The Gove Effect & The Reality of Teaching

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When I began teaching as a fresh-faced 24 year old, I thought I’d change the world. A combination of watching ‘Dead Poets Society’ too many times combined with my naive faith that I could make a real difference to a sea of trusting young faces who were, by and large, on board for some learning led to me completing a PGCE and setting my heart on being the best teacher I could possibly be for those children in my care for that little weekly slot of time in which they were mine and expecting to leave the room taking something of value away they hadn’t come in with. And I don’t mean the remote control to the electronic whiteboard. They may be ubiquitous now, but they weren’t common when I began teaching!

I relished this new role and spent all the hours God sent preparing lessons that would engage, working hard to impress, improving my subject knowledge and generally trying my hardest. I was brimming with enthusiasm and dedication.

I didn’t realise that this wasn’t going to be enough. I didn’t realise that there were young people facing such extreme academic challenges who were placed in mainstream classrooms in mainstream schools; that parents would sometimes have absolutely no interest in their child attending school, let alone their academic progress; that behaviour had dipped so badly since my school days that on occasions I was forced to employ some of the most severe sanctions the school offered – and I am not easily offended.
But most of all, I didn’t realise that as a profession teachers were so shockingly scapegoated and abused by pretty much everybody. Including, on occasions, the senior leadership team supposed to support them.

The reason for this, I feel, is target setting. Not sensible target setting that gives students something tangible to aim for – not incremental or gradual, based on the individual child you are working with. No, the targets I am talking about are the Fischer Family Trust targets, RaiseOnline and other such sources which we are supposed to view with the same reverence with we would treat the holy grail. Schools are judged on the percentage of children attaining arbitrary targets that often bear no resemblance to the real ability of the child. Now, I’m all for being aspirational, but there has to come a point where realism, teacher experience and common sense come into play as well.  Surely? I wonder where the pressure could be coming from? Let me think. Oh, yes,  that’s right, I remember now. It comes from the government in all its guises, be that OFSTED, the DfE or any of the other bodies supposedly charged with upholding teaching standards and making decisions ‘in the interests’ of education. And who is at the helm of this shambolic umbrella of group of people appointed to cast these judgements? His name is Mr Michael Gove.

This man has singlehandedly done more to destroy morale in the teaching profession than any other individual.  He appears to think that teachers are a bunch of workshy whingers who are demonstrating a lack of commitment to their role when they assert their right to reasonable working conditions. He refuses to acknowledge the role that parenting – or the lack of – play in influencing their child’s behaviour or academic progress, finding it easier to take the cowardly stance of blaming the minority group of voters – i.e. the teachers – when children refuse to get on board and make an effort, subsequently not meeting their target. Far easier to have a constant production line of new, wet-behind-the ears-teachers to replace the burned out  ones than actually look closely at and address the problem of why the experienced teachers are exiting the profession in droves. These new recruits can be indoctrinated and moulded into exactly what Ofsted – sorry, I mean the school – needs them to be. Which is outstanding. All the time. Perfectly reasonable eh? At least we can count on the £70k per year inspectors who have never taught a lesson in their lives to make sound, well-informed judgements. We need look no further than here to see that: http://community.tes.co.uk/forums/t/568049.aspx?PageIndex=30#7541123

Gove’s most recent suggestions to mess with teachers’ holidays have understandably been given a hostile reception, and rightly so. This is the one time in the entire year where a teacher may get a chance to have some time to enjoy a proper break and genuinely relax. It used to take me two weeks to finally start to relax and actually enjoy the remainder of my holiday without having a nagging  feeling of guilt if I wasn’t doing something constructive like classroom displays, preparing spreadsheets for the following year, collating data, preparing class lists, downloading specifications, writing/updating schemes of work, writing lesson plans, writing development plans, preparing guidance for NQTs new to the department…the list goes on and on.

