With an average 10 weeks holiday a year, attractive bursaries, flexible hours and job security, you might think teaching is a doddle. Scratch the surface though and you'll find many UK teachers working 60+ hour weeks, having to deal with endless curriculum changes, staffroom politics and increasing demands to be educator, caregiver and parent.
In the UK’s classrooms, the strain on teachers is palpable. In 2018 alone, 35,600 teachers left the profession, 15.3% of newly qualified teachers left within a year and 20% of teacher training vacancies were left unfilled. Staffroom gossip often revolves around workload stress and cases of anxiety and mental breakdowns among educators are on the up.
Why, then, do so many people stick it out in such a highly stressful job with notoriously low salaries and difficult work/life balance?
To find out, we asked a newly qualified secondary school teacher what her job is really like, from dealing with difficult parents to crying in the staff loos.
How long have you been a teacher?
I began my teacher training a year ago and have recently become qualified.
What are the best things about the job?
I teach English to years 7 to 11. Seeing pupils progress both academically and socially is so rewarding. Also, the job is always changing; no two days are the same, which keeps life interesting.
And the worst?
Paperwork and difficult parents are never fun but as my school is in a pretty deprived area, the worst is hearing about some of my students’ home situations and worrying about their wellbeing. It can be heartbreaking, and I’ve found it really difficult trying to manage the balance between helping the students and getting involved beyond professional boundaries – for some of my kids, you're the only positive adult role model they have in their lives. Sometimes even disciplining my kids is hard, knowing what they go home to.
The holidays are amazing though, right?
Ha! Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that we get plenty of regular holidays, but it’s not just free time – it has to be used to mark work, plan for the next academic year, get your classroom ready, refresh display boards… After factoring in that time, and time spent recovering from the term (I’m yet to start a holiday and not come down with an awful cold), the holidays don’t feel as long as they sound.
Your most embarrassing moment as a teacher?
Probably falling asleep during my teacher training – it would have been fine if the kids hadn’t noticed…
What is it like working with children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND)?
Working with children with SEND is both a challenge and a real pleasure. They often see the world in a different way and that lends a really interesting quality to their work. I wish I could give them all the additional support that they need, but I also have a busy classroom of 34 students to look after – balancing the two as a new teacher is so tricky. I do think so much more could be done to help SEND kids but as always, the budget never stretches far enough.
Do you ever secretly play favourites with children in your classes?
Eh, of course! Privately I always have favourites, but I have to be super careful – teenagers are incredibly emotionally intelligent, and they will pick up on it instantly.
Have you ever taught a child that you really don’t like?
Yes, there’s only been one student who I’ve had a real issue with; he was deliberately disruptive, disrespectful, and when challenged could become violent, largely because of the emotional baggage he was carrying into school from home. Unfortunately, it became a case of removing him from the classroom, which made me feel awful – like I was failing him – but I had to keep the other kids safe. It really was a rock/hard place situation.
What do you find to be the weirdest aspect of your job?
Talking with parents. I think that’s more to do with my age, as I’m still at the stage where most of my students’ parents are older than me – I get an awful case of imposter syndrome before every parents’ evening.
Also, talking with pre-teens and teenagers all day has made coming home to adult conversation pretty funny – not everyone, it seems, knows or cares what TikTok is.
What is the hardest thing you have had to deal with as a teacher?
One of my students told me that her younger brother, who was only 5, had been diagnosed with leukaemia. It was quite clear while talking with her that she had no idea what that meant, and she thought he would be fine in a couple of weeks. It wasn’t my place to explain it any further, but I told her that I was always there if she needed to talk. I had to excuse myself from class and lock myself in the loos to cry after that, thinking about how she would cope once the real scale of that illness hit home.
Do you think that teachers are paid enough?
That is a tricky question to answer. Many people think that teaching is like any other job – once you clock out, that’s it for the day. However, I am taking work home most days and it is a job that is deceptively all-consuming. The job is so rewarding in lots of ways, but I don’t think there is any teacher who has decided on this career path because of the money. However, I don’t feel in any position to complain – look at nurses’ pay, and they’re saving lives every day!
What is the gender balance among teachers in your school?
There are definitely more female teachers than male in my school, which isn’t always great. It’s really important for children – particularly disaffected boys – to have positive male role models, especially as many that I teach don’t have any at home.
Have you ever witnessed any staffroom affairs?
Not personally! But the stories I’ve heard…
I heard a story about a PE teacher who was caught having sex with another member of staff in his car...in the school car park.
Have you ever had to deal with staffroom politics?
Staffroom politics are arguably one of the worst parts of teaching. This job is stressful and enough without it – in a previous placement I felt drained all the time after being expected to 'pick sides' in arguments and made to feel unwelcome if I decided to stay out of it.
What’s the most awkward moment you’ve had when dealing with parents?
I once had a mum and dad who were separated start a really nasty argument in front of me and their daughter at parents’ evening. It was horrendous. Both the child and I were just sat there, unsure where to look or how to act. Eventually I had to interrupt and remind them where they were, and that it wasn’t appropriate to argue in a public place like that – I breathed a serious sigh of relief when they left.
Do you work outside of school hours regularly?
All the time! I’ll often be planning and marking on weeknight evenings and at the weekend – although I try to keep one day a weekend free from schoolwork.
Have you ever found working in a school has negatively affected your personal or social life?
Yes! I love teaching, but my social life has suffered a lot. I’m very lucky to have very understanding friends and family – they know that me disappearing off the radar has nothing to do with them and everything to do with trying to keep my head above water at school.
What do you do to switch off from being a teacher?
That's what the pub is for, right? I'll be honest and say I'm not sure I've figured out how to balance work and life yet. I just try to readjust the balance in the holidays and make up for lost time. Leaving work at work is something I’m still trying to work on. Teaching is emotionally draining, and if a child approaches you with a safeguarding issue, you have to pass that on and allow the relevant staff member to take it on. That doesn’t mean that you forget what they’ve said and can move on from the worry that it will cause you; and quite often, once it has been passed on, you don’t find out the next steps.
At the moment the problem isn’t recruiting people, the problem is keeping teachers on.
Do you think there should be more done to get people into teaching?
At the moment the problem isn’t recruiting people, the problem is keeping teachers on – often people do about three years and feel that the job is too challenging mentally. People are quick to judge teachers, having never been in their shoes. The pressure is piled on from all sides and if your school is not supportive, it makes the job totally unsustainable.
Do you think there is enough done to support teachers' mental health and wellbeing?
Sadly, no. This is individual to each school, but as a country we’ve got the balance with educational performance completely wrong. We’re putting teachers at risk and not doing nearly enough to support them, all for better Ofsted reports.
Have you ever thought about quitting?
Yes, there was one particular point this year where I didn’t think I was going to make it. Nothing I was doing seemed to be going right and my head was in completely the wrong place. I’ve been really lucky with my placement schools this year though and the staff have really rallied round because they understand how hard it is as a beginner.
Has working as a teacher ever made you reconsider having your own kids?
I’ve never been sure whether I want children of my own. If anything, teaching makes me feel less pressure in that regard; in my form group alone I have 26 kids, why do I need more?