It’s not right for teachers to lower their standards. But because there’s so much to do, our lives are increasingly unsustainable
Times are tough in education, as regular readers of this column will know. Teachers know that. Students know that.
Schools have become obsessed with performance, targets and data. Everything seems to be done just to plot numbers on a graph and senior leaders seem to be driven purely by performance, what Ofsted might think and what the league tables suggest. Learning is not priority one anymore; students’ interests are secondary to their grades.
Money, resources and goodwill have all been squeezed and stretched in the past few years, and the latest casualty is time. It started off all right: instead of spending time writing a current-affairs quiz for my tutor group each week, I got them to take it in turns to be quizmaster. They still enjoyed the quiz, they were still persuaded to take a bit of an interest in what was happening in the world, all that changed was that I no longer wrote the questions.
If all the cuts to my time worked out like that, I’d be a happy man. But it’s got worse and worse. Time is not so much slipping away as being drained. I have never known myself so short of the stuff. All the things I used to enjoy doing – reading, listening to music, enjoying a drink with friends – I’ve given up the lot. I’ve had to. I’m writing this late at night, when everyone else has gone to bed.
I’m always the last to go to bed and the first to wake up. I eat standing up. If I’m lucky, I’ll come home from work in time to see my family clearing the dinner table. And when I finally sit down at the end of another day, I feel obliged to log on to my school email account to get started on the next lot of stuff I’ve got to do.
It’s getting worse. I’ve grown a beard. Not because my wife thinks it looks good, but because it saves me a minute or two each morning. Recently, I figured out that the distance between my classroom and the toilet correlates exactly with the time it takes me to eat my lunchtime sandwich. A dozen bites probably. So that has become my lunch routine: eating while I walk to the loo, going to the loo, and then walking back to get on with all the other stuff. I say walk, but please don’t imagine this as some leisurely stroll; this is a fast-paced march.
Soon I’ll find something valuable to do on the walk back, aside from drying my hands on my trousers (who can afford the time it takes to use the hand dryer?). It’d be nice to have lunch with someone once in a while, to sit down and discuss the day’s events, like we used to in the staffroom years ago. The staff room is pretty empty at lunchtime these days. Everyone is too busy in their classrooms, hunched over their laptops.
I’ve even taken the back door key off my keyring – I don’t really use the thing any more and I know there’s a chance it will save me a couple of seconds every time I need one of the other keys on there. How will I shave the next few seconds off the day? Perhaps I’ll have to stop looking both ways before I cross the road, or stop waiting when the lights are red.
I’m coming home later and later, setting my alarm earlier and earlier, bringing home more work, staying up later, seeing my family less and less. The other day, while cycling to work, I suffered from intense pain in my chest and shortness of breath. Nothing really bad happened, nothing that stopped me: it just really hurt. It sounded like a heart attack to my wife and she told me to go to see the doctor. But I’ve not got time, so I haven’t seen anyone. She related the symptoms to a doctor friend of hers. “Tell him not to go,” he said, “he’ll never be able to get another job. His life insurance will rocket.”
I’m not the only one either. A colleague, who is a head of year, went to see the headteacher recently because he couldn’t do everything he’d been asked to do. He was probably expecting the head to listen, ask what support he needed, find him some time, figure out a plan. Instead, the advice he was given was much less useful. It stings a bit: “Cut some corners. Lower your standards.”
We don’t want to do that, us teachers. It’s not right. We won’t cut those corners. We won’t lower our standards. But there’s more to be done every day and the cuts we are making in our own lives are simply unsustainable. I can’t go on much longer. It reached that point at today: my lunchtime walk was interrupted by a member of the senior leadership team cornering me to sort something out. As I was figuring out how I could do what had just been asked of me, I realised I was stood at the urinal, still eating my sandwich. No one saw me fortunately: I could never have afforded the time to explain.