We are all fortunate enough to have been in education at some point in our lives and almost all of us will know a teacher. Now, more than ever, teachers are under a huge amount of pressure and their responsibilities seem to grow by the day.
During a conversation about teaching and how it has changed, I asked my own mum, an early years teacher, if I could do a Q&A with her. We spoke about the changes in teaching, the fulfilling aspects, and the difficult ones.
What’s your role in teaching?
I’m an early years class teacher, teaching 4 and 5 year olds.
When did you become a teacher?
I finished my PGCE in 1990, and I’ve had about 3 years out of teaching in that time, so I’ve worked as a teacher for 25 years.
What made you choose teaching?
I was getting married and moving up north. I was going to become a Methodist minister and then felt that that wasn’t the right route for me, and was getting towards the end of my theology degree. A friend who was training as a secondary school teacher suggested I train as a primary teacher, and so I applied to Bradford and Ilkley Community College to do a PGCE in primary education. The first day I arrived they had the go ahead to do specific early years training with 14 places and I had to run to sign my name up.
How many hours did you work a week when you first started teaching?
I worked about 50 hours a week when I first started teaching.
How many hours do you work each week now?
It takes me about 70 hours a week to do everything I need to do. 10 hours each day in school, from 7.30am until 5.30-6pm, then normally an hour or two every evening and a day at the weekend.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
Seeing children take those steps forward, not just in reading and writing, but watching things slot into place for them. Little things that are huge for the children. Their steps are such a big thing for them and you see them becoming themselves; enabling them and providing the right experiences allows them to go forward. I want them to achieve things that reflect them, not anyone else. For us, it’s as much the social, emotional and can-do, try things attitude of not giving up, encouraging that in them, getting them to love and enjoy life then.
What’s the hardest part of your job?
When you come across children in very difficult family or social circumstances, where children are struggling with things going on in their lives and seeing it affect them. I’ve seen children in some really tough situations during my time as a teacher and our job is to bridge the gap to make sure their circumstances don’t affect their educational outcomes. But it isn’t just about that – it’s about their emotional, social development and wellness. Sometimes you can see whole family circumstances turn around. You see parents who feel understood by the school work together to improve things. But then there are some situations where you feel like you can’t make enough of a difference.
How has teaching changed since you began as a teacher?
There’s a lot more paperwork, a lot more data on children, a lot more target-setting. We were doing these things before, we were setting targets and doing observations 20 years ago and our children made good progress. If you were a good teacher, you were doing that anyway, it just wasn’t all recorded everywhere. I think now, as teachers, sometimes we end up so bogged down with the paperwork that being able to be creative becomes more difficult, because we’re overwhelmed by all the other things we need to be doing. That’s when the joy can be taken out of teaching for us and the children too. That’s not what the government or anyone else wants or expects – they want teachers to have that creativity, but it gets sucked out when you’re trying to juggle so many balls.
There’s a lot more input and criticism, and things put in place by people who don’t understand education, who haven’t worked in education. There have been new things brought it for us to implement – like baseline checks, which are formal assessments of children as they come into reception so we have an idea of where children are at when they come in and the progress that they’ve made made at the end of Reception, then at the end of Key Stage 1 (Year 2) and then at the end of Key Stage 2 (Year 6). Teachers do their own assessments anyway, mainly through observations, but we’ve had this push from the government to formalise our assessments, and there’s talk of it being a sit-down assessment rather than one we can observe. Teachers’ judgement isn’t respected in the same way anymore.
Do you feel that there are more expectations on you as a teacher than to be an educator?
Yes. In Reception there are two adults to 30 children. If you have someone taken out with a child who is upset or has had an accident, then that’s one of you for the other 29 children. Parents have expectations – of course they do, they’re their child – so express their concerns and ask us to do perfectly legitimate things for their child, but there are only two of us for all 30 children, and in that age group there is so much that they need to do and some who really struggle to learn all the new skills they need to know. We’re balancing all the time. We can be aware of one area we need to compensate in, and then another area goes, so we’re constantly realigning everything.
Most teachers are in teaching because they want to work with the children they’re passionate about educating each year. The obstacles are that the paperwork is overwhelming, the goalposts often change and are made by people who aren’t experienced in teaching, so a lot of people are struggling with teaching because the pressure is put on them that they then have to pass onto the children. There’s this message constantly being put across that the teachers aren’t good enough and, I think especially as you get further up the school, is that the children get the feeling that they aren’t good enough. You feel like you’re involved in that; you’re putting that onto the children and in the long term causing children issues in mental health and self-esteem – you want to fight against that, not to be a part of it. It’s a constant battle, battling with the powers that be, what you know you should be doing for those children, and what the expectations on you as a teacher are. If you put the pressure on the children that is expected of you, then you know in your heart that you’re doing the wrong thing by the children. Why would you put yourself through that?
What advice would you give to someone who wants to go into teaching?
Spend time in schools with teachers who will be honest with them about all the different points in teaching, good and bad.
What changes would you like to see in teaching?
I’d like to see a lot more of the top end decision making in government being made and influenced by those who are and have been educators, so we use the wealth of experience in our country from fantastic teachers. A lot of them are unhappy about what we’re doing to our children. We don’t listen to them. Teaching isn’t all about results. It’s about people’s lives: children’s and teachers’.
Conversations with… is a new series of blog posts featuring Q&A sessions. Get in touch if you have something you’d like to talk about – I’d love to hear from you!