I nearly left teaching after the first term – 30 years on, here’s my advice for those considering quitting
Growing up, the only thing I ever wanted to do was to be a teacher. I loved my subject, English, and wanted a career that let me continue to read and discuss, think and learn, and convey my enthusiasm for my subject to others. As a child I played "school" with my dolls and my friends and always took the teacher role.
I completed a PGCE after my English degree. I found teaching practice challenging but stimulating, and was thrilled to secure a job teaching English in a very good comprehensive school in the North West where I worked for a great Head of Department (HoD) within a supportive team.
Yet I found the first year really tough. I was working so hard, but didn't find the job as satisfying and rewarding as I expected. I had so much to learn, I made mistakes, I felt exhausted. I think I wasted a lot of time on unproductive marking – see this blog about what I wish I had known – and worried that one day I would wake up and find I had completely run out of ideas.
In those days – pre-national curriculum, pre-GCSE and coursework – it seemed that teachers generally worked in isolation. My HoD was great, but she pretty much left me to it. There was little observation or feedback and I don't remember observing any colleagues in that first year. Someone from the local authority came to see me teach twice, just to make sure the pupils weren't swinging from the light fittings I think, but no one contributed to my professional learning. CPD wasn't 'a thing' – this was even prior to Inset days (the first day of each term was the day the students came back).
Suddenly I had to examine whether I was really cut out for this job. I had never seriously considered anything else, but I couldn't imagine staying in the profession for 40 years if this was how much it took out of me and how little it gave back. So at Christmas I made a decision that if I felt the same by Easter, I would hand in my resignation and spend the summer term finding a different job. As soon as I decided this, I felt better – there was light at the end of the tunnel, I wasn't going to feel tired and miserable forever. I had a choice.
As the year progressed, though, I felt better – a little more confident, a little more relaxed. I had some reassuring successes with my more challenging classes, the days grew longer and the sun shone. I got involved with the extra-curricular life of the school (going on Duke of Edinburgh weekends, helping at the disco, supporting my house in the swimming gala), which I enjoyed.
By Easter I decided I needed to stay into my second year. This turned out to be considerably easier than my first. For one thing, my new classes didn't seem to "test" me as much – it was as if they had heard from other pupils that I was OK. My self-belief grew as my experience built.
I stayed in teaching for 30 years, working in six schools, moving to become second in English, Head of English, Head of Sixth Form, Deputy Head and then Head. I had a great career and loved all my jobs and all my schools – there were far more good days than difficult ones, and far more positive experiences than negative ones.
But I still vividly remember how I felt in that first term, and how close I came to walking away. I would never be dismissive of teachers who have doubts that teaching is for them, or that they are cut out for the job, but I would advise this:
- Set yourself a time limit. Make a decision about the point at which you will definitely decide whether to stay in your current role, or to leave it.
- Before you leave the profession, try a change of school. A fresh start in a new place, with a little more experience behind you, may be all you need to make a more positive beginning. Sometimes you need to experience a different style of leadership, too.
- Think about a change of context. What about a change of phase? I know a number of teachers who have moved between primary, secondary and Further Education, and found a different phase suits them better. (There is an interesting TES piece about moving from secondary to primary here.) I know others who have changed sectors or countries, and rediscovered their enthusiasm for teaching and their faith in their capacity to make a success of it.
I am very pleased that I did stick with it – I found my career in schools energising and rewarding, especially my 10 years as a Head. I have loved the eight years since I finished as a head, too: I am still involved in the world of education but with a different balance in my life as I approach my seventh decade.
I hope this post may be helpful to some of you. Thanks for reading.