It doesn’t have to be this way

This has been a very long week. Friday evening I arrived home late from my university training, tired and drained, with the knowledge that my week wasn’t over yet; I had to go into school today for a prospective parents open day. Saturday traffic on the South Circular Road was particularly gruelling on my return trip home. All I wanted to do was put my feet up and have a snooze, which I gratefully did on my newly purchased Ikea Poang armchair and foot stool (well recommended).

I sleep with my noise defender headphones on so as to muffle the sounds from my eight-year old son and the TV in the living room. All I can hear is a distant rumble of activity which I can tune out while I sink into blessed sleep. I have become addicted to my ‘siesta’. It’s one of my survival strategies for coping with this full-on teacher training year.

Finally I emerge from my slumbering cocoon back into reality. I wish I could say it’s because my sleep is sated and I’m ready to wake up. What actually happens is my son shakes me awake with ‘mummy, I’m hungry’. Then, the sinking realisation that I haven’t gotten round to thinking about what we’re going to eat today. We’re out of bread so can’t appease him with a quick sandwich. The fruit bowl is looking empty and desolate. Luckily there’s some Bolognese sauce in the freezer, so I hastily whip up a plate of pasta for my hungry growing boy.  I’m not going to beat myself up too much about this. Yes, the house is a bit of a tip. Layers of dust are accumulating. A pile of laundry awaits my attention. But I’m coping, just about. I have had the conversation with my partner about sharing the household chores a little bit more evenly, but after years of being a stay-at-home mum, everyone has gotten used to me doing all this stuff and it’s been a bit of a challenge delegating it. We’ll get there eventually.

So, less than a month into my Schools Direct year, and I’m finding it rather arduous. In between giving parents the low down on history teaching at my school, I got chatting today to a colleague who trained as a history teacher two years ago. He reminisced about his experience when training and shared my frustration at the endless paperwork which didn’t seem to bear much relation to the actual job of teaching. ‘Mind you’, he added, ‘my NQT year was the toughest. I was in school every day until 6:30.’ He thought about it a bit more, then remarked: ‘I still do that. I try to do all my planning at school but I’ll take marking home and I’ll work until 9pm sometimes during the week so I can have the weekend completely free.’ My colleague is young and unencumbered. Outside of work, he has no responsibilities to anyone but himself. The same cannot be said for me.

And again, I get to wondering. Is teaching a profession suited only for the young and single? In this era of teacher shortages, are so few leaders making the connection between the unreasonable hours and the haemorrhage from the profession of good, capable people? I’ve noticed that many of the female teachers with children work a reduced number of days. My head of department has a young child and officially works 4 days a week, whereas in reality I suspect that fifth day of the week is spent doing work at home – in effect doing full time work for part time pay – the only way to manage the workload with the demands of a family. Why is it that everyone seems to agree that the way to train new teachers is to put them through a full-on, highly stressful year? Is the QTS like a badge of honour which proves you managed to swim rather than sink? Survival of the fittest? Is that the answer to our teacher shortage? When I was looking up training opportunities on UCAS, there were no part-time Schools Direct courses and very few part time university based PGCEs. I would have welcomed a longer but gentler induction into teaching.

What riles me the most though is that most of this extra work is pointless from the point of view of our students’ learning and attainment. Do they really benefit from us slaving away late into the evenings so that books are marked, administrative paperwork is filled and ‘engaging’ lessons with bells and whistles are planned for them? I rather suspect that they would learn just as much, perhaps even more, with a lesson planned around a high quality textbook. Read, discuss, write. It’s as simple and effective as that. Think of all the money that could be saved, getting students to read from a textbook and write in their books rather than handing out endless worksheets (that then need to be glued in or inserted using those infernal treasury tags). Oh, but this wouldn’t satisfy the egos and instincts of those who think teaching has got to be a performance, with a hook, immersive activities and lots of ‘visible learning’. Poor children would be bored senseless if you made them read and write in a lesson. Little wonder then if they misbehave. Little wonder, my riposte, that so many of our students write so poorly.

In this respect, I’m beginning to see that technology, instead of freeing us has actually imposed more complications onto our lives as teachers. I’ve noted several Twitter posts of late by teachers saying system failures had compelled them to teach a ‘low-tech’ lesson, and how well these lessons have gone. How much time do we spend on our PowerPoint presentations? What’s the cost-benefit relationship between that time spent and the learning of our students? How much are interactive whiteboards a drain on school budgets? These are important questions to be asked. Who’s asking them?

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