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“So now I sit here quite alone blinded with tears; nor grieve for that, for nought is left worth looking at since my delightful land is gone.”
I’m borrowing part of Christina Rossetti’s Shut Out for the simple reason that it encapsulates perfectly how I felt when I left the world of teaching.
My journey out of teaching started when I became the deputy head of a primary school.
It was my first SLT role and I was looking forward to taking on new challenges. I was replacing a full-time DHT in a 0.6 capacity with two days in the classroom and a mixed Y5/6 class.
Perhaps this should have set alarm bells ringing, but it didn’t. I was optimistic and convinced that I would be making a difference. Aren’t we all invincible when we take on something new?
My responsibilities were varied, but my main task was to work on the data in the tracking system – it had been left behind as a series of Excel spreadsheets. I quickly recognised that this data handling and processing task was huge and wanted to move it to an information management system. Unfortunately the head vetoed this idea.
This one task became a huge burden. It drained the time I had to manage all my other responsibilities and resulted in me coming in earlier and leaving later. I often had the school to myself.
Ofsted was looming (it always seemed to be looming) and anxiety about this took shape in the form of non-negotiables (two-sided A4, colour coded, bolded and italicised in a small font), book looks, learning walks, drop-ins, observations, mocksteds, levelling moderation meetings…
Marked evidence in books was demanded for every lesson, every day.
My hours increased again.
I began drinking more. After all, everyone deserves something nice after a long, hard day at work, don’t they? Predictably, my work suffered. I was told that the school couldn’t afford to reduce my teaching hours and that I needed to manage my time more efficiently.
Pupil progress meetings came around, as they do. Over three weeks I ran more than ten meetings, each lasting two to three hours. I attended staff and SLT meetings. I slept less.
I barely remember those three weeks. As you can imagine, I fell behind in some of the other duties that were required. I dreaded the journey to school.
On several occasions I had to pull over to the side of the road to be sick. But I made it, wore a smile for the children and my colleagues and tried to carry on as normal, though I am not sure I knew what normal was anymore.
I became ill. I think I had been sick for quite a while, but just hadn’t realised. While I was off the school office rang. The headteacher needed information from a spreadsheet. The headteacher never rang me personally.
When I returned, earlier than I should have done, I had been left a message to see the chair of governors. The headteacher wasn’t in school and it was the Friday before half term.
At the meeting I was told I was being put on capability. I was numb. I returned to my class to finish my marking and cried. I couldn’t stop. In fact, I didn’t stop crying for nearly three months. I was broken.
I left the school. I left teaching. I went from being a confident, outstanding practitioner to a shell of a person who couldn’t leave the house.
I sit, three years later, looking through the gates into the garden that I once loved, unable to enter it because of a wall in my mind. It’s a wall of fear; fear that if I do return, it will all happen again.
I know that I am not alone, that this story is not unique. In fact, it is all too common. Many people have been broken by a system that, in its current form, consumes them, leaving them in limbo.
Despite my experience, I don’t blame the head. I was angry for a long time, but I also understand why they were like that. The pressure that they were under to get results was huge.
They were probably ill too. Stress at the top of an organisation is infectious. So many of our teachers are sick because their schools are sick; the schools are sick because the system is sick.
Ben Brown is a former primary deputy with 17 years’ experience. He now facilitates educational conversations that make a difference. Follow him on Twitter at @edroundtables.
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