Teachers At The End Of Their Tether

His renascent intelligence finds now that we are confronted with strange convincing realities so overwhelming that, were he indeed one of those logical consistent creatures we incline to claim we are, he would think day and night in a passion of concentration, dismay and mental struggle upon the ultimate disaster that confronts our species . . . It will perish amidst its evasions and fatuities. It is like a convoy lost in darkness on an unknown rocky coast, with quarrelling pirates in the chartroom and savages clambering up the sides of the ship to do evil as the whim may take them.

— H. G. Wells, Mind At The End of Its Tether (1945), pp. 12, 15

Although I first read the book a long time ago, the profoundly depressing atmosphere of H. G. Wells’ last book has haunted me over the years. In this book, he brooded on what he saw as the imminent extinction of humankind. At times, the prose seemed less than coherent; but at others, it seemed lucid and recognisably Wellsian. The title says it all — it is what it is: the ruminations and lucubrations of a Mind At The End Of Its Tether.

In my estimation, there has been something in the air of the edu-blogosphere over the last few days that recalls the dark atmosphere of Wells’ book. What I think we’re seeing is a number of teachers at the end of their tether.

For example, Teaching Personally writes:

The last half-term was fraught. Not so much with the pupils as other things,  notably the issue of marking . . . We have now been told that we must also expect children to respond to our marking with ten minutes’ worth of green pen every time books are returned – and then we must go back through their books and acknowledge or respond to their replies. This is in effect double or even triple marking . . . I doubt there is anyone who disagrees that marking is important. But this is not the way to do it. I simply cannot function at the intensity now being demanded; nobody can. [Emphasis added.]

From a different perspective, Heymissmith writes:

The ideals I held when I went into teaching twenty years ago were centred around one idea: that education was liberation . . . Charter chains such as Doug Lemov’s Uncommon Schools network exert incredible amounts of control over their teachers, curriculum and students in the pursuit of narrowly defined ‘success’ . . . It feels as if a nuclear winter is descending. [Emphasis added.]

Martin Robinson also writes:

Different children every year are expected to perform better than children did the year before. This means that although every year the children change, the school is expected to improve, the children are not the reason for this improvement, the school is. This is not teacher centred or child centred education, it is school centred, and with statistical modelling it will be school eat school out there . . .

As grades are currency in the real world it is always good to hear of children doing well, getting on a course, getting an interview, getting a job that they wouldn’t have got were it not for that ‘B’…


If the child is but a cog in an exam machine we can but wonder if the child that got on the course clutching their B to their bosom is the same child that the new course teacher expects them to be. The more a school or teacher does for a pupil in order to get them through the exam there has to come a point where the exam is not really down to the pupil at all. This means that the exam currency for the pupil is destabilised. [Emphases added.]

The edu-bloggers quoted are amongst the writers to whom I routinely turn when I need my pedagogic compass reset, my enthusiasm reignited or when I need my often unthinking acceptance of dogma or fashionable nonsense challenged (which is way more often than I’d care to admit).

Perhaps it is just the winter of our discontent, but to me there seems to be a larger number (than usual!) of edu-bloggers expressing disquiet at a pervasive, creeping rottenness at the heart of UK education. And, disparate and heterogeneous group though they are, I believe that edu-bloggers have their collective finger on the pulse of education.

The canaries in the coal mine are speaking.

11 thoughts on “Teachers At The End Of Their Tether

  1. teachwell February 21, 2016 / 1:26 pm

    True there is little that progressive and traditionalists agree on but the issue of marking – single, double, triple is definitely one of them. It was one of the reasons why I left – I could tell in the long term I would no longer be reflecting on my teaching and adapting lessons so much as just marking, marking, marking. As for inputting data. I suggested the we alleviate marking and reduce highlighting sheets of paper by creating a colour coded excel sheet all set up for each year group. My line manager even agreed it was a good tool and less time consuming.

    But then he said we had to highlight the sheets to assess each child anyway because he said so. This is the madness engulfing education.

    “Yes that suggestion is more efficient, less time consuming and means SLT can take snapshots of data whenever they want to BUT it didn’t come from me so I am going to say no and insist you spend the equivalent of a few days highlighting sheets for every child in every subject because I CAN SACK YOU.”

    I’m prepared to work very hard but I am not prepared to do that for someone having a power trip at the expense of young children’s learning and life chances. There are, as I have discovered, other ways to make a living that don”t involve being bullied.

    • e=mc2andallthat February 21, 2016 / 3:32 pm

      I often feel that the lunatics have, indeed, taken over the asylum. More often than not, we seem to be asked to do things for the sake of doing them, rather than for the supposed end result of having done them. Like you, I am more than willing to work hard, but I am increasingly at a loss to explain WHY we are being asked to do many of the tasks being allocated.

