarily would) some of the more insulting and grossly inaccurate headlines in some sections of the media, about schools letting children down.

It is up to all of us to champion the great things about our profession and to shout about them from the rooftops. We can’t wait for the powers that be to make us feel better. We have to be confident about all the best things about our profession and be brave enough to challenge such unreasonable and unjust comments.

"The workload is just too much."

Excessive workload is a perennial issue in teaching. Before Covid-19, many schools had taken active steps to address it, for example in recruitment and retention drives. Many individuals had begun to realise they had more control than they thought, starting to consciously apply ‘ruthless compartmentalisation’ to their home and work spaces and to their time.

With Covid-19, the ‘hungry, noisy’ nature of the job which never ends – the nights spent worrying about the students who are out of reach, the colleagues who are struggling – has found its way into our private spaces. Work has, quite literally, spilled over into all elements of our home lives.

When it comes to workload, as we gradually fall into new and uneasy routines, we have the opportunity, as with any transition, to make conscious changes for the better and to stand firm on what is reasonable. If we’re worn-out husks, we can’t do the job well. We need to relearn the good habits, remember again that we need to play the long game, remind ourselves and one another to pace ourselves and to know that protecting our inner resources is more vital than ever.

"I just want all the worry/stress/anxiety to go away."

It can be really tempting to make a swift and final decision to step away. A great piece of advice is: ‘if you don’t have to make a decision today, don’t’. Set yourself a date - say, end of October - and see how you feel then.

Through my stubborn optimism, a lurking disquiet makes itself felt. We already had a recruitment and retention crisis in teaching. What if this crisis deters even more from entering our profession? What if people are left feeling dejected and abandoned by those who owe them a duty of care and decide to walk away?

But what if we realise that we have more control that we imagine we do? What if we have stern words with our imposter syndromes, enter our classrooms with warm smiles and heads held high and the confidence that we, their teachers, can be trusted to address the inequalities that have been laid bare during this period? What if we are assertive in demanding the support to which we are entitled and just as assertive in offering support to others – including our exhausted leaders? What if we actively collaborate to share ideas, resources, offer support and model vulnerability? What if we grasp 'the art of the possible' and take the horror and tragedy that we’ve seen, and make a pact that, together, we can and will make this a better, fairer, kinder world, using the most powerful tool we have: education.

If you’re a teacher in need of support, call Education Support's free and confidential 24/7 emotional support helpline on 08000 562 561.

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