Saturday, 21 April 2012

When teaching as a 'calling' means 'put up and shut up'

To be an outstanding teacher almost inevitably requires you to spend heaps of your own time, unpaid, putting in the extra hours. Whether it is through meticulous marking, the planning and creation of inspiring lessons and resources, the barrage of constant detailed assessment or even the sleepless nights spent worrying about a child's welfare, being a teacher is anything but the 9-3. As the children and their parents wake up, the teachers are there - in school - laying out resources, organising assessment, beautifying the class. When the children go home, the teachers grab onto their coffee and settle down for another 3 hours of work. There can't be many jobs where unpaid work is expected to quite the same degree: if a teacher worked only the hours they were paid, most would be inadequate.

Yet when teachers complain - either verbally or through union activities - they are castigated with a venom reserved usually only for Tube drivers and rubbish collectors. What links the teachers, the tube drivers and rubbish collectors? They are taken for granted. You dump yourself on a train platform and expect a train to transport you. You dump your rubbish outside the front door and expect it to disappear. And you dump your kids at the school gate and expect them to be occupied for 6 hours.

This phantasmagorical six-week break - ignoring for now that the start is often spent tying up loose ends of one year, and the end is used preparing the next year - serves to shut down any argument a teacher might make.

 I am being asked to work longer hours for, effectively, less pay.
But you get loads of holidays.  

I am being forced to stay in school beyond my working hours.
Yeah, but it's only a few weeks until the next holiday.

In dribs and drabs, teachers' working conditions are being eroded while the pressures, workload and expectations are raised. Teachers already work ridiculously long hours - certainly most that I know. Anyone who lives with a teacher will know that it doesn't 'stop' when you leave the building - your lessons, your children and your classroom come back with you. Why is it like this? Why are teachers working for free so much, and why then, despite this, are they continually being asked to do more and more, without so much as a passive querying peep of dissent?

Because it's a 'calling'. Because it's 'more than just a job'. Because it's about 'making a difference'. Because it's about 'changing lives'. Because it's more a 'vocation' than a job. Because it's more of a 'lifestyle' than a profession. Tied into the cultural idea of the teacher is the idea of selflessness, almost sacrifice. So much of what we do can be justified by the phrase 'I'm doing it for the kids'.

Why are you getting up at half past five to get into work early?
I'm doing it for the kids.  

Why are you sat in on a Saturday night cutting out paper caterpillars with connectives on them, while others in your age bracket are enjoying a weekend of socialising on their juicy pay-packets?
I'm doing it for the kids.

Where is this argument going then? Am I going to argue that teachers shouldn't care about their work once they leave the school building? If I am, I am surely and thoroughly an uncaring selfish braggart who shouldn't work with children, right? Do you see the bind here? Ultimately, teachers are restricted to two choices, they can either continue to carry on taking on more and more of a backbreaking workload (all for the kids, obviously), or they can protest it (not in the benefit of the kids).

There is research behind this. Stephen Brookfield writes that  
Teachers who take the idea of vocation as the organizing concept for their professional lives may start to think of any day on which they don't come home exhausted as a day wasted...Thus what seems on the surface to be a politically neutral idea on which all could agree - that teaching is a vocation calling for dedication and hard work - may be interpreted by teachers as meaning that they should squeeze the work of two or three jobs into the space where one can sit comfortably.

We are in the uniquely restricted position of being expected to do whatever is asked of us, uncritically, or else not only is your work ethic called into question, but you are perceived to be weak (because it's an easy job anyway, right) and - most importantly - you are seen to lack devotion, love and care for the children you teach.

So maybe we should start questioning what it means when the pressure is heaped on, for the good of the kids.

Of course we want the best for the kids - for the kids in our class, we want it more than anyone else. It would just be better if providing a great education didn't mean grinding down the mental health and working rights of teachers.

How is it in the children's interest to have a pallid drained zombie for a teacher day in day out? How is it in the children's interest to have their teachers come into work resenting the place, as staff morale drops? It isn't.

It is in the interest of the cost-cutting government who want to pay the smallest number of staff possible to do the greatest amount of work. Headteachers might be the ones asking you to do it, but they don't have so much choice either. It starts at the top. Brookfield speaks of a 'self-destructive workaholism' which some teachers, proudly devoted to their careers, may wear like a badge of honour. I'm still very happy in my school, although there are constantly increasing but sensible pressures, but I know of many in other schools who are being driven to despair. But still, when they are on their knees, they will defend their school as 'doing it for the kids'. New recruits into the profession have been heard to bicker with braggadocios about how little sleep they have had, as though competing to see who can survive whilst being pushed the furthest. It's absurd.

We need to question these assumptions if we want to do what most of us became teachers to do - to love teaching, to love working with children and to help children to achieve their potential. Otherwise, it will only get worse.


Clémentine Beauvais said...

Great post, absolutely spot-on.

year 6 sensei said...

Great post . I have been guilty of this overworking . Had a proper break in the hols and consequently have had one of the best week's ever with my class, because I was happy and rested.

Anonymous said...

After a day spent marking and filing newly made resources this was a tonic!!

My husband had his tonic with gin after looking after our children all day...

Cherrylkd said...

Fantastic post. So true. No one else is expected to work so tirelessly and suffer so much criticism while doing so. Well said!

Anonymous said...

Brilliantly put, and the fact that I'm posting this at 11.30 on a Saturday night proves the point. And of course everyone knows how to teach; so everyone's an expert.

Anonymous said...

Well, its' 11.30 here.

Hala said...

|Excellent post! You distracted me from grading Ss papers. Thanks :-)

Corporate Phoenix said...

It's the natural result of a dependency on goodwill, gone wrong:

Anonymous said...

Very well said - and it's about time somebody said it! Here I am at 11:30 on a Sunday night, organizing for Monday, when I'll be getting up at 6am to be in school by 7am, when the day doesn't start until 8am.
What if pediatricians heard "for the good of the kids"? No one on this planet would put in the unpaid hours that we do. And what office workers would buy their own supplies when corporate money ran out?!

Anonymous said...

I quit my teaching job because I couldn't cope any more. Not with the kids (low achieving teenagers in my case) but because of a manager who could not understand why I said I couldn't cope with the workload, after all it was "the same for everybody" (it wasn't actually, but that's beside the point. I've pretty much given up attempting to explain the hours and pressure,people either already know or will never accept it. I worked in other, responsible, jobs before teaching for the last eleven years, and I can say that teaching, without doubt is far, far more exhausting. The only thing which is comparable is working part time while having two children under 3 and a partner working away often. At least that was only for a year or so.
Maybe, one day, people will believe us, but not in the current climate.