"hindsight, thou art a heartless bitch"
Monday, 9 September 2019
A decade of tough choices...
I recently heard someone say 'You don't quit a job, you quit a manager.' This struck a chord with me and I looked back on my previous schools and took an honest look at whether I left the school or the managers. The result was, I guess, inevitable. Suffice it to say, the proverb is more than a little bit true. But realising that made me feel better about the decisions I have made and reassured me about my current position. So I figured this week I would share the reasons-upon-recent-reflection that I left my various schools.
First full-time teaching post
I was fresh out of my PGCE and had moved to London for two main reasons. 1: to follow my soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend (ah hindsight, thou art a heartless bitch), and 2: to get a job. I signed up to all the agencies I could find and was given a day's supply in a one-form entry church school. A second day prompted a permanent post which became a full-time contract.
I had a great time in that first year - cover PPA from Year 1 through to Year 6. It was fantastic and I absolutely recommend it to anyone freshly qualified or firmly established. I was able to evaluate effective behaviour management techniques on an almost hourly basis. I learned that what worked for Year 1 would often work for Year 6, but that didn't always apply the other way around. I developed a good grip of the entire curriculum and my confidence grew and grew.
The next year I was given Year 5. My first ever class. I loved it. Building the relationships; getting to know the parents a little better; knowing their siblings from teaching everyone the previous year. I was great. I was given plenty of support as well. The management team were firm but fair. They would start every September with a heartfelt 'we need to turn this school around, which means that we all need to be swimming in the same direction (very similar to a recent story in the TES about being on the same bus - the post was anonymous sadly). Luckily, I was 'swimming in the same direction' so all was good. This should have been my first red flag.
The following year I was to follow my class up to Year 6 where I developed a career-long love of the final year of Primary school. I love Year 6. Yes, there is pressure; yes, you get a lot of grief about targets and results, but it's still a thrilling experience. And taking the children up with me took a lot of the pressure off (I knew what we hadn't covered in Year 5, so there were no surprises!). Again, lots of support for my first time in a given year group. Also lots of pressure.
There as a time when my planning was minimal (because I knew what needed to happen and I knew that class well enough to be able to adapt on the fly). I was called into the office and told off for it. Like a child. Actually told off. When I said that I could either get the planning done or the marking but not both, I was told that I should use PPA time to the planning done and then do my marking at home. I said I was not willing to do that because I had other commitments. Get this, I was told to ignore those other commitments because being a Year 6 teacher meant not having weekends! Again, bit of a red flag. Nowhere in my contract did it state that my weekends were forfeit. Also, I was not being paid any extra to be a Year 6 teacher, so why were my commitment expectations supposed to be different.
This, looking back was the beginning of the end. Subconsciously, I had already started to leave. Not because of the workload, because of the management making unrealistic demands that were above and beyond those of the other members of staff.
The next year, still in Year 6, I began to care less and less. I started to question the benefits of Brain Gym (remember Brain Gym?). In fact, I called it out in a staff meeting, citing Ben Goldacre's Bad Science as a reference for refusing to waste time on it. Not the best move, I admit. Anyway, the result was that I was now on my way out. I had fallen from grace. But it was the management of the school that had led me down that path. I no longer believed in the 'vision' or the direction. I had seen behind the curtain and I was disappointed. This was not my Dead Poets' Society school. Time to move on.
Head-hunted: The Perils of Ego
I was approached by the School Improvement Officer (very naughty of them) and asked how long I intended on 'hanging around where I wasn't wanted.' They had a school just down the road who were screaming out for someone like me. I wouldn't even have to interview. Plus, I would be given an English Lead - something I had wanted all along (I was ICT Coordinator, I think because I was the only make member of staff, since I had never once expressed any interest in the area). Again, looking back it was all very serpent-in-the-garden-of-Eden, but I had had enough. So I made my farewells and left the school. On good enough terms.
Sitting in the office of the new school I suddenly realised I was being interviewed, despite being told I would not be. This should have been red flag number one. Not that I mind being interviewed, but I had already been misled. Secondly, during that interview, I was told that they would be delighted to have an experienced ICT coordinator join the school. Red flag number 2. Where was my English Lead role? Oh, someone else had it. But I couldn't go back to the other school and the SIO kept telling me how much of a career boost this would be (it was a school in 'Special Measures', so lots of money and, if we got it to Outstanding, lots of kudos. Vanity is a dangerous thing).
It may sound arrogant to say but I was never truly valued at this school. I was moved from Year 6 to Year 3 (despite stating that it was the only year group I didn't want). Then from Year 3 to Year 4 until finally, they placed me in Year 6 but that was not without drama. I was told that the new Headteacher (the previous deputy - all very suspicious and convenient - red flag number 36 by this point) was only putting me in Year 6 so they could trip me up professionally. It got so bad that I arranged a meeting the out-going Head, the new Head, the person doing the stirring and me and I said plainly that I would only accept the position if everyone assembled would agree that I could run the Year group as I wanted. No interference; no spying; no back-stabbing bitchiness. That was actually helpful. I go the reassurance I wanted and I got back my precious Year 6 position. Still ICT coordinator, but what can you do?
