Disillusionment in Schools

This week’s “Most read” top ten on the TES homepage contains the following headlines:

“Teachers work more overtime than any other professionals, analysis finds”
“‘My heart sank when my husband said he wanted to retrain and join me in teaching'”
“‘I dread GCSE and A-level results day because I know my pupils’ results are likely to be flawed’”
“‘This is why running a school has become the impossible job…'”

It occurred to me that it’s very hard to go a day on Twitter without seeing a negative headline.  In truth there are a lot of very disillusioned teachers who like to read about others’ disillusionment.  I meet many such teachers when I do support work in schools and run courses.  I wonder what the main causes of disillusionment and frustration are?  Here’s my first draft list, there’s nothing surprising on here:

  • Working all day and all evening with little rest
  • Constantly changing goalposts
  • Battling each day with poor behaviour and disengaged pupils

I may have missed something out, but I think those are the main ones.  What I find most ridiculous, however, is the fact that two of the three can be addressed in-house and yet so often are not.

Working all day and all evening with little rest

Why do we do this?  The simple answer is that there is too much required of us in a day, and the biggest taskmaster is marking.  Countless schools up and down the country are requiring teachers to mark almost every piece of work produced, write “feedback”, give pupils time to respond to the feedback in lessons, then respond to the responses.  I have spent time with Heads of Department at the end of their tether, desperately trying to justify why they are having to impose the next marking expectation from on high, knowing that their team and themselves are already close to drowning.  Where did this behemoth of red, green and purple arise from?  What went well?  Nothing in the poor teacher’s evening.  Even better if… stupid acronyms were banished to the sea of forgetfulness.  The EEF recently produced a marking review which concluded that “it is simply not possible to provide definitive answers to all the questions teachers are rightly asking”.  In a nutshell, there is no evidence that marking in this way has a positive effect on students’ outcomes or learning.  As David Didau points out, there is actually no academic research as to the efficacy of students responding to marking, so all those hours spent writing comments for each student are potentially wasted hours.

So what is the alternative?  Something that requires fewer hours, for certain.  Toby French explains the difference between marking and feedback, which is a good start.  For a positive alternative, which I tried once myself this year (and which I thought worked just as well as writing on everyone’s practice paper, with much less time taken by me), I’d recommend reading Jo Facer’s blogpost on whole-class feedback.

With less time spent writing the same things, on the same mistakes, on 180 books each week or fortnight (while trying not to make it look like the same thing ’cause, you know, everyone’s different), we could actually focus on the content of our lessons, the strength of our subject knowledge and the clarity of our explanations.  Then we can think about how to share our resources so that each teacher in the department isn’t reinventing the wheel every year.  Collaborative planning and preparation?  When we’ve got the time, perhaps…

While I’m on the topic of workload reduction, take a look at how they addressed it at Michaela Community School.

Battling each day with poor behaviour and disengaged pupils

Another thing I see all too often is teachers desperate to leave because they are fed up of being sworn at or, all the more perniciously and all the less obviously, constantly being undermined by children who don’t think they ought to listen or do what’s asked of them.  But worse, being undermined by managers who tell them that their students will be better behaved if only they made their lessons more “engaging” or more “relevant“.  Mark McCourt writes brilliantly on the subject on his Emaths blog.  Let me be clear on this, a school which ensures good discipline amongst its students only has to worry about teachers who genuinely don’t give a monkeys about what their students learn, and those teachers are few and far between.  There are always things individual teachers can do to improve class behaviour (Tom Bennett writes a great guide here, Kris Boulton and Joe Kirby explain some fundamentals here) but without a school-wide ethos that elevates respect and hard work individuals’ efforts are limited in their effect.

With a well-behaved class, the great majority of teachers can teach their subject happily and can concentrate on doing the job really well.  Teaching should never be turned into a popularity contest and teachers should never be judged on their ability to entertain a class of teenagers (who will generally be much more entertained by YouTube than anything we throw at them anyway).  Teaching is about improving the knowledge, intelligence and life chances of those teenagers, and they don’t need to be entertained for that to happen.  In my experience, a class of students who are focused, trying hard and listening with a happy, relaxed and enthusiastic teacher can be given the most stereotypically mundane of tasks and they lap it up, because they are engaged by the fact that they come out of the classroom knowing more than they did when they went in.  Where behaviour is not a problem, teachers can get on with their job and their classes will do well.  If discipline is sorted we can free up our mental capacity for making our teaching better: I experienced this myself upon a change of school and have seen it elsewhere.

Constantly changing goalposts

This one is beyond the control even of our headteachers.  Until the DfE decides to leave education to the educators the game will always be difficult (and even then, there are some fundamental divides, I don’t think we could ever all be pleased with a centralised system).  Give us some more money for non-contact time and we can be better prepared.  But that’s not going to happen.  So in the meantime, we can work on behaviour and workload, then this one won’t seem quite so insurmountable.


It saddens me that there is so much disillusionment in schools, that cynicism is so rife, and yet I understand it, I’ve been there, I’ve seen it too many times.  Senior teams must always be assessing what’s important, what’s irrelevant, and what they are doing that directly contributes to the excessive workload or (un)happiness of their staff.  At the end of the day, pupils thrive when their teachers thrive.


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