The National Education Union (NEU) released a survey in April 2021, revealing one in three teachers plan to quit teaching within the next five years. Over 10,000 school and college staff in England, Wales and Northern Ireland admitted to being exhausted after working amid COVID-19 disruption. 70 per cent of respondents reported an increased workload in the last year, a staggering 95 per cent said they were concerned about their well-being and 35 per cent said they would “definitely” be leaving education by 2026.
Many teachers say if teaching was just about teaching they’d be able to keep going. Sadly, it’s way more complicated than that. Teachers are reportedly leaving the profession in droves and it’s high time we hear their stories. Let’s explore some of the reasons why teachers quit…
Why Teachers Quit: Overworked and Underappreciated
Emma, a secondary teacher from Liverpool, went back to teaching part time after the birth of her son. She thought going part time would help her find the work-life balance she’d been missing for years. However, things did not go the way she planned.
Emma said, “Two months after returning to work, the pandemic hit and I began working from home like everyone else. I ended up working every day whilst trying to continue to look after my son. I was already burning out once we returned to school, and it felt like I just had to get through each day to cope.”
Things did not improve once lockdown restrictions were relaxed and schools reopened.
“Our school day had been brought forward to the first lesson at 8.30am rather than tutor time, so it was full steam ahead straight away. 2 hours of teaching was followed by a 15 minute break, but the staff room was too far away, so I mainly stayed in my room or in the department. On my break duty days I had to be on duty straight away because we were being monitored by the senior leadership team. I would go through till 12:45 on these days with no break, not even a toilet break. At lunchtimes, we were desperately trying to make up for lost time with year 11s, so we were holding revision sessions and catch-up, whilst still holding lunchtime detentions. After school was CPD, or more year 11 revision, or longer detentions. Once home, I felt terrible guilt when playing with my son or spending time with my family. All I could think about was my workload later that night. I would wake up in the night and have to make notes on my phone of things I had forgotten or still needed to do.”
Many teachers are riddled with guilt and feel like failures if they admit their job is too hard. The large majority believe it is their duty to “take one for the team”.
Emma added, “I would get to the end of the day and collapse in a heap of exhaustion, often crying because I felt like I couldn’t cope. When I raised how I felt with my line manager, she told me I wasn’t being a team player. The stress of this nearly broke me, and I once again spoke to my head of department and we ended up arguing. She then told members of the department about it and I began to feel alienated from everyone.”
“I kept going because I felt like I had no choice. In the beginning, I really did feel like maybe I wasn’t being a team player and wasn’t doing enough to help the department. Everyone else around me was doing the same thing and not speaking up.”
The Hays Education Wellbeing Report, which surveyed 780 respondents, revealed that 73% of staff who have been in the profession for over 20 years were considering alternative career paths.
The increased workload, stress and lack of support led Emma to leave the profession last month, after 10 years of commitment and hard work.
It’s not just you – teaching IS getting harder and that’s why teachers quit!
Why Teachers Quit: Panic Attacks and Stress
Sheffield based secondary teacher, Jodie Gath, was so engrossed in work she neglected her health.
Jodie says, “I didn’t realise I was burning out. I thought it was just how working life was – my closest friends were who I compared myself to and so I kept saying, “Well no one has died on me today so why am I complaining!” At the end of the October half-term 2019 I ended up in A&E. I thought it was an asthma attack but the doctor said it wasn’t. Same happened at the end of the Christmas holidays and my GP signed me off after. I was a teacher for 4 years. I got signed off sick in January 2020 but only officially left in August 2020. I was off sick for 8 months with stress”.
“The lowest point was while I was signed off with stress for the first two weeks, my head of department ringing me to ask me about some work!”
Many teachers don’t feel supported when they present their workload issues to leaders and colleagues. In “Teacher well-being at work in schools and further education providers”, Ofsted found that only 47% of school teachers and teaching assistants feel they are helped to find a solution when their workload is too heavy.