"vanity is a dangerous thing"
So no problems, right? Pretty charmed career so far? Well, after two years in Year 6 (and very impressive results) I wanted to move to the UPS and I wanted a little more responsibility. The school was big enough to have phase leaders and assistant heads, so I asked if I could be considered for those things. Well, I was told that those positions would involve my being out of class a little more frequently and I was 'too good to move.' Luckily for me, my ego had subsided long ago and I was not fooled by this. Yes, it was nice to hear. But to be told that I had built myself a cage was not good news. Bad managers fail to listen to their staff and I had no intention of staying where I was, neither in a career sense nor now in a geographical one. It was time to move on. If I could not move within the school, I would have to move beyond it.
That still upsets me because I had done so much for the school. Established Code, chess, writing and drama clubs; created a podcast; wrote three full musicals, two based on Shakespeare plays, and let's not forget those results, which were better every year despite challenging children. But they didn't recognise it.
Out of the Frying Pan...
Oh dear. We come to quite possibly the worst move of my life. Again, this was a no-interview situation. Just a sit down with a cup of tea. The Head asked if I wouldn't mind embarking on a little mission for them, should I accept the role. They had a problem with recruitment. They thought it was because of their location (can't tell you where for reasons that will become obvious soon). Being an outsider (outsider!! Red Flag!), I had the unique opportunity to explore the ethos of the school and discuss a possible reason for this. Also, I could be English Coordinator from Septemeber and Assistant Head from April (it would look bad to be assistant Head immediately, they explained, better to establish myself first.). Also, since I had found them through an agency, would I mind telling them that I had agreed a significantly lower salary? I would, of course, be paid at the higher rate, but if the agency believed I was being paid less, their commission would be lower. RED FLAG. But I agreed to it! Stupid, stupid, foolish boy.
September rolls around and the first thing I am told is that the English Lead role is not available. Turns out someone was going to leave but didn't. But I could have Computing. Also, that whole thing about being Assistant Head? Since I wasn't going to have in-school experience leading English, it would look bad to be given Assistant Head. And that lower paycheck? But that's what I had agreed to, remember? Absolute Hell. And I knew what it looked like, I had worked in a church school.
This Head was cruel. They would belittle staff members in front of other adults and children. Their SLT (of which I was, at least, a member) was a little coven of bitchy backstabbers and yes-people. Weekly meetings, which were never accompanied by anything close to an agenda, were just a chance to throw insults at struggling teachers and say how very useless they were. Also to criticise parents who had complained or raised concerns. Seriously. If you, as a parent, asked about homework or the treatment of a child in the school, you were blacklisted. The Head 'didn't do email', preferring the phone because 'you can hide from a phone call.' Once, when they were busy saying how terrible the current Year 3 teacher was, I asked how much support had been put in place. The teacher was just out of an NQT year and had a difficult class. I was told that they had provided no help or support for two reasons. 1: she had not asked for it. 2: if she had a bad enough time, she would quit and they would be rid of her. I was horrified. It was like attending a meeting of Skekses.
Knowing that I could not stay a part of this school, I started looking for other options for September (I am a teacher and couldn't leave my class mid-year - not to the mercy of this management 'team' - the Deputy was just as bad). I also started keeping a record of everything that was done, said, ignored or allowed to happen - just in case. It was a horrible place to work. I began wishing to be in a car accident on my way in. Nothing too serious, I would specify, just enough to put me in hospital for a few months. It was that bad.
Around May, the Head and I had a chat (our third of three) about how I was feeling and whether or not I had solved the mystery of why they could not recruit. Yes, they were that naive. At this point, I didn't care. I would find another job, or I would supply. If it came to it, I could always work at Starbucks until something came up. I could not work here. It was not a nice place. Not just for the staff; for the children as well. I knew a nine-year-old who had not had a playtime since September because 'he was easier to control if he was just sitting on a chair outside their office.' Totally ignored. When I offered to take over 'discipline' I was told to not interfere. They knew what they were doing. They knew what worked. I know it sounds like a badly written character from a Roald Dahl or David Walliams book, but it's all true. I once asked for a pencil (because I couldn't find them in the storeroom). After being asked why I needed one and explaining that the children had to write with something (I've never been a fan of pens, not even in Year 6), I was told to bring the 'alleged' too-short pencil to them so that they could judge whether or not to issue a new one. I refused to do this. I actually laughed and assumed they were joking. They were not. I got the pencil. The, singular pencil. But was told that I would only have 29 come the next term. There was so much more that, for legal reasons, I cannot go into here. Just trust me.
Anyway, back to the meeting in May. I was very calm. I told them that they were asking the wrong question. The problem wasn't recruitment, the problem was retention. Nobody wanted to stay and those who did were either just as bad as the Head or so beaten and spirit-broken that they may as well not have been there at all. The amount of time off sick was incredible. People being signed off for stress left, right and centre. When they asked why I thought people left, I told them they were a bully. This did not go down well. I pointed out all the things I had observed since September that were deliberate, sustained and intended to cause emotional or physical harm. They didn't have an answer as such. They just said that they wished they had the time to sit around and gossip with the staff as well. I pointed out that belittling me wouldn't work because I knew they were a bully and therefore was not bothered by the spiteful things they had to say.
