Disconnected: the root of the problem in teacher retention?

I’ve had the privilege to spend a weekend recently at a Teacher Educators Conference. I’m not a teacher educator but they let me attend and see what these incredibly hardworking and committed individuals share as best practice in their field. It was a steep learning curve as they talked about futures 3 education, world lessons and much more. I learnt an incredible amount and I’m really grateful for the opportunity to see this side of teacher training as I start my EdD research into retention and early career teachers. And the weekend has got me thinking…

We talk about government policy, accountability cultures and exam driven schooling which implies the system is all becoming more rigid and limited, reducing teacher autonomy and increasing workload. Senior Leader bashing seems prevalent on social media as they are seen to just implement things because Ofsted says or because they think Ofsted says and this is arguably making workload even more unmanageable. All this, and low pay, are argued to be contributing to the teacher retention crisis.

Yet over the weekend as sat listening to presentations, some of which have alluded to these things, something really struck me – the disconnect between how a subject should be taught (as in how trainee teachers as taught to teach) and the reality of actually teaching in a school. Are we really preparing our teachers for the jobs they will be doing or not? And if not, surely this must make the job more difficult and contribute to greater workload, increased stress and anxiety and ultimately burnout and leaving the profession altogether?

I may not agree with the way some Academy chains centralise their teaching style across subjects and schools but that is the reality of teaching in many secondary schools today. I may not agree that a focus on GCSE exam success should start in Year 7 but in some schools they do say every lesson has to have a GCSE exam style question. I may not agree that teaching students from a disadvantaged catchment means you have to teach differently to in an academically selective school but some people do. The reality is that schools are different. They make decisions about how they approach teaching and learning and new teachers need to be able to work in these schools, not in the ‘ideal’ school where they can teach what they feel is important how they believe it should be taught. Our education system doesn’t allow for this and we would fail the children we teach if we taught like this because they would end up with no qualifications and unable to get a job.

Now this isn’t to disregard or rubbish the training programmes currently offered or the ones run by the people I’ve met this weekend. It’s vitally important that teachers are trained to consider what makes the best curriculum and contributes to the best pedagogy for teaching and learning within their subject area and I’m glad I’ve heard lots of discussions about what this should be. However, we also need to be realistic and make sure trainees also know that the day-to-day of teaching in many schools isn’t this. It’s a combination of government policy, whole school initiatives, academy pressures, exam specifications and assessment styles, and much more. Trainees need to be prepared to work in the schools we have and not have the way these schools teach dismissed as ‘senior leaders who don’t understand how we should teach x’.

To give a more specific example of what I mean, I recently came across a trainee who had been shown a video clip as part of their training and set the task of coming up with all the possible bits of geography they could teach about related to this with a view to outline planning a scheme of learning based around a 3 minute news report. Now while I’m an advocate of getting students to think geographically and to question and explore the world around them, in the real world of schools scheme of work decisions are made (or I’d argue should be made) from the perspective of developing students geographical knowledge so they pass there exams (and yes I know exams should not be the be all and end all but I repeat what I said above, students with no qualifications don’t get jobs – if the moral obligation of teaching is to improve students’ life chances then they need qualifications).

So as I prepare to talk to a cohort of trainee teachers tomorrow about wellbeing and mental health, I’m trying really hard to tie the theory and idealism I truly believe that it is possible to be a teacher and have a life with presenting a realistic picture of what it means to work in schools today. I won’t help hem look after their own wellbeing as the start their first teaching posts if I present something at odds to what they will fund next year. And as I continue with my EdD, the weekend has given me a lot of things to ponder about…

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