I have written this article as a way of looking at the teacher retention and recruitment issues we are currently facing in the profession. A key element is doing too much, high levels of stress and burnout.
Teaching involves passion, dedication, endless energy and a strong sense of accountability as well as ‘personal’ responsibility. The rewards are addictive and here in lies the problem, when do you say “No”? It’s not easy to say “No” and so you put up with a little less personal time in order to meet the needs of the children you teach. You do a little extra, buy the odd resource, stay a bit longer because the benefits of doing so outweigh the cost.
Learn to say NO*
There is a case to be made for saying “No”, loudly and with commitment and to suffering the immediate consequences but it comes at a cost too. Are we as teachers ‘masking’ the problem of being underfunded, under resources and over burdened by doing more? Are our efforts to make things work actually responsible for the high level of numbers of teachers leaving the profession, of many being too tired to have a life outside of school?
I know you cannot turn up to lessons with books unmarked, lessons not planned, refuse just one more students in your class and not enough resources to go around but what can we do about getting the work life balance sorted? Sorted in a way that means we have a chance to recharge the batteries, to socialise, to have a life outside school and for us to be learners once again too.
“Am I the best person to be doing this?”
Having worked with teachers who are tired, who have no work life balance and who are struggling to be effective in the classroom I have one question I always ask. It is a question you should always ask yourself before starting something, before taking on something extra, before saying “Yes” instead of “No”. That question is “Am I the best person to be doing this?” and you need to be brutally honest with yourself. It is no good saying “Who else would do it if I did not?”
“The Secret of Time Management”
Of course you need to ‘unpack’ the words “best person” and there is a contextual aspect to the words more than I can go into here. I have written an in depth look at the this question with the catchy title “The Secret of Time Management” and you can find it here. In the article, which is spread over several posts, I look at three elements, 1) the task 2) the person and 3) the resources at hand and work these into what I call the “Not Enough Time” or NET equation. I believe you will find it helpful if you can find the time to read it!
We end up saying “Goodbye” instead of “No”
We know the plus side of going the extra mile, of giving a little more but here is another side I want to draw your attention to too. Things are unlikely to get better if we keep perpetuating the current approach of giving more and more. In many ways teachers, by not saying “No”, are ‘masking’ the serious issues that are affecting our education system. It is difficult to get a true picture of the resources that are needed or the systems that are fundamentally flawed in education if we mask them. What we do see is people who do not say “No” eventually saying “Goodbye” to teaching. I would suggest that until we understand the NET equation and we accept saying “No” is a good thing the teaching profession will continue to risk recruitment and retention of those who want so much to teach. Teaching will become, if it has not already done so, a ‘toxic’ environment.
One final observation regarding time. When we are refreshed and focused we achieve more in a shorter amount of time, we are more effective. It’s worth thinking about this next time you are asked to do something! Perhaps you should reply “What do you want me to stop doing in order to do what you are now asking me to do?”
*How to say “No” nicely – A link to another article looking at ways to help address the workload issue in teaching.
Recently I met with Charlotte Davies to find out more about her work in person. I have followed Charlotte’s work for some time both out of interest and knowing that it has something to do with my own work but not sure how. My head is still buzzing! Charlotte’s profile on LinkedIn says “Education Consultant, Tomatis Consultant” she is also Director at “Fit-2-Learn” and she is co-author of “The Maze of Learning”[i], a book written to ensure “that your child has the best foundation for learning”. So why am I so excited about her work?
Like so many in education Charlotte has a great passion for learning, especially when it comes to the human developmental aspects that need to be in place before we can become ‘efficient’ learners. Her second passion, like so many dedicated teachers, is to make things right. Those that have followed or read my work on my concept of “Learning Intelligence” (LQ) and student engagement through “PBCF” will know I share both passions so it was natural that we should meet at some point. Let me share the outcome.