"Nobody thinks they are the bad guy"
I also felt sorry for them. They had been surrounded by yes-people and cowards (sounds harsh, but it's true) for so long. Nobody thinks they are the bad guy. You don't go out deliberately to be nasty and horrible. You need other people to call you out on that stuff. And no-one did. The governors were less than useless. When they did come in (I think I saw them once in a year), they spoke exclusively to the Head.
Until I left and requested an exit interview. I was told that the school didn't do exit interviews and I made up some rubbish about it being my right as a union member. I don't know if that's true; I didn't care. Turns out they didn't know either because I got my interview. I told the Head Governor everything and provided a written statement to back it up. My class go tthe highest SATs results of any class the school had ever had and I was told that I had not fulfilled my contract. I was called a trouble maker for asking why certain policies had not been updated since the 90s. I was called a rabble-rouser (now there's an antiquated phrase) for listening to other teachers and voicing their concerns at SLT meetings. I could go on. In fact, I had to go on. Just recently I was asked to write an affidavit confirming everything I had alleged because, since my departure, the staff had started to speak up. Complaints were compiled. Parents (some on my advice) had gone to the LA. Again, I can only go into so much detail, but the school is a nicer place now.
The Smiling Assassin
I found another school. A lovely school. The Head was caring and reasonable. My interview was a cup of tea. She didn't want to see me teach; she had seen my CV. It would be fine. I could have English Lead if I took on Computing as well (it was a small school) and, while I couldn't be assistant Head, I would earn the same amount and do the same role (small school; they couldn't justify two assistant Heads). It was great. I was going to be placed on the NPQSL course and everything. They were so happy to have me join.
September rolls around and I am welcomed in the first assembly with such genuine enthusiasm I almost shed a tear. The year had its niggles, don't they all, but by and large it was a lovely place to work. My class were lovely, except for one particularly violent and racist child. The support for staff was excellent. It was a truly lovely place to work. I was looking forward to spending the next few years there.
Then the governors decided to federate. A new executive Head was installed and everything went wrong. The new exec-Head was a master of misdirection. Oh, they could smile, and murder while they smiled. All too soon it was made clear that I was too expensive (they actually questioned my contract, asking how I had 'managed to wangle' it). I had duties taken away. My decisions were questioned in front of the class. I could do nothing right. My staff meetings were too short, despite being told by the staff that they were very helpful and allowed them some time to consider follow-up actions. My parent meetings were too informal, despite every parent commenting on how approachable I was. My marking was wrong, despite being the only class in the school with every book marked and up to date. Even my teaching was bad (not according to the previous Head or Ofsted, but what would they know?). Clearly, I was being encouraged to seek pastures new.
I wouldn't mind, but I didn't appreciate the devious nature of it. Just tell me. Although, I guess that would invite all sorts of legal disputes. Better to just create a hostile working environment then gaslight me in SLT meetings. But they went one step further and had me suspended. After three horrible months where I had to prove my innocence (I'm not surprised democracy is dying, basic legal rights left a long time ago) several times, I reached an agreement where a breach of contract on the school's part left me with an option to leave with a lot of money. Again, can't go into it but if you are ever in a similar situation, please talk to someone. It isn't nice when you know that the only thing you have done wrong is be expensive. I was shocked and relieved to discover that it was quite common. I suspect it will become even more common with the ever-shrinking budgets.
I could have accepted an apology and seen out the year. And believe me, it killed me to leave the children (part of the agreement was that I did not re-enter the school to say goodbye nor collect my stuff - a significant amount of which is still there). But by this point, I had started to recognise red flags. This would not be a forgive-and-forget situation. This would be an 'I'll get you next time' deal. I had to leave.
So what's the take-home? Have I had a terrible career? Not at all. I have learned so much and I now have an extensive list of questions to ask at interviews! My confidence has grown and I know what I am worth as a teacher. I also know that it is not the end of the world if I don't have a full-time post. So many doors have been opened to me since leaving. I am now embarking on an MA in assessment; I blog (very therapeutic, and someone out there must be reading - thanks!); I tutor privately, and I write. I will go back into a classroom, or a school at least, but it will be one that I have vetted. The interview will be a two-way process. My skills and my experience have been hard-earned, they are worth payment and respect.
And so are yours.
Bit of a long one, but I missed last week so I guess it's a two-for. Please do get in touch if you have any questions or if you want to share your experiences. I can be reached either int he comments section below, or on twitter @Mr_M_Musings, or you can email me directly: firstname.lastname@example.org. My website has lots of supply resources that require nothing but children and some paper and will take entire lessons to complete. Please spread that love to anyone you think could use it!
Thank-you so much for reading. I am genuinely thrilled when I see that counter tick up on my stats page. I have no idea who any of you are, but I'm very grateful to you. If you are interested in guest-posting or hosting one of my posts, let me know. Together we can reach more people and grow even stronger.
Remember to always take time for yourself. Mental health is so important and so fragile. Look out for each other, too!
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