I became a science teacher because I wanted to share my passion for a discipline that, for some years, has seen dwindling numbers of students take up the subject post-GCSEs*.
Passion and positivity are contagious. I felt that if I could translate some of that energy into teaching and ignite curiosity in disengaged students who find science to be too impossible, too hard and too boring, then surely that would be a worthwhile mission.
The world, after all, needs scientific thinkers to develop solutions to some of the biggest humanitarian problems the world faces and will continue to face, in our lifetime and beyond. Who will nurture the next generation of innovators if we can’t pass on a sense of wonder for a subject that relentlessly strives to find answers to some of the most intriguing questions about our existence that has dogged the best minds for centuries?
No one ever becomes a teacher for the money or the holiday allowances. We are galvanized by our own experiences of education – good and bad – to make a difference to a child’s potential.
As a student, I enjoyed school and I loved learning. I fully recognize that I was lucky enough to study at a school that was supportive but encouraging enough to make us want to do well, through hard graft and grit. But I’m also not so naïve as to believe that my experience is one that is shared by the majority of students. For many working adults now, there will be a sizeable proportion who’ll profess that their school years were the worst. And perhaps that’s why I felt compelled to become an educator.
I worked as an LSA (Learning Support Assistant) at a mainstream state school where I provided class support to 11-16 year old students with autism. I also worked as an Academic Mentor for Chemistry A-Level** students, helping them to prepare for the exams. Indeed, there is no bigger learning curve to be had as a trainee teacher than in the classroom, where theory is put into action but where real life compounded by the idiosyncrasies of precocious children or hormonal young adults create work challenges that are sometimes beyond ‘textbook’.
Throughout my time as a trainee teacher, over coffee break in the staff room or casual chat at the water cooler, seasoned teachers on multiple occasions were discouraging me from entering the profession. They believed they were doing me a favor.
Burnt out and beaten down by unsustainable workloads, lack of freedom, crippling bureaucracy, and inadequate pay, the fresh-out-of-graduate-school veneer of optimism, confidence and self-belief they once had, now chipped or long worn down to the nub.
I don’t think any teacher walks into the profession under the illusion that the job was going to be easy. Indeed, many do the job and then some at the cost of their own time and well-being. It takes more than just academic ability to become a really good teacher; you need to be assertive, determined, dedicated to the job beyond belief, a role model to students, to peers and to aspiring and trainee teachers learning the ropes.
But, from what I perceive, there is a level of toxicity infiltrating the profession. Statistics have shown globally that teachers are increasingly leaving the profession in droves, burnt out and disheartened by the enormity of the job at hand and their inability (through no fault of their own) to have a meaningful impact in the classroom and the outcomes of children. There is a teacher retention and engagement crisis simmering away, but here’s a recruitment issue too – a proportion of this problem it seems is coming from teachers dissuading the next generation of teachers to leave the profession while they can. And this is really quite alarming.
Perhaps in a way, this is some kind of a revolt. Where striking has failed, maybe teachers are starting to rally against an ineffective education system that seems to favor only the privileged or the lucky, via boycott or complete career abandonment. From what I’ve seen, teachers don’t quit because they don’t like teaching; it’s everything else that ruins the job for them. The real victims, of course, are the children.
Was I put off teaching because of what I’d been told, time and time again? I won’t deny that it had an impact on my decision to ‘park’ my teaching career for the time being. But by no means do I feel that I am completely finished with the classroom. My desire to promote education, promote the sciences and have an impact on schools and the educational outcomes of children is as keen as it has always been. I just believe that it can be done via a different route. Which is why I find myself working for an edtech venture that passionately shares this vision too. Maybe teachers need to disperse across all areas around education, not just within the classroom, to help inform policy and to drive innovation in relatively unchanged and antiquated teaching practices.
And you see that’s the key here: innovation. A teacher today will need near superhuman abilities to keep on top of the basics of their work. Differentiated learning – such an important factor in ensuring the individual needs of a child is met – takes effort and time, and should not be (but is often) neglected. Grading of papers; lesson planning – again, the necessary admin that can often overtake the actual act of teaching itself. Mentally and emotionally, over a period of time, a teacher can feel like they have very little else left to ‘give’ to their students. And in a standard state-funded classroom where social divides run deep and where teachers are often more than just mentors but social workers too, a child may feel unguided and let down in every aspect of their life.
I’m not saying that education technology and innovation is a panacea for these issues that classrooms face today. But I wholeheartedly believe that we aren’t using technology and innovation in a big enough way to address what has become a social crisis. Funding, or lack thereof, has always been an excuse to fob off experimentation with edtech when, in the long run, the productivity it can bring in terms of the way teachers teach, children learn and how money is spent in schools can radically stem costly inefficiencies that are currently crippling the system. Something needs to change. Our old way of teaching and running schools isn’t working. I want to become part of something that will help smash this inertia.
Sean O’Dea is School Engagement Executive at Zzish, a software company that specializes in transforming all e-learning apps into classroom-ready tools and gives real-time analytical insight on student and class performance.
*to our non-UK teachers, these are qualifications in a specific subject typically taken by students aged 14-16 years old.