Why Teachers Quit: Heartbroken and Unwell
A secondary teacher from London shares how work stress led to “debilitating endometriosis” and lack of support from upper management.
She says, “Burnout started right from the get-go. My first job was taking over from another teacher who had left (she had a mental breakdown) but she hadn’t marked a single piece of coursework and I was tasked with marking all of her coursework in the Easter break. I think it was something like 200 pieces altogether.”
“The workload was enormous, partly because of the nature of the subject, English, therefore reams of writing were produced for marking and also it was prioritised as a core subject. We were constantly told we were the most important, flagship department in the school. We were expected to be at work by 7.30am and it was frowned upon to leave before 6pm, even though we were still taking marking and planning home. I worked until 11 every night and also all-day Sunday and throughout the holidays. It was never enough.”
“In another school, I put in a request for time off after being told I needed urgent surgery because I had debilitating endometriosis and ‘fertility was diminishing’. My Gynecologist said if I wanted children, pregnancy needed to be a priority. I made the request in November. The headteacher said I would need to wait until the Summer holidays because it would affect my classes’ results. I explained that the previous two surgeries I had had were both in the two previous Summer holidays and I hadn’t taken time off during the school year but this was my third operation and the disease had progressed significantly. His response was, “Women do feel they have the right to breed don’t they?” and, “You have so many things wrong with you, [I also have a heart condition] if you were a horse I’d shoot you.”
“There are more examples, but ultimately the stress of the job, the long hours, the mark load, the emotional attachment to children who might be living in poverty, stressful environments, with illness or disability and then on top of that a culture of bullying, micromanaging, racism, ableism and misogyny all contributed to the burnout.”
“The students were always what made me keep going, I truly miss them and think about them all the time. Also the camaraderie and friendship with other like-minded teachers and support from my PGCE tutor who I stayed in touch with, continued to remind me of why I went into it in the first place,” she concludes.
This whirlwind of crippling work stress and poor treatment is not unique to the teachers in this blog. Their stories expose the reality of teaching and serve as a cautionary tale for those eager to get into the profession.
A Cautionary Tale
The purpose of this blog is not to discourage budding teachers who are excited about sharing their gifts and inspiring the future generation. Rather, it’s to highlight the potential pitfalls you might encounter so you can avoid them.
The stressful workload is the most significant complaint from teachers so finding ways to streamline your workload is essential. Angela Watson, an experienced teacher and instructional coach believes “there is a more sustainable way to teach”. In her “40-Hour Teacher Workweek Club”, Watson advises teachers on how to maintain work-life balance while being an exceptional teacher.
Watson says, “Whenever I mention a 40-hour workweek for teachers, people tend to have one of two objections. Either they think it’s not possible, or they think it’s not aspirational—that you can’t do a good job in 40 hours a week, so you shouldn’t even try to attempt that as a teacher. I believe that a 40-hour work week IS possible for many teachers, and that you can trim 10+ hours off an extreme workload and still do an excellent job as an educator”.
The club includes access to a private Facebook group that brings teachers from all walks of life together and allows them to share timesaving strategies.
It might be the case that your position, personality or work speed mean a 40 hour workweek will not work for you. However, finding ways to streamline your workload will still give you back hours of free time, whether it’s 2 or 10.
Having a support system of other teachers with a similar mindset is crucial. This is why it’s important to ask questions about staff morale and the support in place for staff during the interview process. Get a genuine feel for the school so you make the correct decision for yourself. There is nothing worse than working in a toxic environment and you don’t have to do it.
Making the decision to prioritise your mental health and well-being will make daily decision making easier. You will be more focused on building a sustainable routine that works for you. This may take some trial and error but it’s worth making the effort; it could be the difference between burnout and enjoying your job everyday. Teaching does not need to consume your life, it does not need to cost you your peace and happiness.
Do you have any stories about why teachers quit? Let us know in the comments below and don’t forget to read even more of our blogs here! You can also subscribe to Beyond for access to thousands of secondary teaching resources. You can sign up for a free account here and take a look around at our free resources before you subscribe too.