Teaching is Like an Abusive Relationship – You Only Stay for the Children

According to figures released by Labour this week, 50,000 teachers quit last year. The mother of a friend of mine summed up the current situation perfectly after yet another tearful phone call where her daughter was considering whether or not she should leave the profession:

‘You know, listening to you talking about work is like listening to someone who is in an abusive relationship. You know you don’t really want to be there. You know you are being treated badly. And yet you continue to stay stuck because of the effect it will have on the children.’

This week’s figures come as no surprise to me. I’ve worked at the same school for more than a decade and until just recently, the only reasons people left were to be promoted or retire. In the past year, however, I have seen three amazing colleagues leave teaching in the UK completely.

The first had been a Head of Department in art for more than twenty years. Not being a ‘core’ subject and therefore not affecting the school’s position in the league tables, her department was sidelined as unimportant. In an example of psychological stress made manifest, her inability to be ‘given a voice’ at work resulted in her physically losing her voice completely. She left the profession, and is now a full time artist.

The second was a brilliant teacher who had consistently excellent results but because he didn’t conform to the Ofsted mould, management put him under constant observation to try to force him to become the children’s television presenter they wanted him to be. He eventually decided he’d had enough and walked out. He now teaches abroad where they don’t care how the hell you teach as long as your results are good.

The third is a young teacher in his twenties who was appalled by the recent government approach of turning schools into mini-corporations (and corrupt corporations, at that). He was told to change his predicted grades to a grade higher to impress Ofsted. When he refused to do so, ‘the data angel’ somewhere in the ether changed it anyway. He left to join another school, where he soon realised that everywhere now has this corporate atmosphere thanks to academy status, and has left teaching to go back to university to do something more worthwhile.

I tell you these anecdotes to add flesh to the bones of those figures given this week, but the abusive relationship analogy goes much further than this.

If you’ve ever wondered what happens during a Teacher Training Day, I’ll enlighten you. One of two things happens. The first is where some jumped up idiot, eager for promotion, patronises you with a card sorting exercise, the latest corporate buzzwords and some awful fucking team building game where you are forced to be mixed up so that you sit with colleagues you rarely ever collaborate with on a daily basis. Like one of those god awful weddings where you are made to ‘mingle’ instead of just being sat with friends that you like. The outcome is always pointless and demeaning.

The second is when a speaker comes in to train you in a particularly serious, grim subject like female genital mutilation or how to deal with kids with attachment disorder. These sessions are always harrowing but are always preferable to doing a Buzzfeed quiz to find out what colour personality you have (actual session I once had to do! I have a ‘green’ personality, if you want to know).

So anyway, during one of these harrowing sessions on emotional abuse, one of my colleagues leaned over and whispered, ‘My god, I’ve just realised that my job is emotionally abusive.’ And whilst that may seem a little flippant, I’ve thought about it and he’s right. Let me take you through some of the features of emotional abuse.

1) Being belittled or told you are worthless or inadequate.
The press love teacher bashing, as do the current government. Nurses are never described as work shy or lazy and yet people do this to teachers all the time, despite last year’s NUT workload survey discovering that the majority of teachers put in between 50-60 hours a week. Nowadays head teachers are just as bad. I was recently expected to explain why a handful of kids in my top set only achieved As and not A*s. Oh, and if you are one of those people who in response to this say, ‘Well, teachers have all those holidays don’t they,’ then you are in this category, too.

2) Inappropriate expectations.
If you are not a teacher, but are a parent, did you realise that to most teachers nowadays your little Timmy is nothing more than a dot on a graph? Timmy is expected to get particular levels of progress based on a maths algorithm and if he doesn’t (who cares if Timmy’s dog has died or his father has cancer or his SATs were a fluke and therefore the data is wrong) then the teacher is the first person to blame. It’s always that we didn’t do our job properly and therefore do not deserve an increase in pay.  Even that miserly 1% the government gave us last year to say ‘Well done’ (See point 1).

Oh and if Timmy doesn’t have free school meals then you might as well forget him because Ofsted are only interested in the results of ‘poor children’ or PP kids, as they are now called. On top of this the amount of students we are expected to teach is increasing, and before any ignorant person even begins to suggest this is down to immigration – it’s not, it’s down to schools cutting costs. While this has been going on, the special needs support that is SO valuable has steadily begun to decrease.

3) Bullying Behaviour and Restricting Opportunities to Express your Views.
The Conservatives are desperate to convert all schools to academies, this is wrong for so many reasons (too many to go into here) but one of them is the fact that they run unregulated. This is fine if your head teacher is a reasonable person but our last one saw it as an opportunity to ‘get even’ with all the people who had ever disagreed with her. One notable case was known throughout the staff in school as ‘Hamgate’. This was where one of the office staff accidentally ate someone else’s ham that was in the fridge. They were given a disciplinary for it. Yes, this actually happened.

As for what happens when you are emotionally abused by your job? Signs of emotional abuse include becoming withdrawn. I can’t remember the last time I had a work/life balance. In term time I work. During half term, I try to have a life. There are friends I keep promising to see, but then never find time.

Another sign is lacking confidence or having anxiety, as in ‘I want to leave but I can’t see how I’m capable of doing anything else’. I’ve also joined the thousands of people who have had to have access to the IAPTs service for stress related anxiety.

As to the outcome of this? Well, 50,000 teachers last year did exactly what might be expected. If things don’t hurry up and change, then I may be the next to join them.

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