VOICE: Five Questions with Mrs H

A lover of Literature and Seamus Heaney, Mrs H has been an English teacher for over twenty-five years serving in a number of schools in Greater Manchester. Mrs H has been the head of Key Stage 3, 4 and 5 at different stages in her career and second in department. After obtaining her degree in English Language and Literature from Salford in 1994 and her PGCE from the Open University in 1996, Mrs H has committed herself to delivering excellent teaching to hundreds if not thousands of students.

Mrs H – it was an honour to work alongside you and be your colleague. You continue to be both an influence and inspiration in what I do; you are a dear friend and everything a teacher should be. Thank you for your time and insight; not bad for a couple of wierdos down the hall, right?

1. What three factors would you say have the most positive effect on your wellbeing in the workplace?

The first one is having a thoughtful and considerate leadership team; an SLT with years of teaching experience and an SLT who can remember the stresses of full time tables, Parents Evenings and observations, so really an SLT who have empathy. An acknowledgement on the part of SLT of how hard-working and committed their staff are, just a thank you goes a long way. They should be positive with you rather than supporting and operating a punitive system. These positive examples is what I see in SLT at the school I am currently teaching in – they look for ways to ease pressures for staff, particularly throughout lockdown and teaching remotely and before that as well. I have no complaint with the leadership in my current school. My negative experiences all come from the school in which I had worked in previous to this one.

Pupil behaviour – if the children are engaged then life is easy, isn’t it? If they’re misbehaving and standing on tables and swearing, all of which I’ve experienced, that is another stress. Parental support is also really important – I’ve done four Parents Evenings now at my current school and every single meeting that I have had with a parent or a set of parents has been a delight. They are so polite and respectful, thankful and grateful. At Christmas when I went into the staff room, there were boxes and boxes of mince pies, chocolates and treats, all sent in by parents, not seen elsewhere, certainly not in my experience.

2. Do you believe there is a barrier between leadership and staff? If so, why do you think it exists?

Yes I do. As soon as a teacher becomes a member of SLT, they are encouraged to join a separate union, so there’s an immediate difference. At the previous school, I can only remember one deputy headteacher who stayed in the NUT, now NEU, who stayed with us and even came out on strike with us. They [SLT] stay in their offices and they don’t mix in staff rooms. To be fair to them at break times they are on duty, but in my experience SLT being on duty means going around with a register to check if staff are on duty. They socialise on their own; they’re still members of a department but apart from that one deputy head, I have never known SLT to socialise with their department staff. They go out for their own meals and Christmas parties, never with staff or their departments. They see themselves to be different and in my opinion want to be different. I also found in this particular school that if SLT members didn’t conform and behave in this way then they didn’t last very long because it was either that they were pushed out or that they were encouraged to leave.

Their priorities are also different. Their emphasis is on targets and grades and to have difficult discussions with teachers who do not make their student outcome targets. They love and seem to thrive on data. Where was that taught, to concentrate so much time, effort and energy on data? What module was that on the PGCE? Where does it come from? It comes from government league tables doesn’t it? Well, that’s what I think. Ordinary teachers on the other hand talk about the children. They love their subject and love talking about their passion for their subject, English teachers love talking about books for example. So priorities and focuses differ between teachers and SLT.

SLT members can be bullies and although all schools have anti-bullying policies, they do not apply to SLT. Heads of Department are not recruited based on ability or for their passions but how well they can manage people and are comfortable to have those difficult and punitive conversations with their staff. They must have their feet in both camps but their main priorities are the SLT and what the SLT want, not the department and not their staff. Like I have said before, all of these examples come from my experience of my previous school and are the reasons why I left – my current school is vastly different in all the right ways.

3. What sorts of school processes and procedures have caused you the most stress in your career?

In my current school, none. I can’t say anything they do creates problems for me. They are thoughtful and considerate. Every day since we’ve been in lockdown, the headteacher has sent us a thank you email at the end of the day, sending us messages of welfare, to take care of ourselves as well as thank you messages from parents. We are constantly told aren’t we that praise is so important in the classroom – we as teachers are no different.

