Today is the first official day of my Easter holidays… I say Easter holidays, it isn’t really as we return to work before Easter and have the long Easter weekend off, but such are the vagaries of the holiday calendar in Sheffield this year.
This is my 24th Easter holiday as a secondary school mathematics teacher and with an impending absence in the horizon for quite a serious ankle operation, I find myself very thoughtful about what I am going to do with the final probably 15-20 years of my working life and contemplating what has gone before and how I feel teaching in 2019 compared to how I felt as that newbie walking through the gates of my new school in September 1995. What I can safely say is that my bright eyed enthusiasm (some may say naivety) at fulfilling the vocation (not job) I’d wanted to do since being a child (though I didn’t discover till later that mathematics was the way towards this) has been more or less snuffed out. Before any of you go, oh here we go again, another wizened old teacher moaning about the good old days and not able to adapt to the new ways of doing things, hear me out. Rather than become one of those hard-bitten old soaks that used to adorn a particular corner of a school staffroom I consider myself more a realist and pragmatist. I still believe passionately that education really is the silver bullet to social mobility and that teachers, along with doctors, nurses and our emergency and security forces are the most important people in any country and should be cherished.
I think 24 years of classroom experience gives me a significant vantage point to comment on what has happened in the past and what is happening now in education.
As a student I experienced O level and CSE examinations and the first stab at GCSE style qualifications – the old 16+ examinations. I also witnessed significant shortages of resources in schools, poor school buildings, I have to say a significant proportion of not very good teachers as well as fairly common strike action in schools. I can honestly say that I have never worked harder in 24 years as a classroom teacher than I do now and the quality and professionalism of my colleagues has never been higher.
Through my teaching career I’ve seen GCSEs change regularly where continuous assessment and coursework were the norm to a system where continuous assessment and coursework are held to be dubious and disparaged. I’ve seen A levels go from terminal to modular and back to terminal again.
I’ve seen the status (to some extent) and pay of the teaching profession increase and then drop significantly in real terms since 2010. I’ve seen the quality of the buildings I’ve taught in increase significantly through the building schools for the future programme (though I suspect this could have been done better and cheaper with less corruption at all levels) and the technology I use regularly improve – but maybe not quite keep up to speed with the age we live in. I remember coming home in my first couple of years covered in chalk dust, then regularly coming home with black marks on the side of my left hand and little finger from the whiteboard to now coming home with a headache because of staring at a computer screen planning and delivering lessons.
I remember going on school trips as a teacher and looking after students and realising I was on duty 24/7 but expected a degree of responsibility from them and their parents to now staff being scared of taking students outside the classroom because they are accountable for anything that may happen.
I remember, as a student teacher and a new teacher, learning quickly on the job how to deal with bad behaviour and intransigence with only your common sense and some very brief training on a PGCE course and lucky to have supportive departments and generally supportive parents wherever I trained or worked, to a system where a significant minority of parents forgive anything and can see no fault unless of course it is perceived to be towards their darling child.
I remember there being virtually no accountability for classroom teachers when I started to teachers now walking on eggshells whenever a member of the leadership team walk by or whenever a data entry window takes place and you become accountable for even the most disruptive student with the least supportive home environment.
I remember OfSTED giving you about 10 weeks notice to cook the books before they rolled in and their inspections lasting a full week to a system where you are on tenterhooks until mid-day on Wednesday expecting a call to say they are coming in the next day.
I remember when the results of an OfSTED inspection were detailed and subject specific which gave the department areas to focus improvement on and the subject head ammunition to go the head with to a system where OfSTED reports seem to built using a word bank and which slam schools rather than support them and leads to schools that need to most support ending up lower morale and worse issues than were there before the inspectors visited, a system where OfSTED and the report are a sword of Damocles hanging over schools
I remember going into teaching in 1994 as a PGCE student and September 1995 as a qualified teacher believing that, provided I was good at my job, taught good lessons, marked my books, gave good feedback, didn’t do anything stupid, engaged with continuous improvement and believed that building relationships was just as important as academic qualifications when teaching that I’d probably have a job for life. 2019 was the year this belief came crashing down.