What I learned from spending a year in the wrong school…

Teaching is my vocation. I love my job and the challenges it brings, but in the past year I have questioned my planning, decision making, relationships and my worth as a teacher. This post is not going to be a rant about the school or an attempt to air my grievances; I’m not angry, and that would be neither helpful nor interesting to anybody. This post is an attempt to think through some of the lessons I’ve learned about school environments and the importance of finding the right match for the right teacher.

When I was an idealistic PGCE student, I took a job in a private school. My staunch Labour family were horrified, and demanded to know why I was ‘betraying my roots’ and ‘working with the enemy’. My answer was simple: ‘all kids are the same, why does it make any difference?’ I was allowed to flourish in this school. Lack of boundaries and guidance suited me; I constantly raided the overflowing stock cupboard and reprographics room, making colourful but wasteful resources and learning from many, many mistakes. I had money for projects, students who would try anything, and the ability to teach the subject I love with a highly academic focus. Sounds wonderful, right? It was. However, that nagging feeling that I was just playing at teaching, that I had stopped challenging myself and that there were a lot of ‘real teachers’ out there teaching ‘real kids’ was getting the best of me. Some of my colleagues from the private school remain some of the best teachers I have ever worked with – they are passionate, creative and hard working. That was the right school for them, and I respected their sense of purpose. After almost 3 years, I left with a strange dichotomy; I had a strong dislike of private education, but a massive respect for my colleagues and a love of the kids I was leaving behind. Great place. Wrong school.

My next move was to an academy which served a very deprived area of the city. This part of Leeds had never had an outstanding school, and the community had been failed generation after generation by poor provision and growing apathy. The new regime in place at this academy stunned me when I first started. We were like cogs in a well oiled machine; there were procedures and forms in place for everything – even the paperwork had paperwork. In the first few months, my lazy habits were rectified – they fixed my marking, made me better at planning and organisation, and my responsibilities meant I was leading my colleagues and taking a strategic role in teaching and learning. My first few months were great, but I hadn’t realised how my behaviour was changing. I had started to desperately defend the decisions being made by SLT, even though no one had challenged me. I had started going home and explaining to my partner that I’d deserved the treatment I’d got that day, because I was ‘bad’, or because I ‘still had to learn’ or because I ‘still had to prove myself’ or because my manner was ‘unprofessional’. After a while this form of self-attack turned into paranoia. I worried about bumping into certain senior members of staff, and spent time analysing my day to find out where I’d made mistakes which might come back to get me.

Let me be clear: I had not done anything wrong. None of these feelings were based in reality – the environment of the school was making me feel like this. A top-down organisation, rigid and unyielding with a clear picture of who is the ‘right’ sort of teacher, and who is not.

I got home from work one day and my partner asked me how I was. I started talking, and didn’t stop. An hour later he said, “you have to get out.” This school was a top-down, formula driven ‘Outstanding’ academy, which was overly commercial and wanted to sell its formula and expand its influence. The wrong school for me.

I have to stop here. My experience has been horrific, and I can’t fully explain why because I don’t want to cross over into unprofessional territory. I told them I was leaving, and I left. My new job excites me; I feel comfortable in a school which fits me, and I have a real drive and desire to move forward with them, not for them.

Here is what I learned about choosing the right school:

1. Do your research. The dirt floats to the surface very quickly. I had friends who advised me not to take a job at the academy in question and I didn’t take their advice or concerns seriously.

2. Read their mission statement. Does it actually chime with your own sense of purpose and reasons for teaching, or do you just want it to?

3. Focus on language. How is the job description phrased? How do they speak to you on your interview day? There were a LOT of clues, over rehearsed language, repeated phrases etc, which I didn’t pick up on.

4. Think about what you really want to get out of a job. I thought I just wanted something different, so I went for the polar opposite of my previous school. What I really needed was somewhere which valued me and shared my ethos. For my current job, I made a list of non-negotiables which I looked for before applying.

The school I have just left is responsible for making me miserable, but also for making me a better teacher. No school is inherently ‘bad’, but in a profession where we work such long hours and put up with such intense mental, emotional and physical strain, we have to find the right fit.

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