Aside from the paperwork that goes on behind the scenes to allow a teacher to do their job and do it well, I think that Gove needs to be aware of a few realities of the job of a teacher.  These are all events that I and my ex colleagues have witnessed or personally experiences:

1. Students saying that they are going to set fire to the classroom of a new teacher. They then proceeded to set light to paper in a bin and watch it burn. The teacher sought help from their colleague in the next door classroom. They took the bin straight outside, prevented a fire and restored order. This teacher incidentally then found themself in a lot of trouble for breaching health and safety by doing this themselves.

2. Being called a ‘fat c***’ by a child I had allowed into my classroom to do some coursework on a computer but had been forced to ask to leave because they were gaming and causing my students to be distracted. Then being asked if I was sure that I had heard this correctly by senior management, one of whom was heard saying they wanted it ‘sweeping under the carpet’ because the school had reached a critical point in their exclusion quota. I was forced to write a detailed statement as evidence that I had actually heard this correctly, even though I was teaching a class of 27 children who all witnessed the incident.

3. Having my drink spat in – the child was never instructed to make any kind of apology to me for this and I was put under pressure to have her back in my classroom. I refused point blank to allow it.

4. The pressure schools are under is so extreme that staff are in tears going to and leaving work. Often you will find tearful colleagues in the toilets as well – particularly in December, March and July, the three main breaking points where staff are burning themselves out.

5. Your lunchbreaks are spent working – if you aren’t writing reports or submitting assessment grades on SIMS, you are filling in IEP feedback, preparing an assembly, organising teams for sports day or replying to your e-mails. Or, as I have done in my time, all of the above. That is assuming your lunchbreak hasn’t been cut shorter by a power crazed Academy Headteacher and you actually have enough time to do something apart from make and quaff a drink and scoff a sandwich.

6. In May, all the jobs in point 5 that you would normally do at lunch are foregone because the Year 11s who have turned down your offers of help and have wasted all their lesson time, laughing in your face when you suggest they actually need to concentrate, suddenly begin to panic because reality is finally setting in and will want you to spend your lunch and time after school helping them. Because you want to see your students do well you will oblige and wear yourself out in the process.

I haven’t even touched on a fraction of what a teacher does – no mention of being vigilant for any changes in child wellbeing, no parents evenings, no ‘break’ duty and no detention duty after school amongst a plethora of other things so excuse me if when I hear about how easy teachers have it and how they should stop moaning and accept that their job needs to become even tougher, I do not appreciate it. Teachers may not be fighting in war-torn countries or performing life-saving surgery on somebody’s child, somebody’s parent, somebody’s spouse, but they are nevertheless working all the hours god sends for the children in their charge, often sacrificing many personal passions and loves of their own along the way. Do I think that they deserve a reasonable window in which they can recharge and prepare for the next academic year without the relentless pressure of term time? Absolutely. And is shortening the break going to mean that their ability to properly relax and their performance when term resumes will suffer? Absolutely. Does Gove actually know or care about any of this? Absolutely not. David Cameron can pay lip service to appreciating the role of teachers, but Ofsted chief Michael Wilshaw’s view that ‘If anyone says to you that ‘staff morale is at an all-time low’, you know you are doing something right’ says it all and I feel is a more accurate reflection of goverenment opinion really. Get the dead wood ditched – 20 years here? Past it. Get rid. Class misbehaved today? Can’t hack it. Get rid.

So please, don’t resent teachers for having the self respect to assert their right to a little appreciation and the preservation of the holiday they work so hard to earn. I am now 36 and walked away from my career last year, the fresh-faced, eager teacher well and truly dead. An ex student of mine has just started teaching herself and she is learning fast what to expect. Last week this amazing young woman was called something revolting which I would not wish to write down by a twelve year old boy. He’ll be back in her room next week as if it never happened. Thanks for all you’re doing for the profession, Mr Gove. Nothing like putting your heart and soul into something for twelve years only to see it systematically destroyed and good teachers demoralised. And when you have your lengthy MPs holiday this year, I hope you have a lovely break.

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