The reality of being a teacher is very different from what one supposes when first reflecting on whether to enter the profession. For here, giddy notions of broadening horizons and expanding minds abound; the Grind, which we all know so well, does not tend to feature. We think we’re going to change the world, or at least the lives of those who come before us. Which might make us egotists, but at least it gets the value of a good education about right.
Of course, we know the reality is different. Retention rates tell us so, whilst recruitment rates might just mean that the message is starting to filter through. There are many explanations for this, but roughly speaking three key issues seem to present themselves – poor management, poor behaviour, and finally (and most commonly) excess workload.
As I have explored elsewhere, a focus on workload as the core issue for our stressed-out and anxious workforce is not entirely wrong, but it might not be the entire picture either. After all, plenty of other professions have serious workload issues but do not have the same retention issues that teaching has. Looking at meaning and value in work, and the absence thereof, can perhaps provide one further explanation for why this should be so.
The relationship between workload, responsibility and control is long established – it is no surprise that those at the bottom of the ladder, with the least control, tend to suffer most acutely from the stress/anxiety problem. Having too much to do is one thing; not having the power or the control to be able to do what you are asked to do is quite another. The rise of managerialism in our schools has often lead to a centralised, command-and-control approach to school leadership – it is not uncommon for teachers to be given responsibility for a predicament, without any of the control which might allow them to improve the situation. Here, the feeling of powerlessness, indeed of uselessness, proliferates.
But not only that. One thing that might strike those who enter teaching later than has become the norm is how little teachers are actually able to do. Not in terms of quantity of work, which is huge, but of meaningful responsibility. As hard as excess workload might be, one wonders if it is more acute when placed alongside other feelings, in particular the feeling of being underused and undervalued, which is the result of our shaping teaching into a low-control profession.
Teaching, in many ways, can be infantilising to those who thought it would be the very opposite – and all the more so to those who have experienced other career paths where this was not the case. Thus the chaffing juxtaposition between that person who entered teaching full of romantic ideals of self-agency and fulfilment, and the one grinding it out three years later – the feeling one has something to contribute runs up against the reality of not feeling like one is being allowed to meaningfully contribute. As such, teachers are increasingly the passive agents in the classroom – they deliver processes and follow systems over which they have little control or say, whilst those things that define who we are, that shape the unique contribution we could offer, rarely get space in our busy schedule.
And this is hard. Feeling underused makes that mountain of work appear all the more insurmountable. And the feeling of being undervalued which inevitably follows probably makes us all rather more sensitive than we should be. One wonders if this lack of meaning-making and value, intertwined as it is with a sense of self-worth, is what drives the recent focus on pedagogy and the fashion for turning teaching into a science – are the increasingly volatile debates over pedagogy symptomatic of the fact that this is the last place where teachers have some element of free agency? If so, one can understand why our new definitions of professionalism have come to be located there.
In other words, teachers are grasping for control, and pedagogy is (largely) the only place where we still have a trace of it – non-conformism here thus becomes an assault on our professionalism and is perhaps behind the desire to submit so much of what happens in the classroom to the demands of evidence and research. One cannot help but feel that relegating teacher judgement, skill and experience to the declarations of research journals doesn’t end up committing the same assault on the dignity of the profession it originally sought to counter.
As such, when we talk about the root cause of anxiety and stress in the profession, perhaps we need to unpack that ‘workload’ section a bit, and move understanding away from solely volume-based models of workload and toward terms like dignity, meaning and value of work. Which is a tad more ambitious than just having to write shorter reports or attend fewer meetings, but which might also provide a means of articulating why quite so many feel quite so disempowered in a profession which should, in theory at least, demand rather a lot more of us.