My work with LQ focuses on enabling the learner to understand and manage their learning environment. Doing so involves us meeting our “learning needs”, developing or possessing a set of skills, attributes attitudes and behaviours (SAAB) that are needed to efficiently do so. Having identified what is needed to manage your learning environment and understand the impact it has on us both physically and emotionally, it can be tiring and stressful, I have been exploring ways of developing our learning needs. This is where Charlotte and her work comes in. What if there is something that is preventing you developing your LQ and aspect of SAAB, something that is causing far more stress than it need be. What if you can’t put your finger on it, or worse still, if it has been given some broad label that often suggests there is something wrong with you or something that can’t be put right. Both dreadful scenarios and ones we have all come across as teachers. I hope you can see why I am interested in Charlotte’s work.
Charlotte has taken a ‘parental’ view of both these scenarios, I say this because there is nothing like the drive, the energy or the open mindedness like that of a parent wanting to find a solution to their child’s needs and challenges. A parent will move mountains to find a solution or an understanding and do it with un-exhaustible energy and commitment. You may now understand why my head is still buzzing!
Developing LQ in learners works, I know, it is my own learning story and it is the way I taught, it may have lacked a definition in those days but seeing learning as a problem solving activity is the way forward – without doubt. But, and here is the caveat, if the right pieces of the developmental jigsaw are in place. Sure we are not all perfect and we can find coping strategies to overcome limitations but ultimately this will either slow our learning or limit us in some way, possibly even causing elements of stress or anxiety. So if it can be ‘fixed’ why not fix it? Surely this is a better way forward.
Charlotte has identified these developmental aspects and in my meeting we discussed and explored how to identify them and check they have evolved correctly. You may say it’s ‘child development’ and teachers are taught about child development. True, but in my experience many teachers are subject specialist first and child development specialists third or even fourth. Teaching is a full on activity and with the additional pressures of administration etc. etc. you can understand why they have little time to spend on identifying and fixing developmental problems. I am not making excuses, it is just the way it is, my approach of LQ and enabling students to manage their own learning environment is a way of trying to help too, after all we all want ‘independent learners’.
It all starts with motor skills but there are other pieces of the developmental jigsaw that need to be in place. We have sound processing and visual processing to consider too. Each element is part of the developmental sequence that will enable us to become efficient learners. Trying to rush learning, to learn things such as skills or carry out certain types of learning such as reading before all the pieces of the jigsaw are in place is surely morally wrong. It can also lead to a degree of ‘damage’ to the learner and the learning process that stays with the learner for life. How many adults truly believe they cannot learn because they were put into a learning situation before they were ready, before they developed the necessary motor skills or sound processing necessary? Meeting with Charlotte was an eye opener in this respect and also underlined why LQ works. When I help learners re- visit something they believed they cannot learn it may well be either they have now developed that aspect that was not ready earlier or they have developed a coping strategy that will allow them to be successful.
We do not need to leave things to chance though, we do not have to leave learners to develop coping strategies, as Charlotte clearly showed me, we can do something about it. Yes I was ‘tested’ and asked to perform some strikingly simple actions to find out if, even as an adult, I had motor developmental or sound processing issues that needed to be addressed. This too was interesting, it’s never too late to fix things and some of the people Charlotte works with are not just the young, teenagers, they are middle aged or even older like me.
So my head is buzzing and my way forward with LQ a little clearer, although a little more complicated too. I have much to learn if I am to integrate this into LQ. I will also be working on my sound processing much to the delight of my family who have had to put up with my lack of rhythm or ability to hold a tune over the years.
I’ll leave you with a quote from the fit-2-learn website.
“We believe that everyone can move beyond coping strategies and use all their senses and motor skills in a coherent, efficient manner to learn and to live calmly.”
How important is that!
This fits in so well with the concept of LQ which consists of a set of skills, attributes, attitudes and behaviors and enables the learner to manage their own learning..
Seymour Papert was seeing it clearly two decades ago.
The pace of change in knowledge is so fast that it is meaningless to build a curriculum on a foundation of specific knowledge. Such knowledge will be largely redundant by the time learners put it into operation beyond school.
The future curriculum will be in part created by the learner, with fewer fixed points to scaffold it and more reliance on Attitudes, Behaviours and Competences.
