Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Why I Left Teaching

When I left teaching, I toyed with the idea of sending a letter to Michael Gove (then Education Secretary). In the end, the obvious futility of the endeavour stopped me. But I rant about education so often, I figured I should probably make it into a post, and give people a chance to rant back.

I think my experience was relatively typical. I worked in a good school, with lovely staff, where people were, for the most part, very supportive of each other. 

And yet...

Test early and often

I won't go into the recent(ish) proposal to start testing kids at the age of 4. FOUR! I think it speaks for itself.

The buzzwords behind constant testing run something like "monitoring progress" or "assess achievement", or "troubleshoot early" or whichever sanitized bit of doublespeak you prefer. The problem is, it leaves no time for teaching.

At least Gradgrind was teaching facts. We're teaching tests.

You think I am exaggerating?

Here is a typical y7 (age 11-12) first term of French at my old school - note that we are still 5 years away from official formal testing - : out of a 12 week term, you take off at least two whole weeks for assessments, one week for end-of-term activities and three weeks to revise, engineer, and in the end copy and learn by heart the assessment itself (because that's what the GCSE is like). So, actual weeks left of teaching actual French words and actual grammar points to actually be able to form actual sentences and actually speak the language? 6. 

They spend half the year on the tests. 

And it shows in their attitude.

When I taught the polite "usted" to Y7 Spanish classes, I generally found a way to come to explain about Juan Carlos II, the dictatorship and the extraordinary recent history of Spain (which is quite important, if you take an interest in the country). Once, a boy, who was generally a keen student, interrupted me saying "What does this have to do with the test?" I told him his outlook on life was sad. But I believe we are making it so.

But why do we spend so long preparing the tests you ask? Why not let the kids just do it, like in the olden days? 

Because everybody needs the kids to succeed. We cannot afford to leave it to chance or the even less reliable work ethic of a pre-teen.

Make everybody have a vested interest in the kids' grades

The problem with this one, is that on paper, it sounds like a good thing. If everybody has (monetary, but not only) incentives to make the kids succeed, that's a great thing! Right!?

Depends what you think education is for. 

Because if we just want kids to all have the qualification at the end, we can just give it to them  at the start without tormenting anybody in the meantime. 

Here you go, Trevor. Well done for existing.

If teachers, schools and exam boards (yup, exam boards as well make their money out of kids getting good grades) all need the children to get a pass in order to get a rise or not be fired, no-one is left who actually needs them to have the knowledge which we are testing them for.

There is no independent party who can fail students without it having a direct impact on their pay or job chances.

And if students can't fail, well, no-one can actually succeed. If everybody gets a GCSE, not only is the GCSE meaningless in itself, but its contents are also gradually de-valued.

GCSEs were meant to represent the learning you had achieved : i.e, you know so much in maths, therefore you get a GCSE in maths. But if everybody needs you to get that GCSE, two things will happen : first, your teacher will teach you only what can be on the test, and spend a lot of time training you in test-taking (half the year, remember? And it gets worse as they get older), second, the exam board will gradually make it easier and easier for you to pass, because they get their money from schools choosing them, and schools need to choose exam boards than can guarantee good grades.

So you are left with test-math only, and as easy a type of test-math as the exam board can get away with.

The only thing suffering in this beautiful bouquet of joint interests, is education.

Destroy the teaching of grammar

Funny stories: 

1: When I was a trainee, I sat in on a class where the lesson was on time phrases. So the teacher wrote on the board:

On Monday's
On Tuesday's
On Wednesday's
On Thursday's
On Friday's
On Saturday's
On Sunday's

And thought nothing of it.

2: I was chatting with other teachers, all native speakers, wondering how to remember when to use practise or practice. I offered: "It's simple, the first one's a verb, the second's a noun."

That was helpful to exactly nobody.

Roughly what I sounded like to them.

And these are educated, conscientious people. With no understanding of grammar. 

Now grammar is essential when you learn a foreign language. Babies learning without it simply learn by heart sentence after sentence, trying them out in different situations, whilst parents correct the mistakes as they arise. That is an extremely time-consuming way of learning a language. No school can afford that much time given up to  foreign languages. So you HAVE to use grammar.

But we don't. We don't have the time, because the task is enormous, as very little has been done (or processed) in primary school, and because tests.

So we take the worst of both worlds: we teach foreign languages by giving students sentence after sentence illustrating the grammar points we are trying to make. As the test only requires them to learn the sentences by heart, they promptly forget the grammar. And after 5 years and a French GCSE, they can't create a single original sentence on their own in French.

Invent moronic ways of testing

Which leads me to the moronic (sorry, but that is the appropriate term) way in which these all-consuming tests are created.

