Are you sure you want to go into a teaching career? Most teachers are trying to get out of teaching

I used to love teaching. I loved the feeling I got when I saw the understanding dawn on the faces around me.

One particular instance always stays with me.

It was near the end of the two year A-level Chemistry course and one of my female students had been working hard and coping. We were going over a topic that linked to several others. Suddenly I saw her face go through an incredibly complex sequence of expressions as cogs engaged in her brain. There was an incredible sense of wonder and total understanding on her face as a whole series of consequential thoughts flashed through her mind. From that point on she could answer every question I threw at her because she had managed to fit all the jigsaw pieces together, all at once.


Sadly such moments in teaching are few and far between. The day to day reality is an endless sequence of lessons with unwilling students, meetings with teachers who don’t want to be there and marking a hundred or so homeworks every night.

I was 45 year old and hating the job of teaching.

I loathed the pointless teacher department meetings where I had to sit and ‘listen’ as somebody read off a series of handouts, as if we could not read. The only point of these meetings was to boost his ego. There were useful things we could have been doing, but by the time we had had endless admin memos read out to us, with repeats, nobody was remotely interested in creative thinking.

I hated teacher staff meetings, where the principal would outline his plans as if he wanted input, but, when suggestions were offered, it became clear that all decisions had already been made.

I absolutely detested marking students’ homework, that parents had done half the time anyway. It was the sheer time it takes, just to find the particular piece of work, then to find that child had been absent, or had not bothered to do the set work.

I was told to mark every student’s book once a week. This was an impossible task when I taught 14 classes from year 7 through to A-level, with an average 30 students in a class, 420 books to mark every week. If each one takes only 5 minutes, that is 2100 minutes, 35 hours or 5 hours a night 7 days a week.

Teachers are expected to achieve the impossible. They are expected to prepare lessons, teach in a bright and breezy manner, attend pointless meetings and at the end of a stressful day do bus or detention duty and then spend another 5 hours marking books!

Not Possible.

I stopped giving homework, so I would not have to mark so many books. Homework is a pointless exercise anyway, imposed by parents on teachers and students. The time homework takes from a 40 minute lesson destroys the lesson. Consider:

  • 5 minutes for class to arrive and be seated
  • 5 minutes to take check everyone is present and to give out books
  • 5 minutes to go through the homework
  • 5 minutes to rebuke those students who had chosen not to do the homework, while other students listen
  • 15 minutes teaching time
  • 5 minutes to give the next homework

20 minutes out of every 40 minute lesson taken up with homework related tasks.

I was given a few slaps on the wrists for not setting homework, agreed to change my ways and carried on regardless. I thought and still think that the important part of the teaching job is being fresh for the classroom, with energy and anecdotes to make the teaching relevant and interesting. How was I supposed to have any energy to teach if I was supposed to mark books for 5 hours every evening?

Every teacher I knew was making compromises somewhere in the endless series of impossible tasks expected of us. Some did no lesson preparation, some sat in class marking homeworks and some gave up all life outside teaching and had nervous breakdowns.

A teacher’s salary is not enough to drive anybody to a nervous breakdown.

Most teachers need to earn extra money to pay the bills because the pay is not good. I was in this position and had to spend my evenings giving private tuition for three hours a night. Exam marking was another little earner I had.

There are four stages to a teacher’s career:

  • Knowingly Incompetent – Years 1-5
  • Knowingly Competent – Years 6-8
  • Unknowingly Competent – Years 9-30
  • Unknowingly Incompetent – Years 31-40

When teachers start in the classroom they cannot do a good job of teaching, and most are aware of the problems that their lack of experience causes. At 22 years old student/teacher relationships can cause problems as well. This is the Knowingly Incompetent stage of your teaching career. You know you are not a good teacher yet and you are working on it. You think about your teaching.

If a teacher sticks at it for five years until age 27 he or she should be a good teacher by that time. This is the Knowingly Competent stage of your teaching career. You know you are a good teacher and you think about it and work on it all the time.This stage lasts for about three years to age 30.

From about age 30 to 50 most teachers are at the Unknowingly Competent stage of their teaching careers. They are good teachers, but they don’t think about it any more.

The final stage of your teaching career starts somewhere between ages 50 and 60. This is the Unknowingly Incompetent stage of teaching. You fail to recognise that the standard of your teaching is deteriorating, that you are not putting in the effort that is needed any more. This is the stage when most teachers start to plan their retirement or to look into early retirement. They stop thinking about their teaching altogether.

Before you commit to a teaching career spend some time in a school and talk to the teachers there, listen to everyone, from the young and enthusiastic new recruits to the battle hardened cynics. Listen and think long and hard. Yes the holidays are good but are they worth enough to you to make up for the rest?