After months of floating under the radar, Michael Wilshaw reemerged this week to make the headlines. When finished labelling teachers as moaners who play the role of ‘perpetual victims’, Wilshaw referred to the scandal of an estimated 40% of new teachers leaving the profession within the first five years. He put this down to poor training and not enough support. We may, for once, agree.
My views are pretty accurately summed up in this piece by David Didau. The comments section that follows that piece is a vivid reminder that the horror stories we hear of from teachers in other schools may not be a rare case or the exception. Unfortunately, their tales came as no surprise to me. What did, however, shock me was the idea of using teaching as a stepping stone to ‘something better’. I had never considered this before; the idea that people enter the profession with the intention of leaving within a short number of years. For an unknown reason last night, while I heard it stated again by a teacher on BBC3’s Tough Young Teachers, this thought annoyed me. A small comment to this effect led to a lengthy discussion amongst several tweatchers with very different views. It allowed me to consider my annoyance.
Contrasting David’s laissez-faire approach, I was firmly of the opinion that entering the profession with the intention of leaving after a number of years was wrong. I can understand why those who enter the profession may soon feel the urge to leave. The reasons for this have been discussed elsewhere so I need not repeat them. However, in my opinion, there is a very distinct difference between this and planning to leave before you have even set out on your training. Though there may be some disagreement, I’m sure most would concede that we weren’t very good teachers in the early years of our careers. We certainly developed and learnt a great deal which enabled us to better support pupils in their learning. There is no steeper learning curve than the initial few years in teaching. Despite the need for more support, schools do spend a hell of a lot of time, effort and money on assisting newcomers through their first tentative steps in the profession. Even if a school isn’t very supportive as a whole, one would need to be unfortunate not to be afforded the time and support of individual members of staff. For me, this is all wasted on somebody who plans to leave and take these skills elsewhere.
Moreover, without wanting to judge people prematurely, I would be tempted to question the motivation of people who had no intention of staying in the profession. When things get tough, and pupils begin to heavily rely on them, will they be willing to fight through all the crap that a teacher must fight through to ensure that they have they best platform on which to excel? I would seriously doubt that any teacher wouldn’t be committed to their pupils, but perhaps that drive and focus wouldn’t be the same if you knew you weren’t going to see them through to their SATs, GCSE’s, A-Levels or whatever it is that they are working towards.
From my experience, teaching has recently become the ‘thing to do’. When I began university a mere seven years ago, I embarked on a teaching degree having wanted to do nothing else since the age of about 14. I worked hard, I did my placements while my friends partied, and I learnt the skills that I needed to embark on a career in teaching. Even then, I was still pretty awful as an NQT though I may not have realised it at the time. Meanwhile, my friends partied, boozed and had the time of their lives. I was envious of them, until we finished uni and I had a job and they didn’t. I genuinely couldn’t believe the number of those, who had never considered it before, who decided to ‘have a go’ at teaching. Although many of these were knocked back, or soon realised it wasn’t the soft option they had anticipated, or indeed that they did not have the type of skills that were needed to be a competent teacher, the idea of turning to teaching didn’t sit easy with me.
Teaching is not easy. It is not something that anybody can do. Top graduates can be terrible teachers; graduates with Third Class Honours can be fantastic. The skills needed to become a great teacher require years of practice and tweaking. Nobody will enter the profession an NQT as the complete, finished package. If new teachers continually take the skills and leave, only to be replaced by new teachers, pupils will forever be taught by a string of enthusiastic, but second-rate teachers. I am not advocating teaching as a ‘life sentence’ where people are stuck and unable to move. Surely no teacher is worse than a highly demotivated one, but I would seek to draw the type of person who wants to make a genuine difference to the lives of young people in the long-term; somebody who is ready to make a commitment to developing themselves and then others around them. Perhaps I am wrong or in the minority here. It is not something I had ever considered until now. But for my money, I want those entering the profession to be making a long-term commitment, not a short-term investment.