My three weeks of hell..!

I wrote a book last year that describes the routes into teaching and a few chapters on how to survive your first few years in the job. I’ve always refused to be negative about teaching, teachers and education.

But I also refuse to deny the reality of what a very difficult and challenging job it can be. I always start my talks to trainee teachers by congratulating them on their choice of a career. I tell them how much I admire their courage, indeed their bravery in taking on such a demanding and complex role.

Sometimes they look rather confused by this and I can tell they don’t really know what I’m talking about… yet.

Last year a new teacher, about to start her NQT year, sat in one of these talks.  She wrote to me recently and I asked her how her first year in teaching was going. This was her reply…

 Alan, you may be sorry you asked…

Three weeks ago I had Pupil Progress Meetings.  48% of my children in Maths, Reading and Writing had only made 1-2 points progress.  This is due to inflated levels by their previous teacher (now on long-term ‘sick’ leave).  I now have interventions coming out of my ears and double the workload I already had.

Then it was parents evening.  All went ok till I got a parent who is ‘an educator’ (her words). She sat opposite, literally looking down her nose at me as her husband asked the questions.  Then she dived in.  Her son came to me with inflated levels and would only write 3 sentences (badly) for me in September.  He is now writing pages and sending me notes on how much he is enjoying his learning. I think he is doing brilliantly, but she had other ideas.

“Why wasn’t he in the ‘gifted and talented’ programme? What was I going to do about it?  Why hasn’t he progressed?  What was I proposing to do next?  Why did I not give her son feedback?”

 One hostile question after another… Then she made the comment;

 “I am an educator, I know the importance of feedback!” 

Actually, she had missed her appointment to see her own son’s books. Had she come in, she would have seen the endless comments of praise and encouragement I always write.

We went around like this for 20 mins making me late for other parents waiting.  She then moaned about not having enough time. I hadn’t had a break, a drink or enough time trying to accommodate other parents.  Still she wouldn’t stop and continued to complain.

I still had four sets of parents still to see.  I felt under such attack and the adrenalin was pumping so much I have no idea what I said to other parents when finally I saw them.

When it ended, I left the room a wreck.  I am ashamed to say that tears just flowed out of me.  One of the governors saw me and gave me a massive hug, which made me cry even more.

Next day my head was very supportive. But the thing is Alan, I am working 6 days a week, 12 hours a day and nothing is easy.  Everything is hard.  I know I will come across parents like this again and I really shouldn’t have to.  No teacher should have to put up with this.

Then last week, I had to face two days of 360 degree monitoring.  It was done by another Headteacher from a local primary school but it was like Ofsted all over again. 

It went really well and I got ‘goods’ for both of my observed lessons. She told me my relationship with the children was outstanding and she would happily have her own children in my class.  

But I am sorry to say that this positive feedback, much as it was needed, has not helped.  I am so overworked and stressed that I am not sleeping.  Next year I will be expected to do clubs and coordinate a subject.  I cannot find the time to do what I have to do now. The marking alone is killing me. How on earth will I manage two extra responsibilities?!

My head is delighted with me but I have no life.  My kids will be putting themselves up for adoption soon and I think my husband is on the verge of divorcing me.  I just feel that all the stress and work involved is just not worth it for £1300 a month.  Not at the expense of my family.

I didn’t go into teaching for the money, but I didn’t think it would ever be as hard as this.  I cringe when I think of how happy and excited I was that day when we had that final lecture from you. 

I had no idea what I was letting myself in for…

I am going to tell her as I have done many others, that the darkest hour always comes just before the dawn.

But when the dawn finally does come, so does self-knowledge. And that self-knowledge may include an understanding that teaching, for no fault of one’s own, is sometimes just too demanding and too complex – even for the most courageous and determined.

Teaching is not for everyone and if you are seriously re-thinking your career choice, that is not a failure on your part but the display of essential characteristics of every professional person – which is to reflect and evaluate.

Alan Newland worked as a teacher and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures on teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk.  You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk. His new book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) is published in February 2014.


17 thoughts on “My three weeks of hell..!

  1. Slightly left-field, but the lyrics to this song pretty much summarise my thoughts and feelings on the matter…

    Always sobering to see a teacher at breaking point. The comforting reality is that for all the pressures and stresses and systems and bullshit, we are still the masters of our own destinies in the classroom, where it counts. That is and should be paramount. Hopefully, with that in place everything else falls into perspective.

  2. I know this might sound wrong… but you should also tell her to stop working so hard. I’d say she needs to start working smarter. As teachers we do ‘our best’ and working 12 hour days 6 days a week is not right. What should be routine challenges like dealing with confrontational parents, shouldn’t tip her over the edge like that and her manager should step in to support her. I’m a trainee ICT teacher at the moment and because I’ve found, in teaching, no-one tells you to stop working or says “right, you’ve done enough” protecting yourself from upsetting the work/life balance is vital for a healthy career.

