Teachers get a raw deal. People constantly make comments about how much holiday we have and how we finish at 3pm. Or we get compared with front line and NHS workers who save lives and how nothing we do is remotely close.
So this post is a shout out to teachers, specifically secondary teachers (because I used to be one so can comment on it), who are extremely busy at this time of year. It’s not meant to be a political post or a comparison with aforementioned NHS or front line workers, or a moaning post about how little teachers are paid. It’s a post to explain what teachers do at this time of year and why comments about long holidays and short working days won’t go down very well right now. It’s prime exam time. The goal is to have all your coursework in before the Easter holidays so that you can mark it all and still have a couple of weeks to get kids to make any changes. But Easter was early this year which means less time for the kids so invariably means intervention days with the kids during the easter holidays, if you weren’t already doing these, and no sleep for the entire of April/May while you mark it.
The government wants your child to be a statistic (ok, slightly political but relevant), so in a lot of subjects, their target GCSE or A-level (or other qualification) grade isn’t based on a teacher assessment or even based on that subject, it’s based on data which comes from primary school SATs/end of year 6 data usually in English/maths/science. So a music target is based on an achievement in science, for example. For many pupils this grade is set too high so they’ve already been set up to fail. Not to mention that the exam syllabi keep changing every 30 seconds and some students were actually having to sit exams for content they hadn’t learnt in years 7-9 and had to have crammed in, rather than having 3 years to learn it because a politician didn’t understand how schools actually work and decreed it.
Because of league tables and how schools are funded by the government, schools need the pupils to achieve their predicted target grades. If you don’t meet your stats, you don’t get funding for that child and if you don’t get the money, headteachers have to make difficult decisions about what (or who) to cut. Which creates an enormous amount of stress for the child and teacher. Note- teachers always want the best from their kids work wise and want them to achieve their targets. But these have to be reasonable and achievable targets, not ones generated by a computer and based on league tables and other random data.
So this time of year is fraught. And students are bombarded every which way because everyone has deadlines to meet and target grades to achieve. It’s too much for them, so at least three times a day you’re trying to support a child who’s feeling broken by the stress of it and has had a meltdown, had a fight with someone or just generally isn’t coping. This is normal stuff that teachers do on a day to day basis, but because it happens more often in exam time, there’s less time in general, so you find yourself torn between making sure the mental health of the child in front of you improves and trying to keep other students on track with their intervention.
Intervention means where a student isn’t meeting their target grade, or in danger of not meeting it, so you put in place support measures for them. These sessions usually take place at lunchtime, before school, in teachers’ ‘free’ (planning and assessment time) periods or after school. Sometimes at weekends too. Students don’t like coming to these sessions so you usually have to hunt them down. Or they’re needed in other subjects. And they feel pulled in all directions so they do what most people do in circumstances like these- panic and stop turning up to any of them.
Which means a lot of hunting and phone calls and, in some cases, turning up to children’s houses to get them to come in or give you their coursework. It’s knackering, both physically and mentally, and the more time you spend chasing one student, the less time you have for the others. But this is time you don’t actually get as extra on your timetable, you’re still expected to teach all your other classes and run all the clubs and do the duties you already had. And you can pretty much guarantee that the student you’ve been desperate to give help to turns up at your door when you’re teaching a year 7 class, but you know if you let them go, you won’t see them again. So then you end up trying to teach a class while also giving intervention to a student. Or 3.
And teachers are humans too. So when stressed teenagers aren’t coping, they tend to shout and swear at the people trying to help them. Which, even though you can understand and empathise, you’re stressed and tired too and no one appreciates being sworn and shouted at multiple times a day. The rest of the school pick up on this atmosphere, meaning ks3 pupils get more fraught and tense and teaching them becomes more challenging behaviour wise. They also still deserve a decent education, they need to have assessments and you still have all their planning and marking to do. Believe it or not, you can’t rock up and make something up on the spot and get away with it!
It’s the time of year for options to be made for pupils in the year below choosing GCSE and A-levels. If you don’t have enough pupils recruited, you can’t run the course. But everyone is in the same boat so you’re ‘competing’ for students to be on your courses. I tended to say ‘pick a subject because you love it, not because another person tells you to’ but it didn’t make it any less stressful. You have to offer taster classes, prepare presentations for parents and showcase your department.
