Why I'm leaving teaching

A career change can be positive, yet is bound to require careful consideration and some agonising. There are times though, when we make changes for reasons beyond a simple desire to progress and sadly, that’s where I recently found myself. After over a decade teaching Art and Design in FE, I handed in my resignation. Because I don’t believe my dissatisfaction is caused by the college I’m leaving, I’ll not be applying to teach elsewhere.

Class Dismissed.

School’s Out.

Put simply, I'm leaving teaching because I love teaching. The following explanation of that apparent dichotomy is a personal perspective that aims to accept as much responsibility as it delegates.

Recently I’ve no longer felt that I am a teacher. Though in college my official title is 'lecturer', my goal is the same. We could debate semantics until Geoff Petty comes home and argue that you can't 'teach' anything, just facilitate opportunities in a 'learner centred environment' but that's beside the point and the chance to do either of those would be a fine thing. A chronic misalignment between my perception of the role and what I feel equipped to deliver has caused a great deal of personal stress which ultimately resulted in illness. Trying to do a job without the necessary tools is never easy but if you’re driven enough to achieve the outcome, you’ll get by. I can’t imagine anyone goes seriously into teaching without passion, determination and a genuine interest in the development and wellbeing of others, values that fuel us to persevere, find ways around difficult situations and dig deep into reserves of energy and goodwill long beyond the expiry date of our own mental health. This is neither noble, nor in the best interests of those we support so it was with no pride that a week after finally resigning, I realised I had left it too late. I was sleeping poorly, experiencing recurring headaches, stomach cramps and an elevated resting heartrate at over twice what is normal. With chest pains, shortness of breath and tearful episodes I realised I was not well enough to professionally take a class and felt no choice but to call in sick. My GP agreed this was work related stress and when I sought treatment through CBT I was advised by the counsellor that these techniques may not work as ‘they are designed to address irrational feelings’. Not a pleasant way to feel vindicated.

Now I’ve had space, I see this has been a long time coming. In the last few Septembers, I've thought 'it's got worse than last year' before berating myself for catastrophizing and determining to buckle down, get on with it and do my best for the young people I have the privilege to meet. Facing their challenges with them, communicating my love of art and supporting them to find creativity in their own unique ways. Helping them make their own tools to write their own stories, I never expected it to be easy or gratifying. Like many teachers, I found myself sharing more mistakes than successes and representing an institution to rebel against as adolescence was battled before me. I watched potential bloom in unlikely places, relished being proven wrong and occasionally enjoyed being proven right. I expected to be constantly pushed, questioned and tested. Those challenges are all part of the deal and worth every second of tight-for-time coffee-scented staff room complaining when you harvest those glimpses of personal discovery and success.

Sometimes you’re thanked for it but that's a bonus, not a right. Parents sob when progenies 'fly the nest' but teachers experience thankless abandonment annually, watching successes launch into promising sunsets and those who have yet to find their feet sadly coast for another year. All that emotional investment poured into a future you'll never share in. That's expected too and well worth absorbing any stress to buckle down and get on with. Bit less time this year? We'll manage. Few less staff in the department? We'll cope. The planning you did to respond to that new policy now needs completely re writing in order to meet requirements of the one that's just come in and strangely mirrors the one we had before the last new one got scrapped? Sure, let's do it. Not because it noticeably benefits the students (though we’ll make it if we can) but because we can then get it out of the way and focus our energies on the stuff that does. Because that's who matters right? The students?

It was no surprise to return after the summer to an email from senior management (although I think they now call themselves the ‘Strategic Development Team’) stressing that this year “high attendance and outstanding retention is critical.” When have teachers ever not wanted classes to be so enjoyable they’re rarely missed or courses so inspiring they result in achievement? That’s the human perspective though and humans are becoming milled into statistics because for each ‘planned number’ comes a fixed sum for the college, which leaves if they do.

I’ve stopped counting the ‘motivational’ talks I’ve witnessed aiming to demonstrate the sincere concern of the institution for individual lives. Pictures of happy faces achieving, stories of triumph over adversity, celebrations of our positive impact. It’s never long though, before these give way to pie charts, bar graphs and data tables, to statistics, targets, benchmarks and suddenly all the ‘real life’ smiles dissolve into a mire of political rhetoric and institutional dogma.

