If you believe the news then teachers are leaving the profession in their droves. Apparently nearly a third of new teachers leave the profession within five years. Here I am and, at the end of my fifth year as a film teacher in a sixth form college, I’m writing my resignation letter. Just like my students, I have been reduced to a statistic.
A little context….
I’ve just come from yet another staff briefing that has overrun, leaving me no time to set up my lesson. During the meeting we were given a morale-boosting analysis of the serious and significant drop in the college’s achievement rates and which areas of the curriculum are dragging us all down. This was followed by another reminder that Ofsted is looming large on the horizon and we are all scrabbling to hang on to that elusive ‘Good’ rating. This sense of impending doom is being used as an encouraging way to implore us all to work just that little bit harder; to give just that little bit more. We were then reminded that our latest progress and monitoring point is fast approaching and were treated to yet another fascinating definition of the difference between a students progress grade, predicted grade, their national expected grade, their ALPS prediction and their GCSE point score. All of them strategies to attempt to sort and measure our students into beautiful, neat spreadsheets that will be tallied, scrutinised and held against us at the end of the year.
What all of these strategies fail to take into account is that we deal in the business of teenagers. There is no column for being seventeen and hormonal. Let alone ones for poverty, bereavement, anxiety, eating disorders, depression, drug and alcohol abuse, or being in care. Nonetheless, we are also reminded of the correct intervention system for any students who are not meeting the expectations deemed appropriate for them by the magic, all-knowing spreadsheet. So at least if your statistics do look a little below par at the end of the year, you have a lovely paper trail that proves you followed protocol, despite it not making any difference to the students in question.
With all this on my mind before my first cup of tea on a Monday morning, perhaps understandably, I’m not in the best of moods when I enter my first film class of the day. Upon arriving in flurry I find this stuck to my door…
My students are all quietly working pretending that they had nothing to do with it or the plethora of other amusing images that seem to have appeared all around the room. I laugh and tell them they have no idea how much I needed a giggle this morning.One of them asks me to come and take a look at an animation they’ve been working on, a couple of the other students turn around to watch her play it through for me on her screen. Together we start talking about what we loved about it and where we think improvements could be made. Suddenly all that weight from the stressful staff meeting is lifted and I’m just doing what I’ve always done, what I think teaching truly is; talking to other humans beings about ideas.
Another student pipes up and compares the animation we have just watched to that of another Hollywood director, another points out that all famous directors seem to be men, and before I know it an animation class has devolved into a deep discussion about gender equality. These are the moments in teaching I love; they are moments of true interaction and they will always be more important to me than any grade or number. I love it when things go off on tangents. Tangents mean my students are thinking independently, they’re asking questions, they are engaged with life.
Despite every indication to the contrary I have always felt that my job isn’t just to teach a subject. Instead I prefer to think that my job is to help my students teach themselves. To spark their curiosity, help them consider different perspectives, and to engage with the joy of living. This is why I often entertain conversations with my students about anything and everything, subject specific or not. I am conscious of treating each and every thing my students raise with equal value whether they want to talk about feminism, politics, the latest movie trailers, or a video of a man in a T-Rex costume attempting to complete an assault course (this comes up far more often than you might imagine). I do not differentiate simply because the goal should always be engagement and if something, whatever it is, sparks enthusiasm in these young people then it has value and should be considered worthy of my time. Frivolity is welcome in my classroom, it gives us all a break from the constant pressure of the system baring down on their young shoulders. If I have taught my students anything I hope that it is that whatever happens, in whatever situation in life, there is always space for fun.
Maybe that all sounds very highfalutin but that’s what tangents represent for me. Too often young people are portrayed as passive consumers of life, not proactive participants with the power to make change. And often ‘passive’ is how they arrive. Products of an education system that teaches them that there is always a right answer, that making mistakes means failure, that their opinions are invalid unless they’re the ones that the mark scheme is looking for. It takes time and a hell of a lot of encouragement to un-teach that. It also takes a lot of looking like a fool and proving that you’re not infallible yourself. I’m sure there are a great many people, many of whom are my colleagues, who would think that students look to their teachers to be the expert in the room. In my experience, students just want to know you’re human.
Teenagers are a weird and awkward breed, they are living and breathing definitions of the word ‘self-conscious’. I like to think that I can at least demonstrate that I am living proof that growing into a weird and awkward adult might not be so bad. The really important lessons are the ones where they realise they can be both good and bad at stuff, that they can make mistakes and that when they do it’s not the end of the world. They are no less valuable as a result. Eventually, with encouragement, most of them realise they have it in them to be brave enough to follow their own convictions.
So why on earth, with all the joy I get from being in the classroom am I writing my resignation letter?
Like so many of my colleagues I love what I do in the classroom but everything else is bullshit; I can’t think of a more apt word for it. I cried when I told my students I was leaving and they cried too. I cried because I know how much what I do matters and the depth of the relationships I’m losing by leaving. I cried because it breaks my heart to put my own sense of wellbeing and self-worth above those of my students.
Life is too short for the daily battle that it is trying to get through the working week, of keeping all those balls in the air, all those plates spinning. It’s not worth the financial fight to make ends meet because my part-time salary doesn’t cover the cost of living and the college couldn’t afford to offer me a full-time contract even if they wanted to. Every year the teaching budget gets slimmer and every year we are all asked to do more with less. It is simply not possible to tick every bureaucratic box, drive up grades, provide ample, and thoroughly documented, work experience and personal development opportunities whilst still meeting the pastoral and emotional needs of all of my students. Not unless I sell my soul to the spreadsheets, disengage and start seeing my students as numbers. And that’s just something I cannot do. To take the humanity out of teaching is to take away the joy of the profession and the very reason I chose it for my career in the first place.I simply do not have the emotional energy to keep giving what I’m giving. I am sick of ridiculous paperwork, stupid initiatives and data driven culture that does all it can to take the individual and the personality out of teaching. I can no longer cope with the commonly held opinion that my subject area has no value and does not offer my students a worthwhile future. “He’s planning on taking three art subjects, don’t you think that might limit him?” our careers adviser once said to me. I doubt you’d ever hear that said about a student wanting to take three of the much prized (ahem, funded) STEM subjects. I can’t hear another parent ask me “so how can this subject actually help them get a job?” as if the creative industries aren’t worth around £84bn to the UK economy a year and aren’t growing at twice the rate of our economy as a whole. I can’t hear another teacher, a colleague, an “ally” describe taking art subjects as “soft” or “not academic”; I’ve never met an arts teacher who is not offended and demoralised by this assumption.
So the time has come to take my own advice and have the courage to follow my own convictions. No one is irreplaceable and I know that my students will be just fine without me. As a sixth form teacher, I am a stepping stone. Some students have loved me and others have hated my style. I’m okay with that. Teaching has never been a popularity contest. Maybe they’ll never pursue my subject further, or remember the precise definition of mise en scene. I don’t mind. But maybe one day, sometime in their lives they’ll remember a stupid conversation they had once about a T-Rex doing an assault course. And just maybe, in some very small way, they’ll learn to laugh more and worry less.
Teaching, for me, has always been about love. Not just the love of a subject, but of life, and of people. About wanting others to feel as alive as you do. But I don’t feel alive. I feel tired. And as sorry as I am to admit it, my students were inadvertently bang on the money with the silly baby llama meme they stuck on my wall; I don’t need no drama. Not anymore.