Is the happiness of teachers important?

Francis Gilbert's picture
It's two weeks into the new term and I've been thinking a lot about teacher happiness. I'm lucky in that I teach in a school which is, compared with other schools I've taught in, quite a happy place. It gets good results, the behaviour of the children is never a huge problem, and the staff are friendly.

But talking to older colleagues, I've become aware that teachers are possibly not as happy as they used to be. It is fascinating talking to teachers in their late fifties and sixties who remember very clearly the days before school league tables, before the obsessive focus upon exams, before the endless streams of data and paperwork. Teachers were trusted by the state to get on with educating children, deciding what curriculum to teach, and how to assess children until they took their O and A Levels. Of course, the system was by no means perfect; the O and A Levels were narrow exams, which contained no coursework, and only aimed at the top 15% of the population. The rest took CSEs or nothing at all. Added to which, the preponderance of selective schools meant that there were a lot of tests for children to take if they lived in an area where grammar schools still existed. So this wasn't a utopian world where tests didn't exist; they did, and there was much teaching to the test too. Overall, teachers were much, much freer to do what they deemed fit for their classes and they weren't judged by how their pupils did in exams. This, I think, having talked to older teachers, did make them happier than they are now; they had much more control over their own destinies, over what they taught and how they taught it. But did it make them better teachers? Well, that's a good question. Many older teachers feel that they are better teachers now; there's much more focus upon the outcomes the pupils produce,  and there's more interest in colleague's sharing "best practice" -- an awful phrase in my view, but one that has led to teachers scrutinising what they do more. And yet this focus upon teacher performance and how it impacts upon students' performances has led to the situation where many teachers are "doing the pupils' work" for them. Fiona Millar's recent article on cheating in schools shows that schools that are desperate to improve their rating in the league tables are possibly encouraging cheating so that they get better results and don't fall foul of Ofsted, the latest DfE "benchmark", or lose punters. Clearly, the teachers in these schools can't be happy; their very purpose is being undermined. They are not educating, they are becoming surrogate pupils.

At the root of my question is an important concept that needs to be thought about by policy makers and all teachers: is the happiness of teachers something we should all consider? Clearly, it's important to a degree; if the profession was completely miserable, there would be no one to teach. Policy makers over the last twenty five years though have tended to use the stick more than the carrot; Michael Gove is particularly keen on this. His policies have instituted lots of threats to the profession. As a result of his policies, teaching has become a much more insecure profession: schools face closure if they don't get the right results, teachers face swift dismissal if they're not up to snuff, students face being labelled failures if they don't pass the relevant exams. Of course, he has tried to reward the people he favours: groups setting up free schools, teachers who have perfected the art of getting amazing exam results etc. But this is divisive, creating an environment where there are real winners and losers. Clearly he and many other people in the profession feel that making teachers compete against each other is more important than securing their job satisfaction. The problem with this is that teachers are at their best when they are collaborative. If teachers feel that they are being judged against each other, they are reluctant to share ideas, resources and help out generally. I've seen this myself; in highly competitive environments there are token gestures towards collaboration, but very little genuine collaboration.

Perhaps it's no surprise that some surveys show that the profession is much more unhappy. A recent NASUWT survey found more than half of respondents (53%) felt their satisfaction with their job had fallen in the past year - up 6% compared with those questioned in 2011. Almost two thirds (65%) had considered leaving their job in the past year, while more than half (54%) had considered leaving teaching entirely, the survey claims. It found that teachers' top four concerns about their jobs were workload (chosen by 78%), followed by government changes to pensions (51%), pay (45%) and school inspections (41%). It's a bleak picture which is contradicted by other surveys such as those in the TES which concluded: "more than 80% of the teachers polled said that they loved their jobs compared to 59% of typical British adults." According this poll which surveyed 2,000 people (not all teachers) the chief complaints about teaching were the lack of job perks and slow career advancement.

I think teacher happiness is very important but it's a very tricky issue because it can't be the paramount concern; the welfare and achievement of students has to come first. Therein lies the tension; what might be best for the students, may not be good for the teacher. If extra lessons and time generally are required to lift students' attainment, then this can and does take a real toll on teachers' lives. I'd be interested to know what other people think.




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