It was the third week into term, and the third night in a row I struggled to sleep due to anxiety and stress. I would leave the house at 7am, just before my daughter woke. I’d go to school, leave around 6pm on average and get home just in time to bathe my daughter and put her to bed. Then I’d spend the rest of my evening preparing for work, spending very little time with my wife, just to repeat it all over again the next day. I was no longer in love with the profession that I was so proud to be a part of. My family weren’t seeing me throughout the week and when they did, they weren’t getting the very best of me. One morning, I went into my school sleep deprived. I sat in my office processing how my energy bills went from £34 to £234 in a month, how my daughter’s nursery fees were just shy of £1,000 and how my rent was about to triple from my previous accommodation. I couldn’t focus on the day ahead because for the first time In my career I felt like I could no longer continue as a teacher.
I became a teacher because of my negative personal experience as a child who was excluded from school twice. Ultimately, I wanted to be the change I wanted to see in schools - and also, like so many teachers around the country, I got into teaching because I simply love to teach. Neither has changed, and I’m just as passionate about education today. Unfortunately, the conditions we have to work under are becoming untenable.
My journey as an educator started in sports coaching, before moving into teaching assistant roles, teaching roles and eventually becoming an SENCO & Assistant Head Teacher. For the majority of my time as a teacher it has been a pleasant experience with only minor incidents - too minor to change the journey I chose. However, national and global events in recent years leave me reconsidering whether this was something I wanted to continue to do.
The first such event was George Floyd’s murder. Like many organisations, schools vowed to become anti-racist in their approach and create safe and inclusive environments for their employees. However, I experienced first hand how much of this was lip service and more often than not, a tick box activity. As a member of a senior leadership team, I experienced first hand why very few black men seek to enter the profession and why very few remain. Repeated Micro-aggressions and racially fuelled assaults made it increasingly hard to stomach. More so because it was by the very people in charge of the organisation. As a result, I went one step beyond thinking of striking and considered leaving the profession altogether.
The second was COVID-19. When the world was forced to shut down, teachers were asked (and in some cases, forced) to stand up and step in as community heroes. If you spoke to teachers at the time, most of us were happy to go into work and serve their students and their families if they had to. However, unlike any other profession, teachers were vilified by members of the public and government officials alike on social media even contemplating not going into work. Who would have anticipated teachers choosing to protect themselves and their families during an epidemic would cause such an uproar on social media and in media headlines? It was the first time we saw and heard what so many people really felt about teachers. Not only are we undervalued and criminally underpaid - we are also publicly disrespected.
Those were the insults. But the reason why teachers in England are considering following their colleagues in Scotland and embarking on the largest strike in years is a long-standing, ever deepening injury. For many years, we have been modest enough to accept being criminally underpaid. Partly, this is because very few of us very rarely get into the job for financial reasons. The starting salary for a teacher is £28,000 (depending on location) whilst the average salary in the UK is £27,00. It’s safe to say teaching is not as lucrative as other professions and yet the average teacher could be working anywhere between 40-60 hours a week - not counting added responsibilities! With the current cost of living increasing, energy bills tripling and inflation hovering around 9% it’s no wonder teachers have had enough. There comes a point when you have to stand up and accept that it’s completely absurd that teachers can earn so little in a profession that is subjectively and objectively viewed as one of the most important roles in our society. Once upon a time, it could offer social mobility, a great pension package, a chance to save for a house. Today even writing this feels like a bit of a farce.
One of my hardest moments as Assistant Head was when I spent an hour consoling one of my teachers who was broken; confessing that it was impossible to continue with a young family of three children who were depending on him financially. Shortly after, that teacher handed in their resignation and I completely understood. It’s in those moments we remember that people’s lives are being affected, silently, in ways we can’t begin to imagine. It’s more than a moan and a day off out of school. How can you pour into others, children for that matter when your own cup is far from full? People are broken and have no idea how they are going to pay the latest energy bill. Even friends at the highest end of the pay scale are struggling to keep up with bills, shopping costs, nursery fees and mortgage payments. It’s easy to see the sector is in a dire state.
Some of us can laugh off the pain in staff rooms and joke about eating in the dark or skipping dinner but that’s a coping mechanism to help us get through emergencies. It can’t last us if emergency becomes routine. When you put together the rise in living costs, teacher workload, poor working conditions and the cuts in funding for schools, it's no surprise teachers are packing their bags and transitioning to a different industry altogether.
And we end up with class after class of children, school after school, having to say goodbye to a gem of a teacher because that teacher decided they have to put their own family first.
I felt conflicted when participating in the recent Get Into Teaching campaign. I couldn’t shake the feeling I wasn’t being completely honest with myself and others. I love my job and will always be an ambassador for teaching but It didn’t feel right telling new graduates to walk into what is a broken, toxic and unhealthy environment that can break even the strongest of lion-hearted teachers.
This toxicity festering in a broken and underpaid system is the real threat to education. This is the reason why we are losing teachers to better paid sectors, or indeed to countries that value their educators more. This is what the government should be more concerned about - not the strikes. But it’s not difficult to see who’ll get demonised and blamed here once the strikes commence.