So, how do you test the French of pupils without making sure they can construct a sentence? (Because that'd be hard and the grades would go down at first.)

Old-fashioned test. They didn't know any better.

Easy: you make them learn by heart 200 words they do not understand, and tadaaa! it sounds like they can speak French. 

Unfortunately, as they do not understand grammar, they put these 200 words together by collating the examples you gave them as you tried to teach them the grammar. The teacher knows they are going to do that, and also knows that s/he NEEDS them to get a good grade. So s/he will engineer the examples so that put together, they form a coherent whole.

And the pupils often have absolutely no idea what they are reciting.

Which is incredibly hard. You try learning by heart 200 sounds that don't make any sense! It's tricky. And it doesn't teach you how to speak French. So it is an entirely pointless and extremely difficult exercise. 

And the students are aware of that, so they hate languages, fail to communicate with other Europeans, and fester in the misunderstandings.

Teachers are also aware of that. But it appears their opinion doesn't matter much to test-makers.

I know less about other subjects, but judging by the history students I taught at university and their obsession with bias which left no place for actual knowledge of facts or actual understanding of historical documents, I would say it's probably just as moronic.

Pressure teachers till there's none left

This is the original letter I wrote at the time of my leaving. If you can feel the exhaustion in it, I will have done what I can.

Exhausted. Funny story: neither of us is a teacher there anymore.

Dear Mr Gove,

I am addressing you today because I am about to leave teaching.

I went into the profession with a lot of ideals, a lot of energy, and very little worry about career and money. I wanted to make a difference, this much-snorted at concept. And yet I am leaving. I still think that forming young minds is an amazing thing to be doing, and rapport with pupils is most of the times something extremely rewarding. I loved my job, and yet I am leaving. I am leaving because, no matter how rewarding the job can be, it is not worth it.

In my first year of teaching, I was made to feel incompetent by a parent who was willing to give up half an hour of her time (and mine) to call me, shout at me, then methodically demonstrate to me how I had ruined her daughter’s life.

My fault on this occasion, Mr Gove, was that I had not set homework properly.

You can try and write me off as a truly incompetent teacher as this point if it helps you vindicate your vision of education. The truth is I am not. I am valued, I have an impact on children, I know I inspire them. And yet I am leaving, at the end of this school year. Because the type of vexations I have just described is symptomatic. It did not on its own make me change my career plans, but it is a perfect example of what it feels like to be a teacher today. 

We are expected to be flawless robots, who tick every box it pleases the government to create. Yet we are still supposed to challenge pupils. We have to communicate with parents, fill in data sheets, reports, questionnaires, or any piece of paper-work, yet still innovate and inspire, yet still monitor children's health and well-being, yet still plan lessons in details, and mark their work constantly and positively. 

Did anyone ever pause to calculate exactly how long all this takes? Time 300 pupils?

We are supposed to face challenges, misbehaviours, open criticism, mockery and spite from parents, pupils and journalists and somehow keep ourselves going even if it is at our expense, even if it is at the expense of our families and our own children.

I understand why you would want such teachers, but I personally don’t feel equal to the task. Because in the current state of things, being a teacher is a thankless exhausting task, which does not create any form of recognition from parents, the public or our government.

That is why I am leaving.

Good luck to my fellow teachers, I admire you immensely. 

So that's where education's arrived. I don't know about you, but I am not very keen on it. 

Feel free to disagree or cheer in the comments.


  1. We have the same problem over here, and I can't tell you how many homeschoolers I know who are former teachers. Homeschooling isn't a certain cure, however, and coming into it as a former teacher sometimes makes it tricky to take advantage of all the ways that homeschooling can be better than public school, because of the mindset that "this is what school looks like, not that". As for grammar, even homeschooling isn't a great help if one doesn't choose curriculum carefully. I had to stop in the middle of my son's reading lesson the other day to explain that "is" and "was" are not, in fact two different verbs, but different forms of the same verb. (It's a scripted curriculum where I just read out loud what is on the page, and was teaching that these are two different "being verbs".) I cannot believe how difficult it is to find a foreign language curriculum that actually teaches grammar. Even many Latin curriculums (which we are doing because it is supposed to be so beneficial for learning the structure of language), only try to teach children vocabulary, without giving them the orderly structure of grammar to understand how to use the words. It's very frustrating.

    1. We are very tempted to try homeschooling ourselves, once we can live on one income. But yes, I can well imagine it'd be hard to "unlearn" the teacher ways! I already worry about how I would teach though, especially as Jude will have to juggle with two languages!
      For grammar, there is a French website which is very helpful, reviewing and telling you where to find old schoolbooks (before people decided grammar was useless) I would be very surprised if there wasn't an American equivalent!