Burn out – so soon?

First we had ‘Back to School’ signs appearing in shop windows in mid-July. Last Saturday, we had The Independent’s magazine supplement running a ‘School Issue’, much of which seemed to revolve around the filming of the ‘Educating…’ series. Even in the long holiday, you  are not allowed to forget your work, no matter how badly you need a break.

But what concerned me most was an article by Sam Burton, a teacher of three years who entered the profession by the Teach First route with “a first-class degree from a top university”.

He set up a scenario where he feels he is being forced out of a profession he greatly values by the sheer workload. He told a story of very early mornings, late evenings, weekends spent in school, never-ending paperwork and data-analysis, overbearing targets, and sanctions from management for people who do not comply. He also wrote of his perpetual guilt that by flagging for even a moment he was “letting his pupils down”.

He has also been teaching for only three years. Since he has just managed to land an article square in prime-time national newspaper, clearly this young man has a career in journalism awaiting him should he actually leave teaching – but I was left with very mixed feelings about what he was saying. Just where does the blame lie for this unhealthy mind set? His experiences, while perhaps somewhat extreme, ring true to type from my own and those of many colleagues and other teachers whom I know.

Stanley Milgram’s famous experiments demonstrated the extent to which people will mindlessly obey instructions they are given, and for some time I have harboured a suspicion that both teacher training programmes and school managements have been exploiting this phenomenon to set up such terrifying expectations for people entering the profession that they do indeed end up with the mind-set described above. This is perhaps most effective with young teachers who don’t know any different, who lack the perspective of having seen things come and go, who are anxious to build their careers and who have yet to face the prospect of long-term self-preservation in this profession. Burton’s perceptions of what is required to teach successfully seem completely out of proportion with what is sustainable – or indeed necessary.

But we also need to ask questions of the mind that accepts such perspectives in the first instance. I don’t know whether the ‘top university’ experience (and presumably the schooling that preceded it) fosters such restless demands on Self – in which case one might question the wisdom of them, if they simply lead to disillusion and burnout – and we know little about the specific personality traits of the writer. He may be an obsessively driven type, but if he is, then he’s hardly alone in this profession.

We might also factor in the zero-sum view of education that is widely accepted these days (mostly cultivated by the statistics arms-race) and the general effects of Affluenza, which I suspect are greater and more ingrained in those generations that grew up solely in the age of mass consumerism, and who may themselves see education as a have-or-not commodity.

Whatever the reasons, the point when it precipitates articles such as Burton’s can only be a cause for concern for anyone who values high-quality education and a stable, contented teaching force. I suppose some good may come of having such views expressed in a public domain, if it alerts a wider audience to the true climate in schools, though this is hardly the first time it has been aired. The shadow education secretary’s recent view that “Schools should be freed from the “top-down, target-driven, exam-obsessed” culture that is dominating our education system” offers a little hope that this issue is gradually registering in the political consciousness – but it will take far more, and at a grassroots level – to break the burnout risk that faces all teachers, whether they have been teaching three years or thirty. And an enlightened breaking of our own collective addiction to work needs to be part of it.

I would also suggest that Burton –and those like him – urgently need to undertake a self-analysis of what they think they are doing. They could start with the realisation that no individual is indispensable, that the effects of education on any one child are both cumulative and collegiate in nature – and that the messages being sent about the required workload and commitment may not be value-free. They might also re-appraise their understanding of what real learning (and indeed teaching) is, how it happens, and the extremely loose relationship between those long hours and the life-outcomes of the children involved. How much of this is actually a personal guilt trip?

My new school year began today, and within one day, similar pressures were soon manifest. I suggest that we in education, who ought to be experts in distinguishing useful ‘work’ from pointless time-filling, are actually very bad at doing so; we are also particularly poor at weaning ourselves off bad habits, especially where there may be perceived loss of credibility or dynamism involved. We automatically assume that more is better, and that the harder we work, the more dedicated and effective we are. Thus we perpetuate poor practice, even though experience suggests that this is patently not so.

The load of extra classroom bureaucracy that landed on my desk today will make very little positive difference to pupils’ real learning. It will consume time, may antagonise some pupils and require another layer of unnecessary enforcement. It will only serve as an impediment to and distraction from the important job of planning and following up my real teaching which I can by now do while still retaining some kind of personal life. And what is wrong with that expectation? As Patience Schell (mostly) helpfully discussed in the Times Higher Educational Supplement, someone who strives to make those distinctions is not necessarily unproductive or lacking in commitment.

Yet still it comes – and for newcomers to the profession, it will also reinforce the perceptions of, and pressures on people like Sam Burton. After the long break, such pressures are particularly keenly felt, and in my view they cannot be in any way helpful to the genuinely important work that we do.

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