47 is the not so magic number…

No one in teaching should look forward to their 47th birthday. Especially if they’re female. Anecdotal evidence shows that the most likely kind of teacher to need help from their union caseworker is the “older female”, and by that I mean 47+. The most alarming pattern is being replicated in school after school, where experienced teachers, who have done a good job for many years, achieving good results for the children in their care, are suddenly finding themselves on the wrong end of a numerical target, or receiving an R.I. in their observation.  Suddenly all their tricks of the trade are considered out dated or unacceptable, they are side lined, their contribution and wisdom no longer worth heeding. They gradually lose confidence that they can do the job they’ve done perfectly well for so long, and that loss of self-confidence, coupled with the bombardment of new initiatives, targets and methods, turns an experienced wise owl into a bewildered and exhausted shell of a person. Now that many schools have adopted a pay and performance management policy that links performance with “capability” procedures, a teacher can find themselves frighteningly quickly on “informal support”, which is the start of the slippery slope. The speed of demise is often the most shocking aspect.

So what happens next? Well, lots of older teachers are swapping higher paid, higher responsibility roles for mainstream teaching ones. They sacrifice their responsibility pay, and often their upper pay spine pay for a quieter life. Some go further and drop their hours. They hope that, by stepping out of the firing line, they may be spared some of the flack. And this does work for many. They appreciate the head-space they have now gained to concentrate on the core role of teaching, even if they’ve got less money in the bank each month, and of course in their pension pot. However, it can backfire, and sometimes so gradually they don’t even notice for a term or two.

In order to avoid ever going through such upset and humiliation again, they set to with the planning and copious in-depth marking to such an extent that they’re spending as much time or more on school work than they did when they were full time. And that’s just to stand still and achieve what this year’s targets and demands require. Every term, every year it’s that bit more difficult. How can this be sustainable?

These are not the kind of teachers that the government or Ofsted would have you think. Not the “read-the-paper-while-the-pupils-copy-page-37-into-their-exercise-books” kind of teacher. (Do they even exist at all?) These are the fun, practical, no-nonsense, get-things-done teachers who are fantastic to have on trips and residentials, who put on great class assemblies and after-school activities or special events, who have inspired so many children with their own-brand methods, who put in the extra time with a child who has fallen behind – not because of the box-ticking, but because they want that child to catch up and do well. They are being driven out in large numbers and their loss is an absolute tragedy. Think of a good teacher from your school days – it’s likely to be one of these kind; the box-ticking, hoop-jumping types are just too beige to stay in the long-term memory, after all.

We should be cherishing these teachers and finding ways of letting them continue to light up children’s education, even if their faces don’t fit the one-size “ideal”. Who says teachers should all do it the same anyway? Where on earth did that come from? My mother, long since retired, taught for 35 years and said she came back into fashion every 7 years. “I just wait for my turn to be fashionable again,” she would laugh. In those days, you could hang on for your turn to come around again. You didn’t have to bend with the wind – as long as your results stayed true. I think it was called respecting colleagues’ professionalism. Another thing that’s gone well out of fashion…

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