This is part 3 of exploring and dealing with a toxic learning environment where we look at teacher retention. Part two is here
I have mentioned that I have found that there are four needs we all share when it comes to engaging in learning, well it is the same for any activity in which we wish to collectively share and this includes teaching. Part two introduced the need for a sense of belonging for learner engagement.
Teachers are learners so it should come as no surprise that a sense of belonging is as important to teacher engagement, and importantly retention, as it is to learner engagement.
I believe one of our greatest behaviour drivers comes from a sense of belonging.
As a teacher I have seen a student’s behaviour driven so powerfully by this need that they were willing to be excluded for something they did not do rather than break a bond with a peer group. As adults it’s no different, and if we feel a sense of belonging there is a great deal we will do or tolerate to remain part of something.
Creating and building a sense of belonging may just be the key difference between leadership and management.
Autonomous responsibility is a more effective way of achieving outcomes than directed responsibility but requires a strong commitment to the aims and ethos of the organisation – a strong sense of belonging, of sharing the same vision and wanting the same things. Being told to do something ‘or else’ is nowhere near as effective as encouraging somebody to do something for the ‘good of the group’. The ‘stick’ will only work so long as there is a stick and somebody wielding it whereas the promise of a collective need for ‘carrots’ will get people to till and work the land, plant, nurture and protect even when there is nobody to check or inspect.
I am trying to make these analogies to underline where I think schools are going wrong in trying to retain teachers. Yes, some who come into the profession are not suited and leave but there are some who leave before their skills are honed and their experiences give them the greatest rewards of being a teacher – of making a difference to people’s lives and life chances. They do this because they do not have a strong enough sense of belonging to overcome the early struggles.
How long do these struggles last?
I was told in secondary education it takes six years to ‘get your feet under the table’ as it were and I believe it to be true. Why six years? Well because you have to see your own ‘first-year’ group, the one that started the school at the same time as you, through school and then you need at least one year to recognise and build on the benefits of your experience. I would imagine there is a similar time frame and rational in primary education.
What sustains you in these early years is the building of comradeship, establishing relationships and forming that sense of belonging. It does not happen by chance, I believe it needs leadership that is broader in its aims and function than achieving targets.
What prompts mid-career teachers to leave the profession?
This brings me onto why teachers in mid-career or before a normal retiring point leave the profession. I know there is more than one reason for practised teachers to leave the profession but in my experience the process starts once a sense of belonging is lost. As I said earlier we will put up with a great deal if there is a strong sense of belonging but once this is diminished we begin to reconsider what it is we are doing and why we are doing it.
Creating that sense of belonging
I suggest that to create and sustain a strong sense of belonging in schools it needs leadership that understands the purpose of a ‘mission statement’* and uses it effectively to challenge everything they do in order to build a shared sense of belonging. Imagine how you would feel having collectively contributed to, and ‘bought into’ a mission statement and then seeing it ignored during key decision-making processes. In other words, doing something that the organisation to which you belong does not see as it’s purpose or that will further that purpose in order to follow some other path or directive rather than challenge it. You would begin to question why you are part of that organisation and your sense of belonging would be challenged. My view is that leadership should be aware of this and actively work to do only that which promotes its mission and where necessary deflect those that do not. We will support and follow those that stand up for what we believe in and withdraw our support for those who do not and in the process shatter our sense of belonging.
* A note about ‘mission’ statements. In my experience ‘mission’ and ‘vision’ statements are wrongfully used as one term, interchangeable, and meaning the same.
This is part 2 of exploring and dealing with a toxic learning environment where we look at what makes it difficult for learners to engage in the learning and what we, as teachers, can do about it. Part one is here
It is easier to run away than stay and fight but this depends on what tools you have to fight with. Let me give you an example:
If you want somewhere to hang up your coat and you have a screw and a hammer you may be tempted to hammer in the screw*. On the other hand, if you have a nail and a screwdriver you are less likely to try.
Learning and developing tools to deal with emotions and situations means you have to be involved in a constructive way, you have to be engaged in the process in order to practice and become skilled.
