How tough a profession is teaching today?

This summer I attended a symposium, sponsored by a leading national newspaper, on the theme of the conditions under which teachers work, and – more specifically – the extreme pressures to which they are now subject.

To contribute to the discussion I drew on my experience and contrasted current working conditions with those that existed at the start of my teaching career thirty years ago. It was like comparing chalk with cheese.

Back then I recall my head of department taking a regular lunchtime nap, from which he could not under any circumstances be disturbed, in his favourite leather armchair in the staff room. Some of his colleagues were known to take lunchtime trips across the road to the pub. Once exams started half way through the summer term it was the start of the wind down, in which there was plenty of time for games of tennis in the school afternoon, to an uninterrupted seven weeks of summer holiday.

How times have changed. These days ‘lunch’ is grabbing a sandwich before attending a meeting or going on duty; drinking alcohol during the working day is a dismissible offence; the last weeks of the academic year are a mad rush of preparation for the start of the following year. The gap between the start and end of the summer holidays has become shorter and shorter and for many is filled with nail biting apprehension about how exam results will reflect on their professional standing.

Is it surprising, therefore, that such a large number of teachers, in the UK and other countries, leave the profession shortly after they have joined it? Whilst it is estimated that it takes five years for teachers to master their craft, 14% of teachers leave the profession after one year, and 30% after two. According to a 2009 study by researchers at Durham University into recruitment and retention in teaching, the top reasons given for leaving are stress, excessive workload, bureaucracy and behaviour issues.

The factor that underpins these suggested reasons for early departure seems to me to lie in the change in the level of teachers’ accountability. Apart from the occasional chat over a cup of tea, the quality of my performance was very rarely tested in the first few years of my teaching – just when, perhaps, I was in most need of help and advice. In the classroom I was left to sink or swim.

Now it is as if the walls of teachers’ classrooms are transparent and their every lesson recorded. Their public exam results are scrutinised, they are subject to regular performance appraisals by management, and some parents appear to sit on the shoulders of their students. A massive increase in administration has been the result. If only teachers were allowed to get on with their jobs, is their cry as they wade through the mountain of paperwork over the weekend before preparing their lessons for the following week.

And yet, and yet. Whilst few would disagree that teachers’ working conditions have changed beyond all recognition over the last thirty years, I would like to place three factors onto the other side of the scales for consideration.

First, for as long as I have been in the profession some teachers have always complained of being overworked. There always has been, and no doubt always will be, the staff room bore who devotes so much time to complaining of overwork that he does not have time to complete his professional responsibilities.

Second, while the level of turnover of teachers, or ‘attrition’ as it is called, may be regrettable and a waste of investment, a comparison needs to be made with that of other professions before teaching is singled out as being exceptional. Whilst information here is difficult to come by, one thing is sure: the mobility of the professional workforce is greater than it has ever been. Gone are the days when your first job was that which you had for life. Is teaching any different from other careers?

This is linked to my final and perhaps most important counter-point. When they compare their terms and conditions of work with other professions some teachers are inclined to be selective: Whilst they call for similar status (and remuneration), they are less willing to submit themselves to the same pressures to which the vast majority of their peers in comparable professions are now subject.

For it is not just the teaching profession which has changed beyond all recognition over the last thirty years. The world of work as a whole has. The basic fact is that professional people work harder. Longer hours, more ‘stress’ (a symptom that defies close definition), more bureaucracy, more communication.

And, above all, more accountability. Where the ‘great professions’, whether it be law, medicine, journalism, politics or teaching, used to be held in so much reverence that its members were untouchable, some have since been exposed for incompetence at best and criminal behaviour at worst. None of these professions can any longer rely on their reputation and public standing to close their doors to public scrutiny or ‘customer’ accountability. And who would argue that the change, on balance, has not been for the better?

When I have the time and ‘space’ to distance myself from my job, I wonder whether, as I started my career, I would have remained in teaching if I had known of the changes the profession would undergo during my working life. Certainly, even if I had not entered school management, I might well have been deterred by the pressures I would have been under and the sheer amount of time it would have taken up. But then, if I had been able to look objectively at the alternatives, I might have decided to stay put – in what I still regard as the noblest profession of them all.

Graham Lacey