“I’ve always known I wanted to be a teacher,” Bethany, from south-west London, tells me. “It’s a cliche, but I recognise the impact certain teachers have had on me and I’ve always wanted to make that difference for other children.”
Bethany started teaching her first Year One class in September 2022 after completing a Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE). The 23-year-old initially felt thrown in the deep end, but now feels more at home as a teacher than a trainee. “It’s not easier, but it feels better because it’s your class and they are your responsibility,” she explains. However, the job is not without its challenges. Bethany teaches a class of 30, often without an assistant to help support the high numbers of children with special educational needs, which means there’s a lot of disrupted learning time.
“I don’t get to actually teach until my children are regulated or until the child that is feeling disregulated has calmed back down,” explains Bethany. “I have a lot of children that have different needs, emotionally and educationally, and trying to deliver that within one lesson with one other adult to support is near impossible.”
Lack of funding for additional support staff is one of the many reasons teachers are again swapping the classroom for the picket line this year. After talks to avert planned strike action by teachers ended in failure, with no new offer on the table, the National Education Union (NEU) members in the north of England, Yorkshire and Humber are striking on 28 February, followed by various days of action across England, Scotland and Wales.
According to the NEU, teachers are striking over a “toxic mix of low pay and excessive workload.” In a statement, Dr Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney, the union’s joint general secretaries, said: “This is not about a pay rise but correcting historic real-terms pay cuts. Teachers have lost 23% in real-terms since 2010, and support staff 27% over the same period. The average 5% pay rise for teachers this year is some 7% behind inflation. In the midst of a cost of living crisis, that is an unsustainable situation.”
Photo courtesy of Amana.
Despite trying to make ends meet on a teachers salary in London, Bethany is not striking primarily over pay. “I’m in full support of my school and everything it does. It goes above and beyond, and I have no faults with how they’re trying to work within the conditions we’ve been given,” she explains. “But I need a teaching assistant to provide interventions for my class. We’re not hiring teaching assistants because there’s no money, because teachers’ recent pay rise has come out of school budgets. There’s not even any glue sticks in my class because the school can’t afford it.”
Ketrina, 28, has been teaching her Year Six class in Dorset for four years. She joined the NEU at the beginning of this academic year after hearing talks of strike action. “I’ve loved being a teacher so far, but it definitely has been different to what I expected,” she tells me. “I thought the difficulties would be planning, teaching, behaviour management, etc. But actually it’s more to do with the admin, box ticking, paper work, and extra unnecessary workload that has no impact on the students’ learning.”
Ketrina has also struggled with the public backlash teachers have been facing with the news coverage of strike action. “For me, the hardest thing is the public’s perception of what teachers do – or, to be more specific, how little they think teachers do. It’s really demotivating to think that a career you’ve spent years training for, have accumulated tens of thousands of pounds of student debt for, and that was once seen as a well respected profession, is now ridiculed with statements thrown around like ‘those that can’t do, teach’.”
Many of today’s teachers in the early stages of their careers went through school in the 2000s, during a decade of major investment in teaching. In 1997, then-Prime Minister Tony Blair declared that “education, education, education” would be his top three priorities to “overcome decades of neglect”, while Teach First was set up in 2002 to improve educational standards and attract high-quality graduates to work in underperforming schools. However, latest figures paint a deteriorating picture of the profession. The number of trainees placed on secondary school teaching courses is nearly a fifth below pre-pandemic levels. The figures for primary teacher trainees are less bleak, but still show a six percent fall from 2019 to 2022. Working hours are long and unsustainable, both at school and at home, with pay not even remotely keeping up. The message being sent is loud and clear: teachers are worth a fraction of what they used to be.
“I try to get in to work at 7:40pm and I don’t leave until my school closes at 5:45pm. There is no doubt that I will always be working on the weekend, definitely on a Sunday. Then on top of that you have meetings with other staff or meetings with parents after school finishes,” Bethany explains. “I work 50 hour weeks, and when I’m not physically at work I am always thinking about the children.”
Meanwhile, the children – especially those in impoverished communities – are still grappling with the aftermath of a pandemic that led to the loss of thousands of lives, disrupted their education, and caused immeasurable harm to their personal development. In the face of devastating cuts to social services, children’s mental health services, and Universal Credit, teachers have been left to fight battles on behalf of their students, meaning they often feel more like social workers than school staff.
Photo courtesy of Amana.
“Pastoral care is a big part of the job, and since the pandemic, and with the cost of living crisis, we’re seeing more and more students struggling with mental health and stress,” says Amana, 31, who teaches across years 7-13 at a secondary school in west London. “Students regularly share that their families can’t afford to buy the texts they need for their subjects, stationary, or new school uniforms. Thankfully our school has put support in place to help students dealing with various issues, but it’s placed extra pressure on schools,” she adds. “Sometimes people forget that our working conditions are their children’s learning environment.”
Despite dire conditions, young teachers are still trying to keep their passion alive despite the government often forcing them to choose between their own wellbeing and that of their students. “I remind myself that although it’s a challenging career with little appreciation, the children, whether they realise it or not, value us and appreciate everything we do for them,” says Ketrina. “I just remind myself of the impact we have as teachers and just tell myself I’m doing a good job.”
With their careers ahead of them, unjaded by years of budget cuts and crumbling conditions, the new generation of teachers are eager to make a difference, both for their classes and colleagues. “When I was doing my teacher training year, every teacher I met was so negative about the job that it almost made me want to quit before I even started,” explains Bethany. “I think it very much depends on the school that you get and the people that you surround yourself with. For my first job I found a school that is really passionate about teaching and they bring it back to the children every single time.”
Six months in and despite the challenging conditions, Beth loves her job, but state education can’t survive on youthful enthusiasm alone. “Hopefully, with the strikes, the government might help take the pressure off and make teaching more sustainable, because we don’t want to leave,” she says. “I’ve never met a teacher that wants to leave because they no longer love the job. They’re just tired.”