Before lockdown, SLT dropped into at least one lesson every day and it was lovely. It wasn’t threatening in any way at all. They would come in and it would be a pleasant experience. I really welcomed it and I now teach with my door open all day. It is so nice to see a member of SLT smiling and looking at children’s work. They always look at the PowerPoint so I’m not naive to think that if I wasn’t doing things properly nothing would come of it, but as long as we are teaching to the best of our abilities and engaging the students, the SLT have no issues, and so observations have become a pleasure. However in my previous school, it was the absolute opposite; there was an official observation held in the autumn term and staff across the school were stressed and nervous because everything would ride on this one observation, and if it didn’t go well, it was a red mark on a spreadsheet and it was stored against us. In addition to this, there were four or five unannounced observations throughout the year and it was common to see staff in tears about these observations. If staff are stressed, they are not the only ones who suffer, their families and their students suffer too, which can then lead to absences which results in children not being taught properly, and so it is in the interest of the school to have a caring and considerate SLT.

Workload is an issue. My current head has managed workload during lockdown so that staff aren’t sat in front of screens all day. In my last school, we were going through an inspection where wellbeing was being scrutinised and we were given clear instructions not to email after 6:00pm. As soon as the inspection was over, that measure was revoked. SLT members were then emailing in the evenings and the headteacher once sent an email at 9:30pm at night – such lip service to wellbeing causes a lack of trust in the SLT and casts doubt on the genuineness of their attempts to cater for wellbeing.

Another major stress-inducing process is performance management that is used punitively. Within the set targets there are embedded targets, so we end up with nine targets from three. League tables have transformed schools into exam factories and when a school says they’re not, I never trust them. The focus on targets and grades is overwhelming.

Cover lessons. In my current school, I haven’t had a single cover lesson. In my previous school, I was on cover at least once a week and often more than once a week. The NEU is really clear about this – we shouldn’t be put on cover unless in cases of emergency. We plan for our PPAs and being put on cover creates anxiety; tasks planned to be completed during a PPA now have to done during lunchtime or break. In my current school, it is common to see SLT delivering lessons if a member of staff is absent.

Absences are another cause of stress and anxiety. In my previous school, if a teacher was absent in a twelve -month period, not an academic year but a twelve-month period, which doesn’t make any sense, you’d progress onto a higher level of absence monitoring and surveillance, inching closer to a disciplinary meeting and eventually dismissal if it led to that. I have been in school teaching when I have not been able to speak and that is because of the threat of monitoring which I think is unacceptable. In some years, I have known over half the department be on some stage of absence monitoring, which leads to more stress and more absence. I once asked for a leave of absence of an hour and a half to attend the funeral of a relative and I was refused. In my current school, I have had a whole day for a funeral and had time off for a doctor’s appointment. There was no issue. When I returned, two SLT members were on the corridor. They asked me how I was and insisted I went to the staffroom for a cup of coffee before I went to my lessons. One assistant head did my break time duty for me. So how can it be that in one school you get such a feeling and compassionate leadership team and in another you get the compete opposite?

4. If you could define a good leader, what would she or he look like?

Someone who has the courage to trust and respect staff. An expert in the classroom; someone who has served their time in the classroom, no fast tracking to headship and leadership roles. Someone who has been promoted for the right reasons, not the person who has demonstrated that they will be the toughest on staff and not someone who pledges to continue the leadership of their predecessor. Somebody who can nurture his or her staff, that’s very important.

5. What do you think must be done to improve teacher wellbeing in England?

We need to stop the emphasis on league tables. Until that happens, I don’t think much will change because SLT have their own pressures and that is what they’re focussed on, improving grades constantly.

Scrap performance management and last year demonstrated the viability of this. We all passed last year because of the interruptions caused by COVID-19 and lockdown, so what is the point of it? What has happened this year because performance management couldn’t be carried out last year? Nothing. Nothing detrimental has happened to schools and children, highlighting how unimportant it is, something that takes hundreds of hours to go through and causes such extreme stress and anxiety.

The government and the opposition need to adopt a different view. There is such little respect in society and the tabloids for teachers because there is no respect from the government. The teaching workforce is a highly organised workforce; the Daily Mail for example hates the unions and because teachers are highly unionised, there is blatant and prejudicial condemnation in their headlines. Following on from that, the unions need to be a greater force in schools and must continue campaigning for change.

Until we are treated with the same respect awarded to other professions in society, I don’t think much will change. I recently saw someone tweet that teaching is not a profession and you don’t need to go to university to become a teacher. I would love to meet this person. I would love to meet them and invite them into school and ask and then watch them teach one of my lessons. I think we’d all learn a lot from that.

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