I’m not naïve enough to think stretched national funding doesn’t need criteria for local distribution but equally, I’m not cynical enough to ignore the counterbalance to each aforementioned success. These are the lives we can’t help because they fall the wrong side of this cut off or fail to meet that requirement. Recently this balance is tipping and for each achievement, I’ve encountered a different young life who’s had another handful of tacks scattered under the wheels of their ambition because they simply didn’t tick the right boxes.

Those who find themselves fortunate enough to meet entry criteria that are increasingly geared to funding targets instead of individual needs aren’t unaffected by the politics either. For all the talk of ‘quality’, they get what they’re given as staff attempt to squeeze into a 15 hour week everything needed to coach them through ticking yet more boxes. Demonstrate you can tick this box and jump through these hoops then you pass. Where learning was about experimenting and evaluating mistakes, without the staff, time or physical resources this genuine process increasingly takes a back seat to its own documentation. These are the futures further compromised by classes cancelled due to lack of cover or inadequate assistance in class for learning difficulties when staff have been ‘redeployed’.

I’m not framing senior management or national government as shadowy, malevolent figures secretly conspiring to undermine future generations. I know it’s impossible to help everyone and things can never be perfect but as long as teachers, support staff, managers, governors, MPs, parents and society generally are complicit in maintaining this system then it’s never going to be better than it is. I’ve no interest in apportioning blame, nor do I seek somewhere to point my finger. I’m willing to shoulder my share of stress as long as it achieves something but I no longer know what we are achieving. The longer my colleagues and I try to function effectively in an environment that erodes our ability to teach, the more susceptible we become to symptoms of stress which impact further upon our students.

These problems are complex, but I believe a key issue is in the requirement of colleges to operate as businesses in order to minimise reliance on public finances. Priorities shift from people to targets that generate statistics to justify business plans. We use limited resources to form partnerships that invariably benefit employers more than students. As a result, we’re losing sight of our purpose. Since when was passing skills to the next generation a business opportunity that can be qualified in a spreadsheet? When was the human mind commodified? I don’t pretend to have answers that will drive out through the classroom into the wider socio-economic and political worlds to solve public sector financing and indiscriminately rescue every troubled teen or anguished adult learner but I do believe we must be the change we want for the world, which is why I’ve stuck with teaching for as long as I have. This year though, I no longer believe I can change the system from inside; I don’t have the resources to be a good teacher and the only way I know to address this is to get out.

Feelings of professional inadequacy have now given way to a whole host of others around my poor mental health. Shame and humiliation before colleagues and students that I apparently ‘can’t cope’. Resentment that we’re silently expected to operate in unacceptable conditions. Relief that I made the decision to leave before I became ill, but anxiety that I might now appear to have 'gone sick' for reasons of laziness. Frustration that I’ve had to take responsibility; it’s me that’s sick, me that’s not managing. Scared of what it will mean for my future. Beyond these emotions however, one stands out; sadness. I felt grief in reaching the point where I decided to leave teaching but now I’m additionally bereft of what I’d planned as a positive last term. No clean break. No real closure. Thanks to my contact With Education Support Partnership, I now realise that despite feeling alienated I am far from alone. That’s cold comfort but if my story shared or voice raised helps others feel less isolated then perhaps some good will come of my current predicament. One day I hope to return to the profession I love and continue working with inspiring young people and colleagues to make their world a better place. Until that time, class dismissed.

Put your chairs on the tables before you leave, please. Don’t forget to turn out the lights.

About Annabeth Orton

Annabeth graduated in Fine Art (Sculpture) from Kingston University in 2002 and until recently taught a range of 2D and 3D processes at Further Education Colleges in London and Manchester. With a broad creative practice, she continues to work as an artist producing fine art, illustration and design commissions as well as delivering a range of creative workshops to various participants. Her personal interests include running though she had never considered herself as much of a cyclist until her recent decision to pedal from Manchester to London to raise money and awareness for Education Support Partnership.