Despite putting in the extra work at school, you don’t get to leave it all at school. You have to do all the marking you didn’t do in the day. One thing that people don’t realise about intervention is that it all has to be documented. Every phone call, chat with child, action plan, progress made has to be documented as evidence for people like OFSTED. Which means by the end of the week, you can find yourself having written the equivalent of a primary school teacher’s class worth of end of year reports just about your GCSE class. Every week for the whole of exam season.
Another thing that people don’t realise is that social media, educational social media and emails are used all the time by students. Which is great for so many things and it means you can offer help from home while they’re working on it. Great for the kids, not so much for the teachers. If you don’t reply straight away, chances are they’ll say ‘you didn’t reply so I didn’t do it’. And you need them to do it. So you end up hearing the email ding and picking up your phone straight away to deal with it. Kids like to do their work at about midnight in a lot of cases (not good for them either) so I have been known to be emailing help at 1am when my phone dinged and I woke up to deal with it.
And everyone underestimates the emotional aspect of teaching. You worry about your kids- and they are ‘your kids’. If someone was particularly upset or had a crisis of confidence, you worry if they’re ok. You worry about the kid who isn’t coping. You worry that you’ve not done a good enough job for them. You worry that you’ve failed them by not giving them enough help. I used to wake up in the middle of the night singing pupils’ compositions (which usually meant they were good if they were stuck in my head). You take it personally even though it’s not because even though the government only sees kids as a statistic in a league table, you can see them as humans who are put under an unbelievable amount of pressure to achieve a target grade decided by a computer when they were 11 years old, before they’d even set foot in a secondary school.
GCSE and A level classes make up a lot of a teacher’s timetable, but in my subject’s case, I still also taught all of key stage 3. So that’s 8 classes per year group for year 7 and 8 x 30, which is the average number of students per class. Summer term is usually parents’ evening for year 7/8 in most secondary schools and most of the time, you give them the academic report at the same time so they can talk about it. So that’s 16 classes x 30 = 480 reports. You can’t just write your reports when you want to and you can’t always do this from home because the reports are usually done on SIMs which is one of the most irritating programmes which exists- the ‘session’ is usually only open for 6 weeks and the remote access is so irritatingly slow it’s enough to tip anyone over the edge. So 6 weeks x 5 (working days) is 30. 480 reports divided by the amount of days (30) is 16. Meaning as well as all the exam stuff, you also have to write 16 year 7 and 8 academic reports per day just to be able to get them in before the deadline. This would be a lot of extra work anyway, never mind when you’re already up to your eyeballs in it. And copying and pasting and changing s child’s name isn’t allowed.
Admin and running around isn’t why you became a teacher though. Working with the kids is why you became a teacher. Seeing them achieve and working hard and enjoying your subject is why you do it. When something clicks with a student, it’s a great feeling for both of you. I really liked the challenging schools I worked in, and, thankfully, the schools I worked in placed the emphasis on the students being seen as humans and not statistics and they fought bloody hard for the pupils. But academies and other schools don’t necessarily care if English is the child’s third language. Or if someone’s mum killed herself the year before and the child is still struggling. Or if someone broke up with their boyfriend (which has a massive impact). Or self image issues. Or if it was Ramadan during exam season. Some kids don’t eat breakfast because there isn’t any at home, so I used to do a breakfast club in exam season so I knew they’d go into exams with the best chance.
Notice I’ve never mentioned pay at any point. You don’t get a bonus if your kids get their target or exceed it, like you do in other sectors. You don’t get paid overtime or antisocial working like you do in other industries. You definitely don’t get the support of the general public like the junior doctors do and I think you’ll find a lot of schools have started sneaking in the extra hour here or there that teachers don’t get paid extra for but it takes time away from their prep time. Teachers don’t go into teaching because they expect to be paid well. Teachers go into teaching because they love it and care about the students.
So yes. We might get 13 weeks holiday on paper. We might technically finish at 3pm according to school bells. But while you’re actually conscious, and even sometimes when you’re not, you don’t stop working during those apparent free times, meaning comments about holiday and working hours will not be well received at this time of year! 🙂