      • teachwell February 21, 2016 / 3:45 pm

        You know right now I work hard and I get paid. If I make a mistake it is not blown out of proportion and does not send anyone over the edge. We are treated fairly and it is a happy place to be. My consultancy work is similar. It makes me incredibly sad to sit there and watch teachers run around, barely eating, barely having a chance to catch up and on the go constantly. It’s stressful looking at them much less being in their position. It is this that makes me want to stay out not the children, etc.

      • Requires Improvement February 21, 2016 / 4:37 pm

        That’s the guts of it… not so much the quantity of work (though teaching a newish y12 course, and a y9 meant-to-be-start-of-gcse-but-the-spec-isn’t-ready-yet is a bit of a pain; but that’s the right sort of pain)… but the increasing feeling that tasks aren’t even going to have an attempt at justification.

        To add to your excellent list, Disappointed Idealist wrote in a similar vein: https://disidealist.wordpress.com/2016/02/19/putting-a-contract-out-on-teachers/

        Up until a couple of years ago, things like set-piece pseudo-Ofsted graded lesson observations could be (sort of) justified, because Ofsted seemed to like to see the results. Now, the external pressure for them is seemingly not there, but lots of schools (including mine, which is relatively sensible) still do them. Because.
        Similarly, teaching by RAG rating a copy of the exam specification made quite a lot of sense in a world of resittable modules. It might not have been good at education, but it was effective. If the exams are 2 years away, it’s just silly- but I get the impression that purveyors of checklists are doubling down on that approach, not adapting to the new world.

        The really scary thought is the one that Martin Robinson alludes to in the blog you link to; that many of the people now running schools have a culture/value set that can’t imagine schools doing anything other than this.

        I’ve not been teaching in schools for that long… 10 years ago, I was still considering doing a PGCE. But I’m pretty sure that the management approach of the school I trained at (which didn’t do any of this “modern” stuff) would be seen as a complete anachronism now. And that (to quote Lt George in Blackadder Goes Forth) is “a thought- and not a jolly one”.

      • e=mc2andallthat February 21, 2016 / 5:06 pm

        Disappointed Idealist’s post was a blinder! It’s really nice to hear his distinctive voice again. The worry I have is exemplified by the fact that although Ofsted are no longer grading individual lessons — but many schools still are. We are doing things because that’s what we have always done. That indicates a pernicious species of group-think that is impervious to external reality. The sad statues of Easter Island spring to mind, although instead of statues we’ll have piles of abandoned checklists and yottabytes of disregarded traffic-lighted Excel tracker spreadsheets . . .

  2. ijstock February 21, 2016 / 1:47 pm

    Oh Dear! If we are denting even *your* general good humour then something is seriously wrong. But I think you have summed up the issue very accurately – so close to my own experience at present. And thanks for the referral.

    More generally, I think the decline of education in a country (particularly when into factionalised, self-interested in-fighting) is a real cause to be worried about the social health of a nation.

    The irony is not lost on me that we are currently negotiating to loosen our ties with many of the countries that seem to have these things much more sorted than we have…

    • e=mc2andallthat February 21, 2016 / 3:52 pm

      Me? “General good humour”? Wow, I thank you for the compliment 😃! All too often, I think my blog-posts degenerate into plain ranting at this, that or the other. But be that as it may, I am definitely feeling dented at the moment. Like you, I have looked at other jobs but, also like you, I am wary of the increasing uniformity of schools — they all seem to be working from the same looking-glass playbook.
      There is indeed much to be worried about the current state of education and the country. On the principle of “It is better to light a candle…” we should keep blogging. Your most recent post was brilliant, BTW!

      • ijstock February 21, 2016 / 5:04 pm

        Thank you good sir! Agree, we must keep on blogging!

  3. ijstock February 21, 2016 / 5:12 pm

    I think the comments above, taken collectively come close tot he nub of the problem in am way I hadn’t quite crystallised before. It is not (only) the quantity of work being demanded but the decreasingly good reasons being given for it.

    My concern about the current direction has always been that schools would become self-justifying organisations for whom any real education imparted was nothing more than a by-product of their own continued glory. Much of what we are now doing is there for no better reason that institutional self-justification and the maintenance of hierarchies within it.

    When you have managers who on the one hand tread on thin ice with respect to their own superiors and on the other have almost unbridled power to say and do what they like within their own areas, oppressive behaviour risks being the result.

    The dearth of sensible justifications for the existence of the system is becoming almost Orwellian.

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