Going back to the classroom: Teacher retention flipped
20th July 2017
I quit the classroom in December 2016, having taught physics in an East London academy for three and a half years. In September, I’ll be going back, to a different school but in a similar area. This blog is about why I left teaching and why I’m going back in again. I hope my story might shed a little light on the so-called crisis in recruitment and retention, one of the most important issues education faces today.
I’m not sure whether it was conscious or not, but I decided to become a teacher because I wanted to make a difference. I wasn’t alone in this motivation: as LKMco and Pearson’s Why Teach? report showed, it’s one of the most common reasons given by primary and secondary school teachers both for joining and staying in the profession.
In hindsight, I think there were two sides to this feeling. One was the vague sense that by being in the classroom and working with individual students, I might inspire them to go on to greater things. The other was larger scale. Within a school, that meant rising to SLT; beyond that, it meant changing policy. The problem I was to discover is that making a difference means choosing one of these sides. The more you focus on one, the less you can focus on the other.
Ambition & Frustration
My attention shifted from the former to the latter soon after I started teaching. It’s probably because I’m an over-ambitious Teach Firster, but working in a results-driven academy may have played a part too. Systems tended to trump the personal touch, so although the small-scale stuff was nice, I became frustrated that my talents were being restricted to individual classes. I wanted more. I got an internal promotion, and looked forward to having the power to influence the broader structures within the school.
The reality I found was that I had less autonomy than before. Instead of being handed the responsibility that nominally came with my new position, I was given a surfeit of tedious tasks. My questions about systems went unanswered. My challenges to the leadership were ignored.
I was told to wait it out. I was told that these things took time. I was told that people like me needed to cut their teeth and that one day they’d be ready to make decisions. That wasn’t good enough. I wanted to make a difference, after all. Staying in offered no way out. I could either put up with the bullshit and grind it out for another ten years, until I got some real power, or I could give up on the large-scale stuff and try to content myself with helping individuals. Neither seemed appealing, so in June last year I decided to pack it in altogether and look for policy jobs.
You may think I sound cocky. That’s a fair criticism, but I’m not unique. As someone born after 1982, I’m a millennial. My colleague Iesha Small wrote about us in her report on the Talent Challenge for Oceanova. A 2016 Deloitte survey found that 71% of my generation planned to leave their jobs within 5 years. Their main reasons?
- Feeling under-utilised.
- Not being developed.
- Feeling that their organisation has no ambition beyond profit.
Substitute ‘5 A*-C including English and Maths’ for ‘profit’, and you’ve got my own top three reasons for leaving teaching. What I didn’t know at the time was how much I’d miss it.
I carried on working all the way through until Christmas. That strange, dismembered period after handing in my notice ended up being revelatory. I embraced the freedom of not having a TLR, doing everything I’d always meant to do but lacked the time and guts to go through with, from workshops to projects to trips. I had nothing to work towards and nothing to lose. I could enjoy being a teacher again. It didn’t matter that the difference was small-scale.
I started going to job interviews. I applied for Project Manager roles in charities, consultancies and think tanks. I got nothing. Nada. Not a sausage. They liked me, but saw the truth that I was blind to: that where I thought I was moving towards policy, I was really moving towards a paradox. That for all my desire to make a difference, for all my ambition and frustration and impatience, I’d been making a difference every single day just by being there; by teaching, by talking, by turning up, lesson after lesson, week after week.
This paradox only became clear to me at the very end, as my teaching career moved towards its winter solstice. I began to receive cards, messages, a friendly word here and there from students, parents and colleagues. I’d been so focused on the big stuff, on the drive to succeed and make a difference, that I’d forgotten about the day to day, the here and now. I began to wonder whether I’d made the right decision after all.
Seeing the Other Side
I’d made the decision nonetheless, and intended to go through with it. It took me a couple of months to find the right job, but in March I found it and started with LKMco. I found myself closer than ever to the world of policy, that indecipherable cloud of reports, opinion pieces and Twitter comments. It was intoxicating. Just as one flap of a butterfly’s wing can cause a typhoon on the other side of the world, it felt as though one blog or chance meeting could be my ticket to making a change.
It wasn’t long before the flapping lost its appeal. The air up in the policy-sphere is thin, a dry mix of meta-analyses and moderate impacts. I missed the breeze and chatter of the shore. And it became apparent that my ambitions were no more than ripples in the turbulent airflow. I realised that while I might make a difference one day, perhaps on a large scale, I’d never be able to see it. Any influence I might have would be swallowed by the swarming churn.
That’s why I’m going back to the classroom. The difference I’ll make will be small-scale, but tangible. It’s a bit like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. You can make a large-scale difference, but be too far removed from the classroom to see it in practice, or you can make a small-scale difference, but be too low to the ground to see it grow. I’ve seen both sides now, and decided that small-scale is the one for me. This is no indictment of anyone working in policy; it’s more a reflection of what I value. I’ve found the concrete difference you can make in a classroom to be more meaningful than the abstract difference you can make in the world of policy. Or maybe I just enjoy the banter.
Has my mini-sabbatical been a waste of time? On the contrary, I think it’s been an invaluable experience. I hope that my time working outside of a school will give me a better idea of what I want to achieve, and less anxiety about the timescales involved. I hope I’ll truly appreciate the joy of working with young people, a joy that arises from the activity itself rather than its consequences. And I hope most of all that I’ll stop worrying about whether I’m making a difference, and get on with the job of doing it.
From Loic: Our loss is teaching’s gain. We’re hugely grateful for all George has done whilst with us but of all the places we could lose staff to, teaching is certainly the best!
Thanks George and good luck. We’re sure you will do your school and your pupils proud!