An alternative to teacher burnout
A facebook entitled ‘Exit the Classroom and Thrive’ has in excess of 39,000 members and is growing at a rate of over a thousand members per month. A quick join and visit would reveal scores of distressing stories of stress, overwhelm and leadership bullying. One member revealed that her SLT send out an email every day with a list of who is off sick and how much this costs the school. Others relate, every day, how their job is making them anxious, sick, exhausted, overwhelmed and burned out. The latest craze hitting the news recently is for students to put recordings of teachers on TikTok in order to mock them.
I was a teacher in state secondary schools for fifteen years, starting in 2006 and finishing in July this year. I did experience some of the toxicity that has been related by members of the facebook group, although, at the time, I felt that I could deal with it. My first difficult experience was with a line manager who regularly accused me of missing deadlines and generally not being any good as a second in department. Without any idea what she meant, I asked for examples and she was unable to provide any. She lied about me to a member of SLT, who believed her, and I subsequently got ‘moved sideways’ eventually proving myself and my ability through a different route. Many others in the school experienced her as a bully and her effect on me was terrible. I experienced anxiety so severe that I became dizzy with brain fog whenever she approached me and had panic attacks in the staff toilets.
Later, as I was due to be reviewed for the highest pay scale, UPS3, I and others in the school received a shitty letter in out pigeon holes saying that we weren’t eligible for the pay rise, in my case because some A level results weren’t good enough. With the support of a line manager, I laid out a folder of evidence to the contrary, asked for a meeting and received a pay rise and an apology from the head. The experience, however, seems to be repeating itself in schools across the UK, with far worse outcomes. UPS3 teachers are being observed, put on ‘support plans’, reviewed and criticised regularly and effectively bullied out of the profession. They are taking time off with stress, sitting behind closed curtains, crying daily and questioning what has happened to the profession that they loved and worked all their lives to enhance. This is unfortunately what happens when a government consistently underfunds a profession for more than ten years and SLT are forced to make cuts wherever they can.
For myself, I thought I was OK – that the niggling squirm of anxiety in my stomach, every morning, as I walked to school, was something to observe, using mindfulness techniques, and simply learn to live with. Later, in another school, I thought that some anti-depressants would get me through the first difficult winter, with classes who shouted, rolled about on the floor, threw bottles and covered the ceiling with glue sticks. I thought their behaviour was my fault, my lack of behaviour management skills and my ‘too nice’ personality. My anxiety was confirmed by some other teachers who muttered about the noise the class made, or boasted about how they would never tolerate bad behaviour. This competition is another toxic part of schools. Don’t get me wrong – there were plenty of teachers who supported me until I got control of the situation, but there’s a lot of really nasty, snidy comparison in schools. Why? Because SLT encourage it, with favouritism, special mentions, requests from ‘outstanding’ teachers to lead briefings and training sessions, and ‘support plans’ for teachers who are struggling. They are not supportive, by the way, from what I have heard.
I kept telling myself I was OK even as I started to dream of escape. There were many wonderful things about teaching. The happy look on a student’s face when they grasped a concept, the hilarious comments, the flow of a great lesson and the enriching class discussions that made me feel like punching the air. I would never have stayed for fifteen years had it all been awful. But there’s an 80% rule – if the happiness is less than 80% of the total, then it’s not enough, and mine sat at around 75%, consistently, for years.
Once I had a plan to leave and work as a tutor or a supply teacher whilst looking for other work, I felt the beginnings of an enormous weight lifting from my mind, but I couldn’t explain exactly why. Children’s worsening behaviour was certainly one reason, an arrogant twerp on SLT who visited my form group and hectored me about the fact that a boy was scooting on a wheeled chair (whilst I was listening to a gay student telling me about how he had been the victim of hate speech), and stale, boring schemes of work that made me want to run away from my own lessons. The lack of creativity, autonomy, fun and laughter. Students in rows and seating plans, post Covid, at one point even masked up, led to such apathy and resentment of school that I dreaded going in.
I am now out. I am working for my local council as a one to one special needs tutor. I’ve taken at least £500 a month pay cut, which worried me enormously when I started, but I’m beginning to realise something that I would previously not have dared to dream of. Time away from that environment is slowly cleaning my mind of clutter and worry, washing away my anxiety, smoothing out the furrow in my forehead and gently massaging the knots in my shoulders and back. I have time to walk to the allotment, my work up to date, my time my own, and I owe nothing to anybody. I’m looking forward to Christmas without wondering how I’ll have the time to get everything done. My lack of anxiety makes me feel a bit confuddled. I’m not sure who I am without it. It’s been a constant companion for so long that I am now left with a sense of freedom so huge that I don’t know what to do with it. The fact that I’m happy is difficult to comprehend. Why did I put up with that shit for so long? Security.
Teacher pension, a steady income, holiday pay and the promise of regular work are all the things that keep us stuck in jobs that we don’t even know are strangling us. I have so much compassion for teachers who need every bit of their income to pay the mortgage, bills, children’s clothes, groceries and all the expenses of family life like I did during my time as a single mum. Even with the considerable maintenance money that my ex had to pay, I still needed the regular £2500 a month on UPS3 with a couple of TLRs to be able to have days out, holidays, a car and some savings for birthdays and Christmas. But, for those teachers who want to get out and currently can’t, you can start to do what I did and make a plan. My plan got me through the last four years.
Going part-time is an option. I took a pay cut and went down to £2000 a month working four days a week, which helped a lot. I got my weekends back and got to see my elderly parents once a week. This was my halfway house and also freed up time. My kids had left and become financially independent, so without university costs the pay cut was affordable. There is supply teaching but I think the money is pretty bad. Leaving in July is a good shout because there are six paid weeks to find alternative income. On ‘Exit the Classroom and Thrive’ there are hundreds of suggestions for other jobs that ex-teachers can do. Private tuition is an excellent option as it’s in such demand right now. There’s a video on there entitled ‘The Pit Pony’ where several experienced ex-teachers give excellent advice on how to set up a tutoring business.
My good friend Rachel has also left – we went at the same time. We both experienced considerable worry about how we were going to manage on less income. She is currently working as a private tutor and doing some supply for agencies. She spends less money and more time with her three dogs. She is beginning to trust that she will be OK. My final point is this: time is also a form of income. It’s powerfully enriching, used wisely. It gives benefits that money cannot: mental health, time to exercise, get out in the fresh air, cook healthy meals and talk to your kids.
More time can mean planning a cheaper way of life, seeking out bargains, selling all the crap you don’t use any more and living with less. I know we need money but do we need everything we buy? I’ve pretty much given up regular coffees and that saves £30 a month alone, as well as less paper and plastic waste. There are so many ways to live a meaningful life that don’t involve spending a lot of money. A walk in the park, a telephone call, listening to music at home, having a home spa, podcasts, makeaways, film nights in, taking own food to the cinema, not going to the cinema. The time is so much more valuable, we have only so much of it, and it’s worth spending with intention for the absolute maximum benefits. To all the teachers out there, still plugging away in schools: if you’re happy, that’s great. If you’re not, please do whatever you can to get out. You are worth so much more, and it can definitely be done!