‘Teachers, Keep on teaching…’

Higher Ground – Stevie Wonder

For many school leaders; especially those in smaller towns and rural areas, the teacher recruitment and retention crisis becomes a daunting reality at this time of year. Every time a teacher has walked past my door this term I have flinched a little. You see, losing a teacher this close to the end of Term Five presents many system complications. Best laid plans and all that? Any leader worth their salt has an outline of the who, what and where of September right now and in the past – when teachers were plentiful – losing staff was an opportunity for everyone. This is no longer the case. Losing teachers has become a complication, a problem, a dilemma. It feels like the stripping a way of the layers within your school. It feels like plugging a thousand leaks with your trembling hands.

We ‘should’ be worrying about teacher recruitment and retention. It is one of the major issues facing school leaders today. Teachers are leaving the profession and moral is lower than I can remember in 23 years. There is no clear plan to increase teachers coming in to teaching– that I can see – and there is no incentive that rational people see to be a teacher. Talk to anyone at a party looking for a job – see how teaching goes down as a lifelong profession! Those adverts tracking a child through their life at school… means little to someone who stays in teaching a couple of years. I have lost count of the number of ‘teachers’ who I have seen walk away from our profession. I have been asking myself what is it that we need to do to keep teachers in education? What do we need to do to make people want to become teachers?

Ok, I know I moan about education a bit. It would seem that I am unhappy all the time but this could not be further from my day to day experiences. Working in education, being a head teacher, is still (in 2019) the best job I could imagine doing. If I got lucky on the national lottery tomorrow, I would keep on doing what I love doing – honest guv! I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I might change certain aspects of it. I may worry less – but I still want to be a major part of our education system. Yes, the realities of teaching are not always nice and for some I imagine that the experiences cause them to leave. One of the key aspects any trainee teacher needs to understand is teaching is often front line work. You cannot escape the harsh realities of growing up in England today for many of our pupils. Pretending that the issues many pupils bring in to the classroom do not exist is just papering over the facts. This is not to say that you cannot do your job well. You can, I see many teachers cope with multiple challenges and make a difference academically and pastorally. But, the reality is – not everyone can do this. I really do think that work needs to be done opening up trainees to the reality of what a teacher does. Right or wrong a teacher is front line in trying to tackle the injustices of society, austerity, mental health issues, family breakdowns, accountability gone mad, one off high stakes testing, low aspirations and inequality to name a few. Unless one of our esteemed political parties is going to win an election and change this I see the same future horizon. Therefore, teachers today need to be resilient. If this resilience was part of the trainee selection criteria and a critical aspect in training maybe more teachers would be able to cope with teaching. Sounds harsh I know. But, there does need to be some grit in the profession because we are dealing with vulnerable people and they need us to be strong. This sits a little uncomfortably as I write… I believe that training in coping with stress and managing ourselves is just as vital a part of teacher training now as many other professional aspects. What good is it training a teacher who then leaves after getting ‘that class’? Please understand I am not saying this is ok… but I feel that for many schools this is a critical aspect of keeping a teacher. That they can cope.

Though teacher resilience is key within the crisis, I think the bigger issue of teacher retention is school leadership. I hear of many teachers leaving because of the leadership in their school. I hear many teachers relay stories of mad, bad and sad heads doing irrational and senseless things. This list is far too long to be a select few. There is no doubt that one of the biggest factors the recruitment and retention emergency faces is the way school leaders lead. A major fault is many of the leaders of today have only known one high stakes system. They see success in exam results and Ofsted outcomes – at all costs. They want the rush of quick success and even quicker promotion. They have little experience in growing a school and long term stability because they have never seen it. They would see my anti high stakes system bash as complacent and attaining to lower standards. I also see success in exam results… but not at all costs; and why would any school leader make Ofsted their vessel? I would never create an exam factory, or push narrow fields of learning at the cost of a curriculum that suited the pupils in my school.  It would seem that Ofsted now want this – Key too many leaders doing stupid things to attain what they think Ofsted wants… Cue further issues within recruitment and retention.

Teaching is the domain of teachers and though I have skills and knowledge that are vital in supporting this – Leaders need to understand that teachers need to teach. It is that simple.  Leaders need to enable teachers to teach and blindly following the latest zeitgeist only creates disharmony within the profession. Of course don’t be naive but at least have a spine and remember why you are leading in the first place.

It is leaders who need to solve the recruitment and retention crisis and we need to do this by making our schools places that teachers want to be. Now, this is not just about school leaders… when I say leaders I am looking left, right, forwards and backwards. We need to be open to this issue and we need to tackle it at all levels before ‘silent corridors’ becomes more than a headline about school behavior systems.