    1. I think that’s excellent advice pmlmedia and I’ll pass it on. While her headteacher is supportive and sympathetic, nevertheless he is part of the problem if he is not managing the work-flow and the expectation on her that makes her think she has to cope with such a level of workload. You are quite right – you must protect yourself in the end because ultimately, no one else will do it. The trouble is, teachers are often their own worst enemies in this – they want to do as much as possible for the children, but sometimes, that is simply mis-guided.

      I remember a colleague saying to me when I was a young teacher over-working and getting stressed, she said “What do you think will happen if you drop dead tomorrow? Do you think you will get a medal or a have a statue built in your name? No. They’ll just get someone else to take your place. Now go home..!”

      Thanks for that very sensible advice.

      1. I laughed-out-loud at your anecdote “Do you think you will get a medal or a have a statue built in your name?” – it’s sooo true and I’m going to write that on my quotes page in my planner which I turn to when I’m feeling the pressure! I heard another good one the other day that made me chuckle…something like… “Teaching is not rocket science…It’s more complicated than that..etc” ha ha

      2. Yes, and here’s another couple of gems from the same teacher who told me the one about the medals and the statue – again when I’d been working too hard. She said, “If you keep giving, those kids will keep taking – keep something back for yourself.” and finally “Protect yourself because kids can be like vultures… they’ll pick every last bit of flesh you’ve got, and when they’re finished with you, they’ll just fly off and do the same to someone else..!”

  3. there is a good song that comes to mind as you sail the storm tossed seas of school life;
    “everywhere you go, always take the weather with you”

    1. Ha ha – thanks rgesthuizen and it’s good advice. And I assume by that you are reinforcing the idea that whatever school you find yourself in, take with you a positive determination not to be ground-down by the local and temporary pressures and stresses of the ‘here and now’ – but make things happen for you in the ay you want them to. My mother gave me the advice “You make your own luck in life” – which I think is something similar to what you are saying. Thanks very much – I’ll pass that on. Nice vid btw – until he gets to the clapping bit… good job he’s not stood in front of a school assembly 😉

  4. If one is conscientious, teaching will always be really demanding. However, I’m still at it, 31 years down the track. I’m a secondary English teacher and so glad I’m in Australia, where we don’t yet have inspection – it went out in the ’60s.

    Meanwhile, now I’m a seasoned oldie, I have a strategy to deal with those aggro parents, at least one of whom invariably turns up to ‘have a go’ at parent-teacher interviews – because it’s so productive to berate their kid’s teacher in front of a queue of waiting parents. As if. I tell them the interview is over and arrange an appointment with a coordinator. If interested:

    Apologies for linking to my blog on your blog, BTW.

    Cheers from Australia.

  5. As an NQT myself I can completely relate to “Three Weeks of Hell” – 6 weeks into my first term I received a 2 thousand word email of personal abuse from a parent because I took a single housepoint away from her child (an everyday occurrence within the school!) including comments such as: why have you become a teacher? There is no love or joy in your classroom, lots of other parents feel the same way I do…my child now dreads coming to school… and it took me months to get over it.
    Entering my third term of teaching, I can already see how much my style, confidence and attitude has changed – I used to be exactly the same as the girl talking about her hellish time, but slowly you do learn techniques that can take the pressure off and ease your workload. Luckily for me I also have an incredibly supportive mentor and colleagues who are always telling me to GO HOME! at a reasonable hour!

    I think, overall, the most important thing you can do is have a network of friends – some who are teachers themselves – who can empathise with what you’re going through and enjoy your highs with you as well as being a shoulder to cry on.

    1. You’ve got a great perspective there pink&blue – a real balance of knowing how appalling, yes appalling the job can be sometimes as well as a growing understanding of how to manage the pressures and stresses of it. I think you have given some really excellent advice to your NQT colleagues, so thanks very much for posting that comment.

      The email you describe is genuinely appalling – but you know what? the way you are handling things makes me convinced that in a couple of years time if (and when) you get another email like that… you will simply laugh it off and treat it with the derision it deserves..!

      Good Luck in the rest of your NQT year. Keep me posted on how it goes..!

    2. Like many other nqt’s I too am exhausted but also do not feel my productivity reflects the effort. Work smarter is great advice but in these early weeks we don’t know how! Being told it will get easier is also relayed to us in good heart but it’s hard to believe even though logically it must be true.
      Pink&blue’s story has cut through some of the blur of overwhelm.
      Thank you for the hope!!

    1. Hi Phillprolt,

      I’m inclined to agree with that. Sometimes the pressure is coming directly from school leaders and headteachers who are passing on the pressure to those least able to take it when they should be absorbing it themselves. Sometimes teachers can be their own worst enemies – sadly.

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