Deciding to engage in something that makes us uncomfortable means tipping the balance in favour of gain over pain. Beware though, we can feign engagement if our need to comply is strong enough. On the other hand, if our learning needs are met then we are more likely to truly engage.
Just what our learning needs though?
As a teacher it took me some time to work this out and thanks to a number of less than compliant learners who taught me a lot about teaching and more than a little research I believe I eventually identified four essential learning needs. If these four needs are met, most of them, most of the time, then we are more likely to stick around and attempt to engage in learning when the environment we are in feels toxic to us. Put simply, and using my earlier analogy of tools, we are more likely to go looking for a hammer to hammer in our nail or a screwdriver to drive in our screw and therefore successfully hang up our coat (a metaphor for staying too).
I am of the opinion that in a learning environment ‘toxic’ means ‘emotionally uncomfortable’ and one of my biggest concerns about teaching is that we do not spend enough time discussing this aspect of learning with learners. We find it very difficult to truly engage in the learning process when they are emotionally uncomfortable. Try it, think about a time you were anxious, frightened or distracted. Did you find it easy to listen, to take instructions to think straight or to recall what was said to you afterwards? Probably not.
Back to those four learning needs.
The first and probably most important need we have is a sense of belonging. There are two aspects to meeting this need and the first is getting to know your students.
Any teacher will tell you that you need to get to know your class. It’s not rocket science or brain surgery! Not just their names though, but something about them as individuals. I categorise this as something you could have a conversation about other than the lesson, something that interests them. If you learn to listen and acknowledge and respond to the odd “red herring” question you will soon find out what it is. Here are some things to get you started:
The second part of this need can be accomplished by giving them all membership of a group defined by you. Be careful here – positive attributes only. Talk about the group in the positive at all times, no matter how you feel at that moment. So if the subject is maths (sorry maths!) and it the last lesson of the week and they have just had PE remember to tell them how much you look forward to teaching them, how it always sets you up for the weekend when they achieve in this lesson. I have heard teachers say “Here come my stars” as the most challenging group arrives and they are always welcoming.
So there we have BELONGING from a teaching perspective. Of course, there is much more to discuss about this need and the challenges meeting it creates. Next, we will look at belonging from the perspective of teacher retention.
*I have known a hammer to be referred to as the ‘Birmingham screwdriver’ but I have no idea why!
I have written this article to address the debate around teachers leaving teaching and the stress levels of pupils presently being experienced and reported.
It is true that not all learners ‘like’ school and some do their best to avoid it. It is also true that we are seeing many teachers leave the profession, often down to a lack of job satisfaction or ‘burn out’.
We could say that any environment that causes us discomfort, stress or anxiety is ‘toxic’ but are there any factors that we can identify that makes the environment in schools, for learners and teachers, such that they want to get away from it? I believe we can and I believe it’s not that complicated to correct.
My first proposal is that if there is something missing from within our environment that we need to learn and to teach* that we will feel a level of discomfort. Whether we can tolerate that discomfort or not is dependent on a number of factors and includes the following:
- Agency, our strategies for dealing with not having our needs met
- The significance of the outcome or reward for ‘surviving’ the experience
- Support systems and the impact of their intervention both within and external to the environment in which we feel discomfort
- Relationships with people we consider significant or important to us within that environment
- Stamina, the length of exposure and our mental and physical well being
- Willingness to be compliant
Just like in a physical environment where, if we persist beyond our capacity to manage or endure, it is likely to cause us physical harm a ‘toxic’ teaching and learning environment will cause us harm too. In my experience this can also manifest itself as a physical injury but is more likely to be our mental health that is at risk. The danger with this is that mental health issues are harder to recognise and carry a greater stigma than those that are physical in nature. As a result we hide our discomfort and disguise it in some way. A dramatic but relevant example of this I believe is the reports of soldiers in the First World War who carried out self-inflicted injuries in order to avoid the combat environment that they were no longer able to cope with mentally.
