Term Eighty-two

I enjoy reading blogs from Newly Qualified Teachers – it gives me a useful perspective on what it is to be entering this profession now, of encountering the whole caboodle for the first time, of struggling to reconcile the conflicts that have multiplied many-fold since I was in the same position. And also to revisit the optimism of starting out on a great career- journey.

But by this stage of the year, one reads some posts where the tarnish is already visible, the disbelief at the stress and workload already manifest. And I smile wryly and think, “Now do it all again – about a hundred times”.  For therein you have the sum of an average teaching career. It has been notable in recent conversations with some of our current young staff that quite a few say they cannot envisage remaining in teaching long-term; well, many of us had problems at that age envisaging forty years of anything (let alone the number of years that they will have to do) but even so, I can’t say that I blame them, for all the professional problems it could cause…

For me, this was term number eighty-two, and I’m afraid to say it has to go down in the annals right at the pits end of the scale. As I observed at the time, for some reason things got ridiculously hectic surprisingly early on, and it just kept getting worse.

On the positive side, I was invited by John Tomsett to visit Huntington School, and I hoped to take up his offer, partly to quell some of my reservations about the Growth Mindset, but also because I am mightily curious about how he runs a tight ship while still both visibly caring for the wellbeing of his staff and retaining his humility as a classroom teacher. If all is what it seems, this is a remarkable balancing act. Unfortunately, my request was turned down by my own school. Growth Mindset harrumph.

The week before half-term, I caught a nasty viral infection that laid me low for several weeks, and which I then kindly passed to my wife and several other people. I don’t know whether it’s just age, the post-viral legacy of an even nastier thing a couple of years ago (which my G.P said could linger for years) or just the cumulative wear and tear of working life, but I don’t seem to be able to shake these things off as quickly as I used to… The idea that teaching can cause physical burnout is NOT A MYTH. Treat with respect.

Just when I had rather prematurely returned to work, the school landed a bombshell. Suffice it to say that last year’s department GCSE results were not our finest moment, but despite some significant internal and external extenuating circumstances (not least the fact that the exam board had introduced new content in mid-flight) it had clearly been decided that a head had to roll. It has been suggested to me by incredulous colleagues that there may have been some behind-the-scenes finger-pointing, but I’m not going to speculate. Whatever the reason, my head, it seemed had been chosen. It would appear there are some things that even eighty-one terms of good karma can’t protect you against.

Despite my convalescent state, and needing to care for my wife who was still signed-off, I was put on a ‘supportive process of  informal monitoring’, albeit of reduced duration – which sounds innocuous enough until you hear mention of the consequences of an unsatisfactory outcome.  I later realised that this was probably ‘just’ a statutory requirement.

The process involved three SLT observations over a couple of weeks, and my observation of some Outstanding teachers’ lessons. To be fair, once the issue had been raised, finger-pointing or not, ignoring the matter was clearly not an option for the school management who no doubt had a few fingers pointing in their direction too. And to be doubly fair, the process was carried out with courtesy and professionalism, and it soon became clear that my initial anxiety about a witch-hunt was unfounded. It was emphasised that this was NOT a capability procedure, more a matter of quality assurance – though that was cold comfort at the time, as both my personal life and normal working routine still went into a violent tailspin. I’m not the kind of person to take something like this lightly: it is a rabbit-in-the-headlights experience that can easily induce a kind of mental paralysis whereby you simply can’t think about anything else. It becomes all too clear that as stress levels rise, negative outcomes can become a self-fulfilling prophesy. And no amount of previous experience can fully inure you to that fact…

“Engage with the process”, I was advised, and indeed I did, not being the door-slamming, storming-out-of-office type – though it didn’t feel like there was exactly a lot of choice about it at the time. In the event, I was ‘cleared of all charges’ with the lessons observed having no significant weaknesses, the pupils saying good things, and my marking being deemed fine. I can think of several reasons for the ‘lack of some pace’ that was the only recurrent criticism.

They say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and indeed the first opportunity for some time to watch other teachers was useful, if only for seeing that their good-but-routine lessons did not differ significantly from my own, except perhaps in their adherence to ‘approved’ structures. Likewise, I have now had my own practice tested close to the limit and found not to be greatly wanting; in a strange way that is quite reassuring. Even the anxiety attacks and sleepless nights have gradually receded.

I often talk up the virtues of experience, though I can now add there are some kinds it is better not to have had. Nonetheless, it was enlightening, if only because one realises just how easily things can go wrong. These days, I have little real doubt in my own competence (and more) as a teacher – but as such situations develop, it is all too easy to start believing the scenario oneself. One also starts to worry that others, with their manifestly different outlooks, may not see it the way you do. If I did have a worry, it was the fact that I may not be sufficiently ‘on message’ for official taste; in the event, that concern was largely laid to rest, too.

It highlights the inflexibility of the current accountability culture, where ‘results’ really are all, and other factors – to say nothing of one’s wider contributions – seem to get so easily pushed to one side. One also starts to appreciate the collateral damage of such events, both in terms of people’s personal lives and their wider professional responsibilities. Are the stakes really so high that there is no better way?

An unfortunate casualty  has been the CPD session that I had planned on the engaging professional-development benefits of edu-blogging, the latest of a sequence of very well-received sessions I have delivered in recent years – which I am told will now have to wait until all three of my PM targets can once again be ticked ‘Pass’. Nose, face, spite methinks.

Still, the term ended on a good note: my current upper sixth class clearly think enough of my teaching to have bought me a John Lewis Christmas Hamper, so I can’t be all bad, even when I’m not being observed. It provided more of a lift than they will ever know. On which note, I wish my readers a joyous Festive Season, another process that I fully intend to ‘engage’ with – once I have got my taste buds back from the customary end-of-term streaming cold.

As I have said many times, social reality and in particular the nature of causality, is so complex that we attempt to rationalise it at our peril, which is why I am suspicious of people who claim they can, especially in a field like education.  The impacts of getting it wrong are arguably so wide as to be unknowable; when one hears of academics, G.P.s and head teachers taking their own lives as a result of career worries, is it really worth such a draconian approach? Even in my own (now seemingly-) mild case, while I bear no grudges, the experience has hardly been endearing.

Here’s to term Eighty-three; may the next be better than the last.

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