In teaching and learning I have seen and experienced high levels of environment based stress and can categorise them according to the symptoms that are presented, these include but are not exclusive to:
- Lack of a capacity for change
- Reliance on habits and routines in order to cope
- Irritability, a lack of patience or objectivity
- Relationship breakdown and withdrawing
- Out of character behaviours
- Minor illnesses such as aches and pains, headaches and a lack of sleep.
My experiences and research has led me to believe there are four needs specific to teaching and learning that, if absent or not fulfilled in some way, lead to a toxic environment and the conditions I have listed. Ultimately and where possible people will look for and find a way to cope or ultimately a way out of that environment and in extreme cases, where agency is limited, this can mean the most drastic of actions relative to the individual. A younger student may throw a tantrum and be expelled from the lesson or not even turn up to school. A teenager or adult may withdraw or even attempt suicide if they can see no other ‘way out’.
*I suggest all teachers are learners too so there are a common set of needs for both groups.
Next I will look at what can we do and what I believe is at the heart of the problem?
Why I miss teaching and the reasons many leave the profession is that their needs are not being met.
“It’s better than sliced bread” was my reply in September 1977 when my dad asked me about my first teaching job. I was at the ‘chalk face’ for almost 33 years, that was eight years ago, and a lot has changed about the ‘job’ of teaching but not the fundamental aspects of teaching.
I have considered making a list of the things that I miss and I may still do that but really it all comes down to relationships and needs. Two things most people will say they get from their job along with a sense of satisfaction, of doing something well or worthwhile.
There is something special about relationships in teaching that is different, let me try to explain.
I know that in many careers that are ‘front facing’, in contact with the customer or public, there is a relationship that needs to be built if you are to be successful and teaching is no different in that regard. What is different is the nature of that relationship and it is unique. I call it a ‘learning relationship’, one where over time you built trust in you as the teacher, you build confidence and self-esteem within your students, you set them challenges and support their efforts, you offer encouragement and praise, you guide their learning and you celebrate success together. Coaching or mentoring may offer the same relationship but not on the same scale or with the same degree of challenge.
Meeting a teacher’s needs
It is this teacher/learner relationship that is better than sliced bread and that I miss the most for it satisfied some of my needs too. So what of my needs and why does teaching satisfy these needs?
The job of a teacher is strange in that collectively we may plan, resource and review but as for the ‘doing’ bit we do this alone more often than not. It is a case of you, the professional teacher, and the pupils in your care in a room together, often with the door shut for single or multiple lessons or even whole school days at a time. Once with those pupils it is a ‘full-on’ job, hundreds of instinctive decisions to make, constant observations and assessments to make, strategies to weigh up and those learning relationships to build. When it goes well you bounce out of that session full of energy and when it does not you reflect in a more sombre mood wanting to know why. Either way you share what happened with your colleagues, telling them of your achievement or listening for advice that will guide you. It is within this ‘interpreted dance’ that I find my needs met.
My needs are best described as a set of characteristics and I am sure these are shared with many teachers.
- I am a learner, hard to be a teacher and not be,
- I am creative and love a challenge,
- I like responsibility and autonomy, and
- I thrive on the energy that comes of working with others.
Having your personal needs met is what draws you to a role, to a career, and so it is with me.
You may be wondering why I am no longer at the ‘chalk face’, why I did not continue with my career as a teacher since I loved it so much and continue to miss it. Well I am still a teacher, it’s hard not to be, but not in a school or employed as one.
There are many things that have changed about the role of a teacher since 1977 and for me those changes increasingly limited my opportunity to build learning relationships, limited my creativity and autonomy as well as drawing on my energy in a way that had a profound effect on my health.
You are not fulfilled if your needs are not being met.
What we need to ensure that we recruit and retain teachers is simple – we need to ensure that they are fulfilled. Anything that limits or hinders this should be removed from the ‘job’ of teaching.
Recruitment and retention is simple
In my opinion, if we are to recruit and retain teachers we need to address the environment that is ‘need’ limiting. Teachers leave the profession for a number of reasons but they are also willing to put up with a lot if they are able to build effective learning relationships and have their needs met. The debate is not about workload, pay or hours, it is about being able to build learning relationships and meeting needs on a deeply personal level.